New lab puts old computers back online

By / 5th of May, 2015
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By its nature, computer technology evolves and develops with great rapidity, and the need to conserve superseded software and hardware is behind the launch of the Computer Archaeology Laboratory at Flinders at Tonsley.

The Laboratory was officially opened yesterday by Mr Marty Gauvin, CEO of data centre company Tier 5 and a member of Flinders University’s council.

From early Australasian computer games to a variety of floppy disk formats, the Computer Archaeology Laboratory provides a valuable resource for research while also providing a repository of obsolete computer technology.

“The laboratory supports research into a wide range of legacy computing and digital preservation and conservation problems, and will enable collaboration between the disciplines of Computer Science, Information Technology, Mathematics and Humanities, as well as government and industry,” Dr Denise de Vries said.

Dr de Vries, of the School of Computer Science, Engineering and Mathematics, convenes the University’s Digital Heritage research group with Associate Professor Melanie Swalwell from the School of Humanities. As well as teaching in their respective disciplines, the pair have a strong ongoing research interest in the history and preservation of Australasian computing and digital technology.

The Laboratory brings together the results of a number of research projects. Its holdings include the Popular Memory Archive, an exhibition that combines some of the significant local games of the 1980s era with documentation collected in order to remember early games through popular memory.

The Computer Archaeology Laboratory will also be home to the Australasian Heritage Software project, a publicly-compiled and accessible database of the history of Australian and New Zealand software, which currently holds information of nearly 2,000 titles of locally written software, including source code where possible.

Some of the research has a degree of urgency, as issues arise concerning the shelf-life of data stored in old formats and the ability to access and retrieve it. Research at Flinders is helping to audit and assess the thousands of floppy and CD-ROM disks held by the State Library and to develop strategies to enhance the discoverability of the items.

And while there is a nostalgic appeal to the Laboratory’s Legacy Hardware, a collection that ranges from 1980s computer systems to early personal computers and gaming consoles, some of which have been donated, these systems are employed for cross-disciplinary experimental research and teaching.

“We use obsolete tools, hardware, software and platforms to develop methods and tools to conserve, preserve and maintain access to born digital artefacts such as literature, art, and research data,” Dr De Vries said.