Before Cyberpunk: Science Fiction and Early Personal Computing (for the 13th City Tech Poster Session)

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For the New York City College of Technology, CUNY’s 13th Annual Research Poster Session, I created the poster embedded above to illustrate my current research on pre-cyberpunk science fiction (SF) about computing and personal computing. The poster discusses my focus and provides a timeline with SF about computing matched with key technological innovations that made the personal computing revolution in the late-1970s possible.

What I am interested in is the fact that William Gibson’s “cyberspace” captured the popular imagination about the metaphorical place where computing, processing, navigating, interacting, and communicating occurs, but some of the very good SF about computing that predates Gibson’s coining the term cyberspace failed to leave an indelible impression. Certainly, these stories were read and circulated, but the reach of their images and metaphors seem to have been limited in scope as compared to Gibson’s writing.

One of the ideas that I have had since creating the poster is that the idea of hidden computing or outlaw computing is something central to Vernor Vinge’s “True Names.” This, of course, features large in Gibson’s fictions, and it is the image that I am looking for in other SF of this transitional era.

At the poster session, I will carry my Raspberry Pi-based touchscreen-computer-in-a-Suntory-box-from-Japan to demonstrate the idea of hidden computing. I will post a step-by-step instruction post soon about assembling the Raspberry Pi-based computer and offer some additional thoughts about how I would like to use them in my technical communication classes.

In this post, I want to provide some of my notes and links to relevant resources as a record of the initial research that I did in preparation of this poster. It is my hope that it might lead to conversations and collaborations in the future.

 

Fiction Sources

Murray Leinster’s “A Logic Named Joe” (1946): Home computers connected to a large scale network. [Couldn’t fit within poster dimensions, but a significant work that needs mentioning.]

Isaac Asimov’s “The Fun They Had” (1951): Children discovering a print book are agog at what it represents while their classroom/desktop teaching computers flash mathematical fractions at them. [Couldn’t fit within poster dimensions, but another important work in this genealogy.]

Poul Anderson’s “Kings Who Die” (1962): Human-computer interface, according to Asimov and Greenberg in The Great SF Stories #24, “one of the first stories to address this question” (69).

Daniel F. Galouye’s Simulacron-3 (1964): Also published as Counterfeit World. Adapted as Welt am Draht/World on a Wire (1973). Simulated reality for artificial beings programmed to believe (except in the case of one character) that they are real and living in the “real world.”

Philip K. Dick’s A Maze of Death (1970): A crew in a disabled spacecraft while awhile their remaining lives in a computer generated virtual world.

John Brunner’s The Shockwave Rider (1975): Computer programming and hacking. First use of the term “worm” to describe a type of self-propagating computer program set loose on the computer network. Protagonist as outlaw.

[Five year gap during the personal computing revolution. Were the SF writers playing with their new personal computers?]

John M. Ford’s Web of Angels (1980): The “Web” is a communication and computing network connecting humanity. “Webspinners” are an elite group of programmers who can manipulate the Web in unique and unexpected ways. Protagonist as outlaw.

Vernor Vinge’s “True Names” (1981): Computing power hidden from view of a watchful government–literally under the floor boards. Early MMORPG/virtual reality experience of what was later called cyberspace. Protagonist as outlaw.

Damien Broderick’s The Judas Mandala (1982): First SF to use the terms “virtual reality” and “virtual matrix.” Protagonist as conspirator/outlaw?

 

Nonfiction Sources

Cavallaro, Dani. Cyberpunk and Cyberculture: Science Fiction and the Work of William Gibson. New Brunswick, NJ: Athlone Press, 2000. Print.

Ferro, David L. and Eric G. Swedin. Eds. Science Fiction and Computing: Essays on Interlinked Domains. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2011. Print.

Kay, Alan C. “A Personal Computer for Children of All Ages.” ACM ’72 Proceedings of the ACM Annual Conference – Volume 1. New York: ACM, 1972. n.p. Web. 18 Nov. 2015.

Mowshowitz, Abbe. Inside Information: Computers in Fiction. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1977. Print.

Murphy, Graham J. and Sherryl Vint. Beyond Cyberpunk: New Critical Perspectives. New York: Routledge, 2010. Print.

Slusser, George Edgar and TA Shippey. Eds. Fiction 2000: Cyberpunk and the Future of Narrative. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1992. Print.

