It can be unsettling to walk through the New Library of Malmö. The lights are kept dim and the temperature chilly to preserve the precious contents inside. You'll catch glimpses of dark, hulking machines through the aisles and draw your jacket that little bit tighter. Strange chittering noises and sudden flickerings of activity echo down the hall, enough to make a nervous writer jump.
It's very a different experience during visiting hours. The windows are turned on and sunlight gently illuminates the thousands of decades-old computers and devices sitting neatly on the library's tables. They all look rather dignified.
Our object today is not just a single computer, but the New Library's collection itself and what it represents — the study and preservation of extinct digital technology. With me here today to show me some highlights from the collection is the Chief Librarian, Michael Straumli.
You may wonder why the New Library is necessary at all given how easy it is to construct 'virtual machine' simulations these days. Why worry about the physical when you're dealing with digital computers? Well, the answer is that while many popular and important machines do indeed have VMs, most do not.
Sometimes that's because their operating system source code has been lost, or more commonly, because our predecessors' haste to upgrade their technology has meant that few extant working specimens have survived to the present day. And even if VMs are available for a given machine, they often can't simulate the odd quirks that come with physical hardware. As Straumli tells me, there's no accounting for that errant wire or flawed microchip that had to be worked around or taken advantage of by canny programmers.
The lack of specimens is a problem that occupies Straumli constantly. "We spend a great deal of our budget searching for extra machines. We normally try to keep at least three copies for redundancy, but it's handy to have more available for visiting researchers to use. I'm not against VMs and physical sims — last week we had students from Parsons using high power x-ray tomography to reverse engineer the machines here — but there's no replacement for the original hardware. That means we actually have to turn these computers on and boot them up, which we try to do every six months or so."
One of the most intriguing projects going on at the New Library is being run by the Total History Initiative (THI), which aims to construct a complete map of the connections, movements, and behaviour of every individual in the world from 1960 to 2010. Its purpose is to gain a deeper understanding of how humans interact in small and large groups by using the data gathered from models and simulations of historical events, rather than the more subjective macro-level techniques used by past historians. Instead of only taking account of the personalities and decisions of the so-called great women and men of the past, the initiative aims to look at the millions of people who lived through, worked towards, talked about, and created all those events that cumulatively changed the world, year by year, day by day, second by second.
A rather ambitious goal, I'm sure you'll agree.
Right now, researchers from the initiative are looking at a Hewlett-Packard optical scanner from 1997, used by the University Medical Center Brackenridge in Texas to scan in medical records. "They aren't interested in the scanned papers — I believe they were shredded long ago, and the digital copies are fine enough,” Straumli tells me. “No, they want to discover the emotional state of the scanner operator by looking at the tremor of her hands while she was passing the papers through the hopper. Of course, when you're looking that closely, you need to know precisely how the scanner worked.
"The initiative is partnering with the University of Sydney on this particular project. There were about 800,000 of these HP scanners in use in the 1990s, and the Sydney researchers want to use the image data they produced to connect up events and organisations and individuals — so, for example, using handwriting recognition to identify anonymous voter records and exam papers and medical records. So these old scanners are important to a lot of people!"
One would think that there can't be all that much difference between an optical scanner's stated specifications and its performance in reality, but you'd be wrong. Researchers have already found half a dozen unusual quirks in the firmware and hardware that cause scanned images to be altered in some small way. It's a flagship project at the New Library, but there's one thing that concerns Straumli. In a word: plastics.
"So much of the technology from the 1980s and 1990s was made from plastic; it was cheap, light, and durable enough. The problem for us is that now it starts decomposing as soon as anyone touches it. If you've seen any ugly, yellowing devices around your parents' or grandparents' houses, you'll know what I mean. That decomposition can warp the shape of the plastic and eventually render the entire machine inoperable.
"It's essential for the THI to understand how that warping can change the performance of the scanner over time. They can gain vital clues that will help them interpret the image data they've recovered. The problem is, every time they physically test the scanners, the damage gets a little bit worse. Of course, we can replace parts, but not necessarily in exactly the same way as it was before. So even with the special care that the THI researchers are taking with gloves and teleoperation and so on, I can't help but feel a little twinge of worry whenever I see our machines being used."
Eventually, Straumli's hope is that more advanced non-invasive scanning of the machines in the New Library will lead to near-perfect physical simulations that would eliminate most of the need for so much poking and prodding, leaving the original machines pristine. But he understands the motives of the THI.
"We're lacking so much information from the turn of the century. A lot of the data that was collected at the time was never properly archived due to carelessness and privacy concerns stemming from corporate and government intrusion, and now our historians are paying the price. That makes us treasure every single bit of information we can glean from that time. Like they say, it's only by knowing the past that we can simulate the future."
For now, Straumli has kindly agreed to show me two of the New Library's true gems — the original servers for Geocities, and an original Nintendo Super Famicom games console — still working!