Introducing the YUL Emulation Viewer

by Seth Anderson

Happy World Digital Preservation Day! As you might expect, we here in YUL’s Digital Preservation Services (DPS) department are big fans of WDPD since it gives us a chance to toot our own horn. There are many exciting projects and pursuits in DPS to tout, but today I want to highlight an exciting new service that has been years in the making.

As the Software Preservation Program Manager at YUL, I spend my days managing the Emulation-as-a-Service Infrastructure (EaaSI) program, which keeps me plenty busy as we continue to develop on-demand emulation services (emulation = recreation of older computer systems and software in modern infrastructure). My other primary responsibility is the implementation of library services using the emulation technology developed by the EaaSI program. Since there’s little precedent for emulation services this is always an exciting prospect; we get to plot our own course and innovate new opportunities for access to YUL’s collection of digital materials.

Our first emulation service, the YUL Emulation Viewer, is set for release early next year when students return for the Spring 2021 semester. The Emulation Viewer provides immediate access to CD-ROM titles in the library’s circulating collection. In the 90s and 00s, many libraries acquired CD-ROMs, whether as stand alone items or as supplements to books. These discs are still available to check-out, but how many computers still come with a CD drive? How well would a title designed for Windows 98 operate on your Windows 10 laptop? For all intents and purposes, these CDs are an obsolete technology. And yet, they contain a wide variety of valuable research resources; anything from a guide to optimizing soil moisture to survey results tracking family growth from 1988-1990, and much more.

The YUL Emulation Viewer will work much like an eBook you might access from the library catalog. Clicking a link in the item’s record will take you to the simple viewer interface. Access to these materials is limited to Yale-affiliated users, so you’ll have to login with your netID and password. In the interface, you’ll see a few simple controls and the computer within the computer as the emulation starts up. These emulations are set up to run the CD-ROM upon start up, so you won’t have to navigate much or at all to access the disc. Scroll your mouse over the emulation window and you’re in control! 

Image of EaaSI interface showing National Forests, Chattahoochee-Oconee, Appendices Land and Resource Management Plan

National Forests, Chattahoochee-Oconee, Appendices Land and Resource Management Plan, January 2004 in Windows XP

We’re making a couple hundred CD-ROMs available to start, but there are thousands still to set up. This process started a few years ago when DPS undertook a monumental effort to create digital copies of all of the CD-ROMs in the library’s circulating collection. Since then, our excellent team of student workers has worked their way through these digital copies, identifying the appropriate computer environment and configuring the disc in the emulation. This often requires some sleuthing, as the students must determine how to access the contents of the disc: Is it run directly off the disc? Does it require a specific software application to open? What are users supposed to open first? Thankfully, the students have capably done this investigatory work so future users don’t have to.

Unfortunately, setting up these discs is often hindered by one major roadblock: software. For instance, many discs simply contain PDF files, which require a contemporaneous version of Adobe Acrobat, Adobe Reader, or another compatible application to properly render. This issue may go even deeper than one piece of software and a CD may require a specific operating system to function. If we don’t have this software, it’s challenging to ensure we are providing an accurate representation of the disc. As part of the EaaSI program, DPS has acquired many software titles to use for this service and others and we plan to continue configuring discs until we’ve made all or most of them available.

DPS is committed to increasing access to digital collections using emulation. Over the next 1.5 years of the EaaSI program, we plan to expand the emulation services at YUL and Yale to provide access to special collections materials, scientific research, and more.

Special thanks to the Andrew W. Mellon and the Alfred P. Sloan foundations for their generous sponsorship of the YUL Emulation Viewer and EaaSI program.