Stableford, Brian. Science Fact and Science Fiction: An Encyclopedia. New York: Routledge, 2006. Print.

Timeline of Computer History. Computer History Museum, 2015. Web. 18 Nov. 2015.

Warrick, Patricia. The Cybernetic Imagination in Science Fiction. Cambridge: MIT, 1980. Print.

 

 

Living in the Present with Vintage Computers, and Reading the Past as a Netrunner: On Reading William Gibson’s All Tomorrow’s Parties

Having just finished William Gibson’s All Tomorrow’s Parties (1999) and thus concluding his Bridge Trilogy, I cannot say with anything resembling certainty that I have read or not read these novels before. As I said when I began writing a few notes on my blog about Virtual Light and Idoru, I have a creepy feeling of having been in these novels before, of having read them sometime and some place. If I have encountered these novels directly before, the memory source for those encounters is locked away in some inaccessible part of my memory. Anyways, if I did read them before and there should be some memory, I am hopeful that it is still there and simply inaccessible to my mind’s eye in the present and not eradicated by some biological injury.

Despite my memory’s misgivings and uncertainty, I can certainly say that I enjoyed this vision of the future/present/near past illustrated in the fast and sharp language Gibson lays down in these three novels. In All Tomorrow’s Parties, we experience Laney’s virtuosity as a netrunner who builds alliances/buys alliances that out maneuvers the 0.001%er Harwood. Laney’s ability as a psychopharmacologically enhanced cyborg who can see the flows of data, understands what we have all just recently learned about the power of metadata, and seizes the accreting eddies and currents of information, narrative, and inevitability leading to something bigger, powerful, and otherwise unseen–an undertow of history.

Laney as netrunner seems an analog of what we have all become in one way or another. We manage our flows of information with RSS feed aggregators, news readers, the Facebook wall, the Twitter feed, the timeline, hashtags, tagging, Friend lists, Google+ Circles, subscriptions, etc. Before all of this, there was talk in the magazines about creating intelligent agents–small programs that would scour the Internet for the information and news that we would like to learn more about (perhaps through keywords and other coded instructions)–that helped manage what we read and saw while also managing our precious pre-broadband bandwidth.

It is worth noting that in both cases, watching the firehose of feed data now or harvesting news bits with intelligent agents, all data written by someone for the info consumption of others is a practice of historic preservation, archivization, observing what has come before. Taken one step further, none of us experience the present due to our biological senses and cognition systems that delay our experiencing the world beyond ourselves. Thus, the netrunner (and ourselves as modern netizens) are a further step away–observer experiences, reports multimodally over the Internet, we experience the multimodal report. To go further on this point or digress on the transformation of these experiences by the media and modal channels involved would likely cover several volumes, so I will end the digression here.

There are times when I feel like Laney must have felt in his dank cardboard hovel in the Japanese train station. Surrounded by his own filth and barely holding on to life with a ritual of cough syrup and sugars to keep his body barely operational but well enough that he could remain plugged into the data feed via his VR eye goggles. Trying to keep up what is going on in the world, going on with family and friends, going on professionally via the numerous and multiplying channels of social and broadcast media is daunting. It is a burden–a heavy one at that. Any attempt that I make at streamlining, modulating, organizing, and taming these never ceasing feeds of information makes me feel overwhelmed, lacking control, and otherwise wasted. My own compulsion to try to keep up, to interact, and to communicate in kind leaves me feeling dread over joy more often than not.

At least in Laney’s case in All Tomorrow’s Parties, he is working toward a goal of swinging the nodal point away from Harwood and towards something different, perhaps altruistic and thus the many Rei Toei’s are born of nanotech assemblers in the many Lucky Dragon establishments.

Another interesting image for me and my work as a researcher of our shared digital culture is the Bad Sector shop on the San Francisco side of the bridge. Chevette finds Tessa outside the Bad Sector shop working on her tiny video drone, God’s Little Toy (an increasingly ubiquitous and problematic technology today ranging from privacy violation to public safety in the air and on the ground). Later, Rydell goes to the Bad Sector to obtain two cables for Rei Toei’s holographic projector. Inside the Bad Sector shop, Gibson describes its Jurassic technologies–lingering on audio recording media going back to the beginning and vintage personal computers–particularly those encased in beige. Of course, the shop’s name refers to a bad sector on computer readable magnetic media–a physically unreadable or damaged location on the media platter–floppy or hard disk.

