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Step Inside the National Software Reference Library

Boxes of old software stand on a shelf, including a flight simulator, Dark Souls II and a Kaspersky anti-virus product.
Credit: R. Wilson/NIST

Apps, games, systems in multiple languages — more than one billion pieces of software rest in a closely monitored storage facility on the NIST campus in Gaithersburg, Maryland. 

Today, we walk you through the National Software Reference Library (NSRL). More like an evidence locker than a storage closet, the NSRL is a critical resource for law enforcement, government and industry alike. 

When criminal investigators seize a computer, they need to quickly push aside the information that doesn’t relate to a potential crime and get to the point. The NSRL helps by providing a digital fingerprint (aka “hash”) that identifies each piece of software. That way, the investigators can weed through the unnecessary data and reach the suspicious programs, such as multiple QuickBooks apps on a computer owned by a suspect accused of financial malfeasance. 

Beyond criminal investigations, the NSRL can help organizations be rid of unwanted software across their computers. 

Tall black racks hold computer servers, with wires hanging down around them.
Credit: R. Wilson/NIST

When federal agencies were required to stop using Kaspersky cybersecurity products in 2019, IT specialists turned to the NSRL to get the software off all of their computers. When Napster reigned over the music industry and pop culture in the early 2000s, multiple companies used the NSRL to help wipe corporate computers after their employees plugged in their personal devices with the software. 

The physical library has multiple rows of shelves that house some nostalgia-inducing contents, including The Sims Online, Warcraft II: Battle Chest, The Oregon Trail 5th Edition, Microsoft PowerPoint 2003 and After Dark (computer screensaver software displaying flying toasters, of all things). 

Its digital counterpart, a server in another room, has many more exciting additions. Quarterly captures of messaging apps such as WhatsApp or Snapchat, more than 4,200 titles available via Steam, more than 200 titles of virtual reality software ... the list goes on and on. 

As more apps push live and systems hit the market, our experts are ready to incorporate them into the library. Learn more about the NSRL.

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Released October 18, 2022, Updated October 19, 2022