Archivist Reflects

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Archivist Reflects on Years at CBI

June 30, 2016 will mark my last day at CBI and the University of Minnesota. While I am excited about my new position, as the Rare Books & Manuscripts Librarian for the Bridwell Library at Southern Methodist University, and for my new life in Dallas, I look back fondly on my time as the Curator and Archivist at CBI. It was a difficult decision. I’m very proud of what I was able to accomplish here, with the assistance of my CBI and Libraries colleagues—and while we’ve done a lot, there’s more yet to be done! Tom asked me to share some of the things I am most proud of. In the interest of time and space, the list will be far from complete.

#1 Print Acquisitions at CBI
When I started here in 2007, the focus of collection development at CBI was almost exclusively on archival papers and records. I was unable to locate book acquisition statistics for earlier years because there were none. My annual allocation of funds for book purchases was $300, a sum that often went unspent in earlier times. Great things were collected and fantastic research was accomplished with the archival materials, but my thought—which became my mantra (the first of many)–was that CBI was a subject-specific special collection, not a format-specific one. In order to truly capture and preserve the history of computing for current and future researchers I felt that we needed to capture it in any format it may come in, and books ranked high for me. By demonstrating need and use of acquisition funds I have managed to raise the annual allocation for CBI considerably, although there is always opportunity for more growth. Perhaps most important in these years, however, was our ability to solicit book collections from donors and to say “yes” when potential donors inquired if we took books. In 2008-2009 we brought in our first major collections—and impressive collections they are, including those of Erwin and Adelle Tomash (CBI 75), Carl Machover, Michael S. Mahoney, and James W. Cortada. These four collections alone brought in a total of 5,795 book titles (5,845 volumes) and 123 serial titles (829 issues or volumes depending on how each title was bound and cataloged). Over the years we have continued to work with donors who have given us book and journal collections, sometimes in connection with archival materials and sometimes not. These include collections owned by Eric A. Weiss, Eugene Spafford, Christopher J. Shaw, and Mark Simonson.

#2 Cataloging and Collection Management
This item is closely related to the one just above, but I feel that it deserves attention. When I first started bringing in large collections of books and serials to CBI, we were not able to get them cataloged. Materials purchased went through the general acquisition and cataloging process fairly quickly, but the Cataloging Department was not able to handle gifts—especially large gifts—in the same way, often due to unique cataloging requirements. The only way we had to make materials available to researchers was through the same finding aids we use for archival materials. These work great for archives, but most people expect to find books and journals in a catalog and probably never thought to look in our finding aids. Use was minimal and we kept the books in archival boxes, arranged alongside corporate records and personal papers. Walking through our stacks one could not be faulted for failing to recognize that CBI even had a significant collection of books. A little more than a year ago the Cataloging Department changed their practice, and they have been cataloging many of the large collections we started receiving back in 2008 and 2009, as well as more recent gifts. Not surprisingly, this has increased the number of requests we get for books and journals. In order to increase the ease and speed of retrieval, we have been engaged for the past several months in a project to co-locate all of the book collections and to put them into book trays. Now, when you walk through CBI’s stacks downstairs you can really see what is quickly becoming a formidable collection of print resources that document the history of computing.

#3 Social Issues in Computing
In 2008 I began looking for materials offered by rare book dealers with which I could grow the CBI book collection, now that we had a policy of collecting print. I met with dealers at annual conferences, explained CBI’s collections and my goals, and handed out my card. For a very long time I only received emails from one particular bookseller who specialized in political and social movements. For weeks I received an email advertising the same pamphlet, from some group in the 1950s that was concerned with the impact of automation. I deleted it every time it showed up in my inbox. Finally, in exasperation I heard myself say aloud, “We don’t collect things like this!” As soon as I heard myself utter these words I asked myself the question, “Why not?” I realized that by focusing on the archives of persons and organizations within, or closely associated with, computer science and industry we were representing only one viewpoint on computing. The pamphlet was inexpensive, perfect for my $300/year budget, and so I bought it. The faculty to whom I showed it were thrilled and said that it was difficult to find such materials. My own investigation of computer collections proved this to be true. I was more successful finding such titles in labor history or women’s history collections. So, I started collecting print materials that spoke to the hopes and fears of people outside of computing, as well as computer professionals who expressed concern about their own work. This collection is still growing but it has fast become the most sought-after resource for my work with classes. Books, magazines, newsletters, zines, flyers, and other ephemera expressing viewpoints ranging from utopian to dystopian are used in conjunction with our more traditional archival collections in classes examining issues such as the impact of automation on society, the Cold War, women and gender in computing, and even religion and computing. This collection has informed my own understanding of both the history of computing and the role of the archive and library in shaping how history is remembered, studied, and told. It is also directly responsible for my own research and writing on race and computing.

#4 Archival Acquisitions
The truth here is that there are too many fantastic collections that I’ve been fortunate enough to bring in and too many amazing people I’ve had the great opportunity to speak and work with. The best I can do is to highlight just a few that brought me to some interesting new places:

Association for Computing Machinery: The ACM records came to the University of Minnesota and CBI in 2008 through a competitive bid process. This was the first instance in which I wrote a proposal explaining why the human and physical resources at CBI and the impressive nature of our local, national, and international communities of researchers warranted the placement of ACM’s history with us—and we succeeded! Not only did the ACM entrust their materials to CBI, but they also generously funded the processing of the collection which meant that we could hire dedicated, short-term staff to provide detailed description and make the materials available quickly.

Dr. Stephen J. Lukasik Papers: As many of you know, my academic background is in Classics, not the history of computing. I came to CBI with a great deal of interest but I needed to learn a lot. Early in my time here I became aware of Dr. Lukasik’s work, especially his directorship of the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) during the inception of the ARPANET. I began my outreach efforts with Dr. Lukasik in 2008. When he was ready to begin talking about archiving his papers, Dr. Lukasik invited me out to his home to inspect the materials and speak with him about them and his work. It was a wonderful experience and I am delighted that his papers are coming to CBI this spring before I leave.

Hollywood Computer Graphics: In 2014 I led a two-day workshop on archiving for the ACM History Committee. This in itself is another noteworthy experience! But during the event I met one workshop participant who would have a huge impact on me and the collections at CBI. Joan Collins, a Hollywood producer and computer graphics specialist who has an impressive history with LA SIGGRAPH, spoke passionately about the need to collect the materials that document the development of computer graphics in Los Angeles, especially in respect to Hollywood films – though not exclusively, as I learned about the important intersections between film and the work of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, RAND, and other organizations. Joan has continued to be a powerhouse, actively educating her colleagues about the importance of and need for archiving the materials that they continue to hold. She has facilitated conference calls and meetings between these incredible individuals and me, and I was even able to make a three-day trip to Los Angeles. This work has resulted, so far, in the acquisition of the Alias/Wavefront Records from Mark Sylvester and Joan’s own papers. Many more remain in process. I think in time CBI will be the home to a critical mass of research materials documenting computer graphics and cinema from its very beginnings through to the magic we see on screen today.

I was asked to write a short article and I have already exceeded my limit. I could go on much longer and I regret not being able to mention more. Fortunately, CBI’s finding aids and the University of Minnesota library catalog tell the rest of the story. I will join the rest of you as a keen observer of and advocate for CBI, its collections, and staff and I can’t wait to see how they will develop in the future. Thanks to all of you – researchers, donors, friends—for making my time here so extraordinary.

R. Arvid Nelsen


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