For media archivists, the bad sector is like a burned or rotted page in an ancient manuscript. There is the possibility that the data might exist copied by the manipulations of digital technology far more quickly than that by a human scribe, but if no copy or backup exists, the bad sector–depending on the type of magnetic media, its data density, etc–could leave some information permanently inaccessible. Although, I can imagine a bad sector can, in some very particular circumstances, tell us things about how technology-as-culture was developed and continues to develop (the physicality of drive mechanisms, error correction algorithms, the application of scientific principles to avoid physical destruction of the drive media, the deformities or problems with a given writer’s computer setup, how that writer’s computer influenced the development of cultural works–lost drafts, overwritten work, etc.). So, the bad sector can be seen as a loss on the one hand and potentially a gain for understanding on the other.

My office at City Tech (and the previous labs of vintage computer that I have built up, sold off, donated over the years beginning at my childhood home in Brunswick, GA, my flea market booth at Duke’s Y’all Come Flea Market in Darien, GA, my home in Norcross, GA, the Special Collections of Georgia Tech’s Library Archives, and now my college in Brooklyn, NY) is kind of like the Bad Sector on the bridge. It is cobbled together. It is incomplete. It is bricolage. It is pieced and held together with equal parts ingenuity and duct tape. Unlike the Bad Sector in All Tomorrow’s Parties, it is mine and not something bought and sold by off-bridge investors. Like the bridge in the novel, my vintage/retro computing lab is a community effort–I get and give, others get and give. I work on it and at it to remember where we have come from and to reflect on how our past innovations inform and continue to speak to our current digital culture. I want its archive to provide testimony about who we were and who we have become as human beings and thinking organisms. It is part of my research and pedagogy.

William Gibson’s Bridge Trilogy (Virtual Light, Idoru, and All Tomorrow’s Parties) is an impressive vision. My deja vu or amnesia–depending on your point of view–about the novels might say more about how much like the present some themes and images in Gibson’s novels speak to the way things were and are in the real world.

Retrocomputing at City Tech: Vintage Computers Organized on New Shelves

My Retrocomputing Office Space
My Retrocomputing Office Space

Thanks to City Tech’s Stanley Kaplan, I now have a substantial new collection of early personal computers including IBM PCs, Radio Shack TRS-80s, a Commodore PET, Texas Instruments TI-99s, ATARI 800, and a number of other computers and peripherals in my office in Namm 520. Some of the smaller items are locked in my filing cabinet, but as you can see from the photos included in this post, I have the larger items arranged around my desk and on a new set of Edsal steel shelves that I purchased on Amazon.com. Now, I have to make some additional room for a large, removable magnetic disk from a TRIAD Computer System (c. late-1970s~early-1980s, the drive that reads this disk was about the size of a washing machine) and an Apple Macintosh Centris 650, which I shipped to myself from Brunswick when I recently visited my parents. In the coming months, I will catalog these machines, see what works, and plan how to use them (research, pedagogy, and exhibits). If you have older computers, disks, or user manuals and would like to donate them for use in my research and teaching, please drop me a line at dynamicsubspace at gmail dot com.

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Radio Shack Color Computer 3s, Zenith Data System, Odyssey, TRS-80, and PET Printer.
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TRS-80, Texas Instruments TI-99s, and Toshiba Laptop.
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Victor Computer and TRS-80.
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Commodore 64s, TRS-80, and Various Floppy Disk Drives.
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IBM PC, IBM PCxt, Kaypro, and AT&T Desktop.
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ATARI 800 and Compaq Portable PC sans case.
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Pentium 233 MHz PC, i7 PC, i7 Dell (office standard issue), and Commodore PET.

Second Donation to Georgia Tech Library Archive’s Retrocomputing Lab: Power Macintosh 8500

Me and the Power Macintosh 8500/120 in the Georgia Tech Library Archives.
Me and the Power Macintosh 8500/120 in the Georgia Tech Library Archives.

When I met with Georgia Tech Library Archives’ Department Head Jody Lloyd Thompson and Digital Collections Archivist Wendy Hagenmaier to donate three vintage computers (a Dell Dimension 4100, Apple Performa 550, and Apple iMac) and other computing hardware a week and a half ago, I noticed that they had room for one more computer, so I pitched them the idea of my making another donation to fill the gap between the Performa 550’s 68030 processor and the iMac’s G3 processor:  an Apple Power Macintosh 8500/120. They agreed to accept, so I set about preparing the computer for them.

