Digital curator Giulia Carla Rossi: ‘There is a misconception that if something is on the internet it will last for ever’

Giulia Carla Rossi collects the fragile artefacts of our increasingly transient publishing world. She is a curator of digital publications at the British Library. As part of its Emerging Formats project, she works to preserve the new and often experimental ways in which people are telling stories across the web and other digital platforms, preserving the creations that are at risk of being left behind as technology races forward.

It’s perhaps a testament to the originality of the project that there’s no single, casual term for the works that you’re collecting. What sorts of things is Emerging Formats interested in?
We use “emerging formats” to refer to what we call complex born-digital publications. They’re publications created first and foremost to be published, distributed and read in a digital environment. But they are also structurally and technically more complex than digital publications that we currently collect at scale, such as PDFs, standard ebooks or e-journals. There are more challenges for us because of their complexity, but for the same reason, they’re also more fragile. They rely on the original software and hardware they were designed for, which increases the risk of disappearance if you don’t collect them in a timely manner.

We’ve mostly focused on web-based interactive narratives (digital choose-your-own-adventure stories, stories that use live data, stories that are written collaboratively, or stories that respond to a specific location). But we’ve also looked at apps, both Android and iOS.

Why collect them?
There are a lot of digital publications that are published in a more standardised format that we know we can collect at scale. But there are a lot more publications, which sometimes can be interpreted as games or sometimes are defined as electronic literature, that are all part of the current UK publishing landscape. They’re very much things that we want to preserve for future generations.

That seems especially important here. Unlike print media, these digital works risk being made inaccessible by the obsolescence of essential hardware and software. Doesn’t that give them a natural lifespan?
There are different approaches to preservation. There are institutions that choose to go down the migration route, so they migrate the content to a more contemporary format that is not obsolete. But obviously, that means that you have to keep migrating the content. Emulation is another approach: tricking your modern machine into thinking it’s older hardware that runs older software, so you can emulate even a tablet environment on a desktop computer.

We are also really interested in collecting material around the works. Even if something can’t be accessed on the original hardware that it was intended for, we have some documentation of what the experience was like.

The form and feeling of the collected works vary hugely, from interactive fiction to VR games to the almost impossible-to-categorise entries of the New Media Writing prize. How do you choose what to collect?
Because we collect under non-print legal deposit [the regulation that grants the British Library a copy of every work published in the UK], the idea is we collect everything that is published. We don’t make any judgments in terms of literary value. We’re not trying to build a canon, per se, more trying to make sure we are recording this moment in history and what will become our digital heritage in the future.

There are obviously technical limitations, and also in terms of resources and time. We’ve been trying to prioritise formats that we know are already at risk of obsolescence. So we have tried to do some work with Adobe Flash [a platform for creating animations, apps, and games for web browsers and phones] and collected some of those works. Adobe Flash was discontinued as recently as 2020, but all of these works are already completely inaccessible if you don’t have some sort of emulator on your browser or if you haven’t collected them beforehand, which I think gives a very good idea of how pressing this work is.

The library has exhibited some of these works. Is there a risk they will lose something when they’re moved from their natural digital surroundings into a physical space?
If we are presenting something that exists in a networked environment, like the internet, and taking it offline to put in a gallery space, that’s definitely a different experience. But the way we’ve done this has been to provide a lot of interpretation and a lot of context, whether it’s an interview with the author explaining what the thinking behind the piece was, an interpretation text, or any other ephemera that we collected to give as much of an overview as possible of the original experience.

It is definitely a challenge to make sure that the meaning of the work is retained. Some of the experimentation we’ve done with playthrough videos has been quite successful, where we can record not just what’s going on on the screen, but also record the experience of someone tilting an iPad, moving it around, blowing on the mic. It’s making sure that the experience is also documented and not just the file itself is preserved.

brightly coloured floppy disks laid out in a grid
Hard-to-categorise online works and those created using outdated smartphone software could soon go the way of the floppy disk and other obsolete formats. Photograph: Roger Tooth/The Guardian

What are the other difficulties of collecting these formats?
It often comes down to the question of what it is that you’re trying to collect. Are the [computer] files the work itself, or are they just part of the work? Is the source code like the manuscript of a book instead of being the whole thing? If you can’t really play the files, have you even collected them?

Many digital formats are already inaccessible – webpages, floppy disks, even smartphone apps that are no longer supported. Why hasn’t more been done to preserve these digital creations?
There is a misconception that when something is on the internet it is there for ever. We’ve found that’s definitely not the case and there are so many websites that – for a variety of reasons, including people just not paying for their domain any more, or some kind of update that goes wrong – have completely disappeared.

It’s easy to take for granted the technology we have access to right now. Apps and tablets are still very much alive and happening, and people might not realise how fragile some of these formats are, because they are reliant on bespoke software. It’s hard to think far in the future and realise that the kind of technology, and even the way we read, might be very different in a few years’ time.

As consumer technology develops and more digital formats are created, won’t this preservation work only become more complicated?
The variety of formats available and that keep getting created is definitely a challenge for us. But it is also quite exciting. The incredible diversity that we have in this collection, whether it’s the format, the genre, the topic, or even the interaction pattern – some of the stories just require you to click links in a hypertext narrative, but others are so much more complicated and need your location, or follow you around. It’s exciting to see the diversity, and what people can create with different tools and different technology.

The Guardian