Needles in a Haystack: The Challenges of
Researching Personal Computing at the CBI
In the summer of 2015, I received the Norberg Travel Grant to conduct research for my dissertation focusing on the relationship between personal computers and the private sphere. Popular lore about personal computing often focuses on the Californian computer scene and the libertarian leanings of some early enthusiasts, and this contributes to the view that personal computers have always been involved in discussions of public policy. I wanted to examine how this entwinement of computers with the public sphere occurred since the personal computer was marketed as a consumer device meant for domesticity and the private market—competing notions of the “private.” As many have argued, a strict boundary between public and private is problematic. As Michael Warner notes, however, “attempts to frame public and private as sharp distinction or antinomy have invariably come to grief, while attempts to collapse or do without them have proven equally unsatisfying.”1 In my dissertation, I demonstrate that although early computer adopters rarely made delineations about boundaries, their discussions about the personal computer hinged around competing notions of the “private.”
Sadly, finding resources on personal computing was challenging, since there is almost no scholarly research on the topic. This meant that I was unable to draw on other scholars to help me find pertinent sources. At first, I looked towards journalistic narratives, but these leaned towards hagiography. Rather than focusing on a select group of “geniuses,” I wanted to examine enthusiasts and general users to gain a wider perspective. I knew that computer magazines and newsletters were some of the best sources to craft my narrative, but they were often difficult to locate in archives.
Luckily, many early adopters of personal computers have remained in the computer industry. They often create websites dedicated to older machines and the popular literature surrounding them. Under the direction of Jason Scott, the Internet Archive has consolidated the material on these websites into a single space, along with scanning material not available elsewhere. This proved invaluable as the Internet Archive has no limit on how you work with its sources. I wrote a small script that “scraped” the magazines along with putting them into different years, allowing me to considerably shorten my time gathering material. I believe these online sources will prove increasingly important as computer historians begin to work more on personal computing.
Despite the large number of materials online, I knew they did not tell the whole story. I still needed to go to traditional archives, such as the CBI. Unfortunately, studying the personal computers at CBI proved challenging. Few collections related directly to my topic. This is not to say that there are no sources; simply, that finding them can be difficult. Some particularly useful boxes were of computer magazines, such as 80 Micro Programming, TRS-80 Microcomputer News, Computer Hobbyists, and the unique Reality Hackers. CBI also has a full collection of Dr. Dobbs Journal, which I previously had a tough time finding. Other useful collections were the Auerbach Associates Market and Product Reports collection and the Market and Product Reports collection. These collections allowed me to get statistics about different computing products to see how fast consumers adapted them. The material on foreign computer markets was especially interesting. I was also surprised by how much there was about peripherals. While they do not play a big part in my own work, they will be very useful for researchers moving forward. Just make sure to dedicate some time to these collections since they are very large.
My advice to all researchers is to get in contact with Arvid Nelsen, the current CBI archivist. It is hard to put into words just how helpful he was throughout the whole process. Because I believed that much of the personal computing literature would be scattered throughout other collections, he had to retrieve a copious amount of boxes. As I went through them, I took photos, but some collections only had a few items; this meant he was always rushing in and out giving me new boxes. I am also grateful for Tom Misa and Jeffrey Yost.2 I had great discussions with both, and they recommended other scholars working on similar topics. The extension of CBI’s collection is astounding, and despite staying there for three weeks, there is still more I believe I can return to.
1 Michael Warner, Publics and Counterpublics (New York; Cambridge, Mass.: Zone Books ; Distributed by MIT Press, 2002), 29.
2 Jeffrey Yost, “Exploring the Archives: Resources on Personal Computing,” CBI Fall 2012 Newsletter, http://www.cbi.umn.edu/about/nsl/v34n2.pdf#page=15.