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My Power Macintosh 8500 was in very good shape, but like many vintage computers with persistent clocks, it needed a new lithium battery.

To replace the Power Macintosh 8500's on-board battery (upper left corner of photo), you have to remove the motherboard.
To replace the Power Macintosh 8500’s on-board battery (upper left corner of photo), you have to remove the motherboard.

I replaced the battery, installed Mac OS 7.5.5, a number of different software titles (including Apple’s Plaintalk Speech Recognition–I threw in a Plaintalk powered microphone, Project X/Hot Sauce, and Cyberdog). I discovered that the plastic inside the case did not age well. The PowerMac 8500 has a lot of plastic components that are held together with flexible tabs or clips. When I applied a small amoung of pressure on the tip of these clips to release them, most of them would break. Luckily, the case ties together very well, so I only had to piece some parts back together with clear tape (the power button/light assembly) and metal duct tape (one drive plate cover on the front of the case). To help dissipate heat, I  added a rear slot fan made by Antec.

I made a video demoing the finalized system, which I’m including embedded below (I apologize for the flicker, but my digital camera doesn’t have enough adjustment features to match the refresh rate on the Apple 14″ Color Display).

In addition to the Power Macintosh 8500, I gave the Archives a box full of software and late-1990s/early-2000s video games for Macintosh. These might help facilitate more connections around campus (Computer Science, Media Studies, and Game Studies).

As I’m leaving soon for City Tech, I believe that we can do more together in our work with vintage computing. I floated the idea of a symposium, conference, or some other kind of connected project. Also, from what little I have learned so far, there’s a lot of investment and interest in computer technology in NYC (and Brooklyn in particular). I am looking forward to making new connections with others studying retrocomputing and New Media. I know that many opportunities await.

Inaugural Donation to Georgia Tech Library Archive’s Retrocomputing Lab

Wendy Hagenmaier, Jason W. Ellis, and Jody Thompson next to Apple Performa 550 and iMac.
Wendy Hagenmaier, Jason W. Ellis, and Jody Thompson next to Apple Performa 550 and iMac.

Yesterday, I had the pleasure of making the first donation of three computers to the Georgia Tech Library Archives, which is launching its own Retrocomputing Lab for scholars and students to use. The Georgia Tech Library Archives is already well-known for its significant Georgia Tech Science Fiction Collection and other holdings.

I met with Department Head Jody Lloyd Thompson and Digital Collections Archivist Wendy Hagenmaier to setup the three computers and talk about each machine’s provenance and current operation. We set the computers up on the right side as you enter the Georgia Tech Library Archives. This is a temporary location as the Archives makes plans for their use in Archives for the time being and possibly more in the future as part of the on-going Georgia Tech Library renovation project.

Apple Performa 550 and iMac.
Apple Performa 550 and iMac.

From my personal collection–which I am having to cull before moving to Brooklyn for my new job at City Tech, I donated three computers: an Apple Performa 550 (1994), Apple iMac (1999), and Dell Dimension 4100 (2001). Before donating the computers, I refurbished each to be in as factory-fresh condition as possible.

For the Peforma 550, I installed a PDS ethernet NIC and replaced the SCSI hard drive with one that was less noisy than its original one. Then, I installed Mac OS 7.6.1 and some software including the AfterDark Star Trek: The Next Generation screensaver and ClarisWorks, and utilities for working with files and disk images.

For the slot-loading, DV iMac, I replaced the motherboard battery and performed a fresh install of Mac OS 9.2.1. The optical drive suffers from a weak ejection mechanism. I made sure that the bottom plastic bezel fit properly, but reseated it had no effect on improving the drive’s ability to eject discs correctly. I warned the librarians about this, and recommended buying an external, Firewire optical drive and using the paperclip ejection method in the meantime.

Dell Dimension 4100.
Dell Dimension 4100.

For the Dell Dimension 4100, I installed a 3Com NIC donated by Mark Warbington. I installed Windows 98 Second Edition and painstakingly installed the drivers for the components in the Dell (this was a laborious process, because despite having the Service Tag number, some recommended drivers did not work on all of the components).

I provided two sets of speakers–one for the Performa 550 (it’s internal speakers had stopped working about a year ago) and one for the Dell Dimension 4100. In the event of future hardware problems, I gave them spare AGP video cards, optical drives, a 3.5″ floppy disk drive.

