Director's Desk

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Director’s Desk

Those years, I’d always heard, were a “Golden Age” for the Charles Babbage Institute.  This was in the heady and exciting days of the 1980s when the new venture was just off the ground.  No one knew exactly what a research and archiving center in the history of computing was supposed to look like.  Some impressive groundwork had been laid (see CBI Newsletter v34n2 and v35n1 on CBI’s founding), but now there was real work to be done.  Arthur Norberg, Bill Aspray, and Bruce Bruemmer—respectively CBI’s founding director, first associate director, and first professional archivist—developed the holdings, activities, and stature of the institute, working together in conducting oral histories, identifying archival collections, and advancing research.  A 1988 profile in the Chicago Tribune pointed to CBI’s 150 oral histories, extensive photographic collection, 200 shelf feet of computer manuals, and the 26 linear feet of the landmark Honeywell v Sperry Rand lawsuit.  “Our purpose is not just to preserve archival information but to promote research in the history of the computer,” said Bruemmer.  Bill Aspray remembered, “It was a remarkable period, which each of us remembers fondly, a time of passionate and energetic intellectual work while we labored to create a new academic discipline.”

I believe the past decade has been something of a second golden age for CBI.  Our team—myself, associate director Jeff Yost, admin Katie Charlet, and archivist-curator Arvid Nelsen—have advanced the central mission of CBI on multiple fronts.  We have scores of new archival collections, many of which are fully processed and already in use by researchers; a massively expanded print collection now topping 10,000 titles; important thematic collections such as the one Arvid himself spearheaded in “Social Issues in Computing”; and a shelf-foot or so of books that CBI staff have published.

We salute Arvid’s energy, professionalism, good sense, and great team effort.  And, alas, we have the bittersweet duty of needing to wish him well with his new rare-books librarian position at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas.  During his years at CBI Arvid took on increasingly prominent positions in the ALA-affiliated Rare Books and Manuscripts Section, rising to a term as chair during 2014-15.

Arvid came to CBI, from the University of California–San Diego, in 2007 after a nationwide search.  He has been at CBI since then, except for a two year stint in a temporary managerial position.  Among his many accomplishments are the miracles he has worked on CBI’s behalf with the University Libraries cataloging system.  Arvid did a great deal to expand CBI print holdings by a factor of five: from roughly 2,000 to 10,000 titles.  In the “old” system, an accurate number would have been difficult to obtain since the physical volumes were in our downstairs cavern but nowhere properly catalogued.  Arvid spotted a one-off opportunity where the cataloging staff for the past year have been working their way through these 8,000 volumes.  So now, we know how many books we have; all catalog users can easily find and request them.  Notable collections (such as the Tomash, Mahoney, Machover, Cortada and others) are clearly labeled in the university catalog record.  We get the best of both worlds: global visibility for the titles with a permanent connection to the donor.

Alongside these print materials, Arvid added 192 archival collections during his tenure totaling (according our spreadsheet) a whopping 1,640 cubic feet of physical materials and, in addition, a terabyte or so of born-digital and electronic materials.  In our online finding aids any CBI collection number higher than 180 was acquired and/or processed and made publicly available on Arvid’s watch.  (A number of recent acquisitions are yet to be added to this list.)  Some of these CBI archival collections are “anchors” that are massive in scale or comprehensive in scope, such as the Lockheed Martin Records, 1945-2013, the Association for Computing Machinery Records, the Carl Machover Papers, and the James W. Cortada Papers.  Others are rare gems such as the Gartner Group Records and Michael S. Mahoney Papers.  Without stinting on computer companies and professional organizations, CBI during these years expanded archival coverage of internet and networking activities as well as added wholly new areas such as the movie graphics collections that Arvid points out in his article.

Arvid Nelsen at CBI staff meeting makes a point with his usual diplomatic tact (August 2007).
From left: Jeff Yost, Arvid Nelsen, Katie Charlet, Joline Zepcevski (CBI research assistant).

Arvid’s positive impact on CBI has been immense.  He has taken leadership roles in the scholarly world, authored scholarly works himself, built up new archival collections and print resources, engaged in outreach efforts near and far, and juggled a thousand projects with grace and good humor.  The community of computing historians will benefit from his outstanding work at CBI for decades to come.  We wish him the very best in his new endeavors.

Thomas J. Misa

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