Archive for the 'history' category

Great Computing Museums of the World

A great two-part series on great computing museums from the last few issues of Communications of the ACM (here and here).

The museums they profile are:

I'll include an extra bit from the first CACM article on the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, CA. I'm choosing that one because as it happens I'll almost certainly be visiting it this coming July. I'm fortunate to have been invited to the annual Science Foo Camp, which happens to be at the Googleplex in Mountain View.

Research Activities. The CHM wishes to become an important part of the academic research community on computing history, but it has only taken small steps so far: organizing topical conferences and workshops, collecting oral histories, and publishing papers and articles.

The CHM scope (and collection) is international, but the museum's physical presence is in the heart of Silicon Valley in California. The CHM owns a 120,000 square foot modern building on seven acres--lots of free parking is a real asset here!--in a prominent location in Mountain View. The CHM also owns a 25,000 square foot warehouse 20 minutes away, where most of the 90% of the collection that is not on exhibit at any particular time is stored in climate-controlled conditions and is available to researchers.

The Computer History Museum is a work in progress. We like to think of ourselves as a startup with a 30-year history. We welcome the opportunity to work with people and organizations that resonate with our mission and our goals.

My own institution, York University, has a Computer Museum dedicated to the history of the Canadian computing industry. It's housed in the Computer Science & Engineering Department and run by Prof. Zbigniew Stachniak. You can visit by appointment.

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IEEE-USA History Project

Just yesterday I posted on preserving the the history of the computing field, musing at the end that digitization projects could save a lot of documents.

Well, what comes along today in the latest What's New @ IEEE for Students is a note about the IEEE-USA History Project:

Digital Archives, Organization's Four Decades of Service Unveiled
IEEE-USA is building a digital archive featuring documents and photos of its 36-year history of promoting the careers and public policy interests of U.S. IEEE members. Part of the IEEE-USA History Project, the archive features:

  • An overview of the first four decades of IEEE-USA from 1973-2009
  • A listing of IEEE-USA's leaders from 1973 to date, including photos of boards of directors from 1998
  • A detailed description of IEEE-USA's formation and its first 10 years (1973-1983), including an IEEE Spectrum special report on the constitutional referendum that added professional activities to the IEEE constitution
  • A look at IEEE-USA growth and maturity from 1984-1999, with annual reports covering the 15-year period
  • A glimpse of IEEE-USA in the 21st Century from 2000-present, including annual reports from 2002-2008, years in review from 2005-2008 and program handbooks for 2007-2008
  • Program histories, including IEEE-USA's Student Professional Awareness Conferences (S-PACs)

John Meredith, IEEE-USA's 2007 president, is leading the IEEE-USA History Project. Meredith chaired the 2009 IEEE Conference on the History of Technical Societies, in Philadelphia from 5-7 August, and made a presentation on IEEE-USA history.

Bravo, IEEE!

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Preserving Records of the Past, Today

An interesting article from the most recent IEEE Annals of the History of Computing, Preserving Records of the Past, Today by James W. Cortada. In concerns the difficulty that scholars of the history of computing have in finding primary materials to work with, mostly in the form of documents.

Scholars examining the history of information technology run into many practical, nuts-and-bolts problems more frequently than historians in other fields that
have existed for considerable periods of time, such as diplomatic and political national history. Problems with the history of information technology center on the paucity of the tools historians rely on to do their work. This paucity includes insufficient finding aids
to archival collections and too few reference guides, bibliographies, and library collections adequately stocked with books and other publications. Of course,
the 800-pound guerrillas we all want in our intellectual spaces are large collections of archival materials needed to underpin our work. When compared to so many
other fields of history, we are long on demand and short on supply, mainly because our field is new. In time, all will be well in our part of history.

The author is kind enough to make a few suggestions to his fellow scholars about how they could improve conditions for themselves and coming generations of scholars.

Of course, the suggestions have a lot of applicability for librarians too, especially those (like me) who support historians of technology.

Let's take a look his suggestions. If you have access, it's well worth reading the whole article:

  • First, donate archival materials in whatever shape, form, or copy you acquire them to institutions of your choice so that future historians may consult them.
  • Second, collect and preserve all ephemera on your subject that you come across with the intention of donating it to a library or archive.
  • Third, write and publish bibliographic and historiographical articles describing materials and your research strategies.
  • Fourth, prepare annotated bibliographies and other research aids.

The first two, of course, seem the most directly applicable to libraries. There's a lot of pressure on space these days at libraries. On the one hand, we see ourselves as builders and promoters of excellent student spaces for study, relaxing and collaboration. On the other hand, economic pressures are forcing the closure of many dedicated subject libraries. Also, with technology books, magazines and other materials, the easy answer is that since the materials become technically obsolete fairly quickly, older versions can just be discarded. As well, with so much current material being online (both on the free web and in subscription ebook & periodical databases), there's also the impulse to just get rid of the stuff.

But, just as librarians in other disciplines are concerned with the histories of their fields, we must be careful about jettisoning the history of the disciplines that we support, we must be aware that our collections often serve more than what we think of as our core audience, but also historians, sociologists and anthropologists.

I would hope that Google and other book digitization programs will get around to a lot of that old material, but a lot of those old books, magazines and other ephemera will likely never be digitized by the commercial projects. I think there's lots of latitude here for special collections work, especially those that have off-site storage facililties or that can fund their own digitization projects for this type of material.

We live in interesting times, surrounded by rocks and hard places.

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