Also, I gave them some spare motherboards, controller cards, and hard drives that might be useful for displays in the Library.

The Georgia Tech Library Archives have big plans for making digital archival work and learning an integral component of what they do. If you have functional and working computer hardware or software, you should consider donating it to the Georgia Tech Library Archives, or if you have technical skills for working on older hardware and software, you can donate your expertise and time, too. Contact Jody and Wendy by email or phone here: Georgia Tech Library Archives contact information here.

UPDATE: I made these four Google Glass videos while working on the iMac DV:

Digital Archives and Vintage Computing @ Georgia Tech, Co-Presentation by Wendy Hagenmaier and Jason W. Ellis, VCF 2.0

Screen Shot 2014-05-03 at 11.02.38 PMOn May 4, 2014 at 11AM, Wendy Hagenmaier and I will give a co-presentation on Digital Archives and Vintage Computing @ Georgia Tech at the Vintage Computing Festival 2.0 in Roswell, Georgia. This post includes a support video embedded below, a link to our PowerPoint presentation, and a transcript of our talk.

During my part of the presentation, I will discuss this Google Glass captured demo of the Voyager Expanded Books series ebook of William Gibson’s Sprawl Trilogy on a Powerbook 145:

We have provided a PDF of our Powerpoint presentation here: ellis-hagenmaier-vcf-presentation_20140429.

We have provided a transcript of Jason’s part of the presentation below (and Wendy’s follows):

Digital Archives and Vintage Computing at Georgia Tech

Jason W. Ellis and Wendy Hagenmaier

Jason:

[OPENING SLIDE-COMPUTERS]

Hello and welcome to our presentation on Digital Archives and Vintage Computing at Georgia Tech. I am Jason Ellis, a Marion L. Brittain Postdoctoral Fellow, and this is Wendy Hagenmaier, Digital Collections Archivist at the Georgia Tech Library.

In the first part of our presentation on digital archives and vintage computing at Georgia Tech, I will describe how these fit into my research and teaching before suggesting how the library can fulfill those needs for the communities it serves. Wendy will conclude with a discussion of the trajectory of the Georgia Tech Library as a place of research, learning, and making beyond the traditional image of a library.

 

[JASON W. ELLIS]

My primary work at Tech is to teach first year composition, tech comm, and occasionally, science fiction.

[HOW I CAME TO FOLD VINTAGE COMPUTING INTO MY WORK]

While I have long considered myself a computer hobbyist and I was an IT professional before going back to school to finish my degrees, I have leveraged my interest in computer technology and the human brain to do innovative research on the interplay between the digital and the biological. This raises issues of accessing digital culture on older media and making meaning from these significant forms of culture. These things are important to my research, but I want to enrich my teaching and help my students develop their digital literacies, too.

[AUTHOR’S AFTERWORD]

What specifically led me down this path professionally was that I needed to find a citation for a text I found online. It was an intriguing article attributed to the cyberpunk SF writer William Gibson on a Russian website (cyberpunk.ru). In it, he talks about the ephermerality of technologies—a very interesting idea in light of the fact that he wrote his novel Neuromancer on a typewriter. The afterword seemed ephemeral, too, because I couldn’t find a trace of this afterword in any printed book. A friend of my tweeted Gibson (@GreatDismal) and gave me a lead on a floppy disk-based ebook by the Voyager Company. After a search in Worldcat, the massive library database, I found a copy at the Michigan State University Library: the pictured Voyager Expanded Book series floppy disk of Gibson’s Sprawl Trilogy (Neuromancer, Count Zero, and Mona Lisa Overdrive). Unfortunately, I had no way of reading it.

[POWERBOOK 145]

After calling around northeast Ohio area schools and libraries without any luck finding a Macintosh with a 3.5” floppy disk drive, I turned to eBay where I acquired this Powerbook 145 (one much like the first computer I carried to Georgia Tech as a freshman in 1995). While I could have purchased an external floppy disk drive that connects with USB to access the ebook software, I wanted to experience the ebook as it was meant to be.

[VOYAGER EBOOK SOFTWARE]

With my Powerbook 145 and the Voyager Expanded Books floppy disk, I copied the self expanding archive’s contents to the Powerbook’s 80 MB hard drive. I observed that the Voyager ebook software is Hypercard-based. While it is made for the Macintosh Portable, it works fine on the later model Powerbook 145.

