April 15, 2005

IF in Special Collections

by Nick Montfort · , 12:29 pm

I just stumbled upon “Collecting and Preserving Infocom Interactive Fiction” [PDF] [PS] by Adam Mathes, who got a Library and Information Science Masters recently from UIUC:

I have chosen to use the donation to create a new collection in the area of interactive fiction, specializing in the early works published by Infocom. … Although not commercially popular today, the genre may be of great scholarly and historical importance as interactive electronic games grow both in general popularity and as subjects worthy of academic study. … Much like rare books, older computer programs are in need of conservation if their intellectual material is going to be accessible today and in the future. … a special collections library is well suited to the large task of preserving these works …

(Updated: Upon further investigation, it seems that LIS450RB up top there is a course number rather than a room number or something else, and this document is a hypothetical one, submitted as a student paper. The thought still counts.)

Mathes’s discussion of preservation issues is thorough, covering material objects included with Infocom games, packaging and printed matter, physical media, and the IF programs as digital objects. He discusses why, from a textual studies perspective, it is useful to have early or original code copied onto modern computers – in addition to having the latest CD-ROM release available to scholars.

A search for “Zork” in the UIUC library catalog only turns up one item as yet – a children’s computer dictionary that covers terms from A to Zork – so the reality isn’t quite as nice as the one the paper portrays.

At any rate, I’m extremely pleased that someone is taking the initiative in trying to de-acidify bits to keep electronic literature available to readers/players. I hope there will be more activity soon in preserving interactive fiction, and that this activity will extend to other forms of e-lit as well.

5 Responses to “IF in Special Collections”

  1. Adam Mathes Says:

    Actually I wrote the paper for a class called Rare Books and Special Collections that I took as part of the Masters program in LIS. So it is purely hypothetical and in no way affiliated with the actual rare book library at UIUC. (Sorry for the confusion.)

    I think most of the interesting work in this area is going on outside of traditional library contexts at places like Archive.org, but it’s possible that may change and there may be initiatives at academic institutions I’m unaware of.

    Regardless, I’m glad you enjoyed the paper!

  2. nick Says:

    Whoops, I think I was updating my post just as you commented. Quick work in noticing my post (and mistake), though. And, thanks for your paper, however hypothetical it may be – we have to at least imagine these things in some detail before such collections will be put together.

  3. Dennis G. Jerz Says:

    Ah, thanks for posting the update, Nick. I fell for it, too. (Good paper!)

    I agree that Infocom’s feelies and other in-box goodies are a vital part of the culture of interactive fiction. But I wonder… are the best-known commerical games — such as Infocom’s — really the ones that are in most need of preservation?

    On another note, remediation, as in the Mystery House collection, is another way of keeping those old games alive in spirit.

  4. nick Says:

    Dennis, I agree that collecting once-widespread stuff such as Infocom games does seem a bit odd. But when no institutions at all collect such materials, they become rare, however popular and common they once were.

    It’s quite possible that well-known commercial works are in need of preservation, even when you compare them to their non-commercial counterparts. Consider the situation of Zork/Dungeon and that of the commercially published Mindwheel, for instance.

    Here’s the MDL source code for the final version of Zork as it ran on ITS. Here’s a very careful and faithful port of this version to to the Z-Machine, via Inform, which allows it run on pretty much any computer nowadays. Ethan Dicks has done a very good job of providing us with a modern computer program that functions very much as the original Zork (or at least the final version of the original Zork) did.

    Mindwheel can’t be obtained legally, as far as I know, unless you find a physical copy of it on eBay or somewhere more obscure. Currently there is only one for sale, and that one is only available to buyers in the United Kingdom. If you do manage to get a copy, you’ll probably have quite a hard time running it – that one looks like it is for an Atari ST. Of course, there seems to be very little chance that the Mindwheel source code will ever come to light, also. So I think there’s some important collection-building for libraries to do, and commercial works should be part of that.

  5. Dennis G. Jerz Says:

    Good points, Nick.

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