Preserving Bits

Inside the Library of Congress’s Video Game Collection

November 3, 2011

As video games gain influence in our culture, the need to preserve them for future study gains importance as well.

“The computer game industry has had a major impact on the film industry,” said Richard Pugh of the Library of Congress’s Packard Campus for Audio Visual Conservation in Culpeper, Virginia. “The two industries have been feeding one another in a number of ways,” he added, noting that much of the CGI technology that movies currently use was originally developed for games.

Pugh, along with two associates, is working to build a video game archive at the Packard Campus. “We have a large collection of computer games dating back to the late ’80s,” Pugh said. The project, currently dubbed the Video Game Collection, acquires every game that comes to LC through copyright registration, which Pugh estimates at about 10% of the games published each year.  The Packard Campus is looking toward donations from collectors and creative individuals and corporations producing video games.

Physical storage of the games is one of the project’s biggest challenges, although one that the Packard Campus is well-suited for. The building it occupies was carved into a mountain and contains a number of underground vaults “designed to withstand a nuclear strike.” Those vaults have been converted to storage units for audiovisual materials. The games are stored in low-humidity rooms kept at 60 degrees. “It may not stop decay, but it will slow it down,” Pugh said.

The Video Game Collection contains more than just games. Acid-free folders also contain the games’ original packaging, documentation, and whatever other materials might have come with each game. Those folders are stored in standard-sized archival boxes that can each hold 8–10 games. The library is collecting promotional materials and game guides as well.

Upcoming levels

While LC has acquired games for some time, the formal processing and archiving only started in earnest this year. As a result, certain elements haven’t been settled yet. Selection criteria, for example, haven’t been finalized. LC’s original interest in video games was their impact on children, so its oldest games are an odd blend of educational titles and the violent games that some thought would corrupt youth.

The library now seeks a broader array of games, and tries to collect them in their original format(s). But there’s a complexity to that, given how many computer and console platforms there are. And, Pugh notes, “We’re still analyzing how to store born-digital games.”

Cataloging the games is also a challenge. “We use existing LCSH and LC genre headings where we can, but we’re also trying to put forward our own options” for descriptive terms, Pugh said. The project is exploring such additional possibilities as using industry keywords as genre headings.

The games are not currently available to the public, although Pugh says the library is working toward that. “We would like to have a place where the different consoles and PCs are available so users can install and test the games,” he said.

The Packard Campus is not the only entity working to archive a video game collection. At the 2011 ALA Annual Conference in New Orleans, Pugh said he met with other librarians trying similar things. “We’re encouraged by what other libraries were doing. We’re not working in as big a vacuum as we thought."



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