You can navigate the complete text of the novels and afterword with the trackball or arrow keys. While it has a global search box, you can also search by clicking on a word to see where else the word appears (much like Apple’s iBooks today). It supports annotations and bookmarking with virtual paperclips—an issue of remediation.

[AUTHOR’S AFTERWORD IN VOYAGER EBOOK]

This was the prize that I was looking for—the original author’s afterword available only in this ebook. In fact, Gibson did not even include it in his recent collection of nonfiction writing—Distrust That Particular Flavor. If you visit my blog at dynamicsubspace.net, you can watch an experimental video that I made with the Powerbook 145, Gibson’s ebook, an iPad Air, and my Google Glass.

[LET ME DO THAT FOR YOU]

Besides my research with and on vintage computing, I believe that these technologies should be an important part of teaching. Our students and young people need to have an idea about how the technology we enjoy today came to be the way that it is and to know that the past is full of ideas that might be repurposed, retried, or rediscovered as we continue developing ever new digital technologies.

For example, when I was researching Philip K. Dick in the Eaton Science Fiction Collection at the University of California at Riverside—the largest SF collection in the US if not the world—I had to stop a young, special collections librarian-in-training from jamming a one-of-a-kind cassette tape interview into a VHS machine on the AV cart. I directed her attention to the record/cassette combo on the bottom rack and offered, let me show you how to do that. These issues of use, operation, and support are passed on through teaching and first-hand experience.

[HOW I CONNECT RESEARCH AND TEACHING]

In my research, I have built a personal “Retrocomputing Lab” of Macs and PCs that support my research in the development of reading on screens just prior to and after the widespread adoption of the Internet. You can learn more about these on dynamicsubspace.net.

Most recently, I have embarked on a new way of sharing my research with others. In addition to writing essays for publication in journals and online, I am using Google Glass to record my experiences as a raw dataset that I can share on YouTube to support my scholarship and connect with others.

In my teaching, I encourage my freshmen students to learn how our computing technologies in the past and present have an influence on our neurobiology—put another way how we create computers with our brains and how do computing technologies change the way that we think over time. In Tech Comm, I have students research problems on the Tech campus that can be fixed with a technical communication solution. In one case, students resurrected an online printing solution that had died before they were students. Finally, in Science Fiction, I invite students to read Gibson’s afterword on the Powerbook and play the DOS video game interpretation of Neuromancer on an IBM-compatible PC.

[A VISION FOR THE FUTURE OF GEORGIA TECH]

My suspicion is that the need for accessing older media, studying vintage computing hardware and software, and teaching others how to use and preserve these technologies is not limited to literary and cultural studies. Obviously, computing is an interdisciplinary endeavor— specifically, I am thinking what Steve Jobs said about Apple being at the intersection of technology and the liberal arts—I think that this is a long tradition in computing not confined to the fine work at Apple.

I told Wendy, Sherri Brown, Alison Valk, and Elizabeth Rolando about my hopes for the Georgia Tech Library to serve as a synthesis of vintage computing research and teaching. The library’s archival mission can simultaneously maintain access to knowledge while preserving hardware and software as important artifacts of study. The library’s learning mission can support theoretical issues such as archival work and the history of science and technology alongside practical issues of training, using, and making. The library can do this through acquisition and on-going support, providing space for this kind of work, coordinating across institutions and the private sector, outreach, and more. Already, the Georgia Tech Library is a nexus of research and teaching that evolves to meet the research and learning needs of the communities that it serves. Wendy will tell us more about that in the next part of our presentation.

We have provided a transcript of Wendy’s part of the presentation below:

Hi everyone, I’m Wendy Hagenmaier, the Digital Collections Archivist at the Georgia Tech Library. I’m responsible for digital archives (similar to the work Al and Anne have discussed).

 

Reimagining the Georgia Tech Library

In light of Jason’s insights, I want to talk about some exciting changes happening at the Georgia Tech Library—changes we’ve been referring to as “reimagining the Library.” Though some of these changes are unique to Georgia Tech, many of them reflect how libraries everywhere are evolving to anticipate the needs of future library users, including people like Jason and all of you, the attendees here today.

The GT Library is transforming into a technological research library for the 21st century, but its mission remains the same: to be a creative partner and essential force in the learning community and the Institute’s programs.

At the GT Library lately, we’ve been asking ourselves: How can we support the research and teaching needs of faculty like Jason and inspire the scholarship of our broader community? And how can we invite the community to explore the past and design the future? As an archivist, I’m always interested in what the past can teach us about the future, so let’s take a quick look at the GT Library of long ago…

The Georgia Tech Library of the Past

Welcome to the Library of the 1960s.

Like many research libraries of the era, the GT Library provided services to support traditional, print book and journal-based research. The emphasis was on creating the most massive collection of print material possible, to position the library as a secluded, exclusive repository of knowledge that could only be found within a print collection. Imagine the shushing librarian, no food, no drink, no talking.

This worked well for a while, but radical changes in research and daily life on campus—mobile/ubiquitous/wearable technologies, Massive Open Online degrees, flipped classrooms, project based learning, digital repositories, university history now enacted on YouTube and Twitter—have made it essential that the Library undergo its own transformation. Print book checkouts are declining, but the number of visitors to the Library is exploding and users are accessing our e-resources over a million times a year. So here we are, at the Georgia Tech Library of the Present:

The Georgia Tech Library of the Present

In light of the cultural shifts I mentioned, the Library is presently planning its own shifts, both literally and metaphorically, on several fronts:

Here’s the first literal shift: the GT Library and Emory Libraries are partnering to construct a large climate-controlled facility to house the majority of our collection. This means we’re moving perhaps as much as 90% of our print collection to Emory’s Briarcliff campus. Books will be delivered to users on demand, and traditional browsing of physical library stacks will have to be translated into the digital realm.

Another shift: the Library is conducting user research with students and faculty, including focus groups, interviews, and surveys, to develop a shared vision for the Library’s future.

The walls of our 1960s buildings are now covered with post-it notes from dozens of internal brainstorming sessions, where we’re defining and innovating future services.

And another literal shift: we’re working with an architectural team to completely redesign the interiors of our buildings over the next five years.

Through reimagined spaces and services, the Library is becoming an interdisciplinary platform for scholarship, an integrated network of human and technological resources, and a champion of innovation.

The Georgia Tech Library of the Future

My colleague Sherri Brown and I interviewed Jason a few months ago as part of the Library’s user research, and he brought up the idea that the GT community has unmet retrocomputing needs. Faculty members from all sides of campus are encountering the need to access information stored on outdated media and to teach their students about the history of technology.

This academic interest in retrocomputing parallels the digital archaeology work being conducted in libraries and archives—everywhere from Emory’s Digital Archives to the New York Public Library. Archivists at these institutions are using old hardware and software to access and preserve content created with obsolete technologies (such as Salman Rushdie’s manuscripts saved on floppy disks). To date, however, all of the retrocomputing work in the library world has been conducted by library staff. These digital archaeology labs are not accessible to the libraries’ user communities.

My colleagues Jason, Sherri, Alison Valk, Lizzy Rolando and I are trying to imagine how we might do something different at the GT Library: offer our technologically-savvy patrons a chance to use the retrocomputing equipment typically restricted to library staff.

This might take the form of one or two retrocomputing consoles—or perhaps a larger lab—within the Library, which would be available to users who would be vetted by Library staff.

The idea is to take the digital forensics and archaeology work occurring behind the scenes in archives, plus the rise of hacker and makerspaces in libraries, plus collaborations with campus and community partners (perhaps even you?)…to imagine creating a retrocomputing lab. This space would not only serve as a hands-on historical reference point; it could activate new ideas about future technology and preservation of tools and ideas.

So how could we make this space happen, and how might we collaborate? Collectors, experts, and community organizations like the Atlanta Historical Computing Society could support an idea like this through:

-equipment sourcing

-IT support and expertise, knowledge of the history of computing

-and mentorship

In return, a project like this might someday offer collectors, experts, and community organizations:

-a collaborative meeting and hacking space, for making connections with like-minded people and hacking the past, present and future

-space dedicated to preservation (libraries specialize in preservation environments in a way that most individuals and community groups can’t)

-as well as infrastructure, branding, and support for community organizations seeking institutional allies

In many ways, the retrocomputing space we’re envisioning resembles the high tech computing lab of Georgia Tech’s past, which once seemed so futuristic and advanced, bringing us full circle, so that imagining the future of our Library becomes an act of reimagining our past.