A day in the life of a personal archivist

I wear many hats at the Doug Engelbart Institute, one of which is head archivist for the Doug Engelbart Archive Collection. In the spring of 2010 it came time to upload archive videos of Doug Engelbart’s demos, lectures, tributes, interviews, etc. dating 1968-2008. I worked with the good folks at the Internet Archive to upload over 100 videos that had been previously digitized,  into a new Personal Archive collection on the Internet Archive called the Doug Engelbart Video Archives.

616889_112457158899865_360112627_oDoug had early on established a methodology for his library, in which each item received a unique ID number, and was cataloged in a master index. So we started this uploading project with what appeared to be a fairly comprehensive index, including ID number,  title, name of conference or company, location, names of other people on the video, if any, name of person it was received from, producer, etc. — whatever information was on hand at the time it was cataloged. The first task was to make a pass over the index and spot check the videos to sort out some discrepancies. This turned out to be huge. Lucky for me  I had worked alongside my father extensively over many years, and knew something about many of the events represented in these videos, was present at a number of them, had been the event organizer for others. Plus his/our long-time secretary, Mary Coppernoll, had kept meticulous files and was available to search through them.

Next, selecting what to upload onto the Internet Archive site, getting them uploaded with descriptive filenames (eternally grateful to Laura Milvy at Internet Archive!), and annotating the material with ID numbers, summary descriptions including any specific info we had in our files regarding the event, cross-referencing related videos in the collection, and researching the internet for related documents or webpages already posted by others, adding links to those. This turned out to be way huge.

Many people think of archiving in terms of saving, preserving and cataloging pieces into a collection and, where there is sufficient interest, arranging for part or all of it to be (broadly) available. In our case, as in many cases, what’s equally important once the preservation and indexing is secured, is establishing the context, and telling the story.

Without the context, the archives will likely be meaningless to most people, an esoteric treasure trove to a few.  Telling the story is about establishing very rich, relational context and meaning. It’s what brings the stuff to life.

Context is Everything

So for example, I hold in my hand a video of a talk my father gave in 1986. At a conference. What conference? The Conference on the History of the Personal Workstation. I knew this because it was an important talk for him at the time, an opportunity as the so-called “Father of Personal Computing” to pull together historic photos and video footage, and create a detailed timeline of his work. In his talk he told the story through pictures, unfolding how and why he invented what he did. The conference itself was seminal, and was later rendered into an important book of the same title. So, can we locate the conference program, event announcements,  abstract of his talk, copies of the slides he used? How much of this info is already on the web? Can we scan in what we have to upload and link to? We had previously posted the paper he submitted to the proceedings. Did the book make it online? Unfortunately not.  Is it at least described somewhere? Can we scan in a copy of my father’s chapter at least, for which the editor worked with him for months to refine and streamline, and as such is superior to the version we have online?  See Doug’s talk (with what context I could muster) The Augmented Knowledge Workshop. [Ed. Note: Six years after  posting that talk with whatever contextual tidbits I could uncover, the Computer History Museum created a fabulous online exhibit about this historic 1986 event, including the following archival photo]


Establishing the relationships among records and documents, following the threads, can be quite engrossing and time consuming — literally boundless.  In the course of this video project, I found considerable bits and pieces of contextual material on the web, scanned in some, and pieced together others.  In some cases I also created supporting web pages on our site, pulling related materials together into a special sub-collection of sorts.

My work with the Internet Archive on the video project led to an invitation to speak at last month’s 2011 Personal Digital Archiving conference at the Archive in San Francisco. Here’s a link to my talk Learnings from a Life’s Work: The Doug Engelbart Archives, in which I covered highlights of my father’s life’s work, experiences archiving that work, and how it  informs the future of tools and practices for capturing, integrating, developing, evolving and re-using our individual and collective repositories, in both our work lives and our family lives. This blog post expands on some of the themes I touched on at the conference.

One Story

Here is the story of one sub-collection from our archive which exemplifies a day in the life of a personal archivist — a day that stretched into six weeks of painstaking but truly heartwarming and rewarding detail work.

vb-portraitAmong the videos selected for digitizing and uploading, I found a complete collection of 11 speaker/panel sessions from the 1995 MIT/Brown Vannevar Bush Symposium celebrating 50 years of Vannevar Bush’s seminal article “As We May Think” published in the Atlantic Monthly, July 1945. This Symposium looked to be a veritable “who’s who” of great pioneers of the information age, gathered to honor the man and his article which had in some way touched and inspired each of them. Researching the web for related event resources and source materials, I found event webpages at both MIT and Brown, which between them included a rich assortment of event resources all posted back in 1995 and still online (!!!). I also discovered there is as yet no Vannevar Bush website. I did find the article itself posted on the Atlantic Monthly and Life Magazine websites, but no additional archive material on the web related to the article. Neither MIT nor Brown were in a position to update their event webpage, so I created a Vannevar Bush Symposium homepage on our site, linking to the resources on their two sites, to the event videos we’d just uploaded, and the other few items I’d located.

One day in July 2010, I came to realize that I was archiving this amazing event on the 65th anniversary of the Atlantic Monthly article. That gave pause for reflection. During this sub-project I was becoming increasingly aware and appreciative that I was resurrecting a gathering of great pioneers of the information age who had in turn been inspired by a great visionary from a prior generation. These luminaries, who had each dedicated their entire careers to pursuing some aspect of what makes the internet such a powerful medium for sharing and advancing knowledge, were brought together at the dawning of the internet (1995) to pay tribute to their inspirer, and to share with each other and a few dozen lucky attendees what they thought was significant about what was happening and where it was headed, which I was now for the first time posting onto the very digital technology they spawned so that anyone in the world could henceforth witness this seminal event using that technology — hopefully inspiring next and future generations of pioneers, using current technology to spawn next generation technology, recursively bootstrapping the future. Literally sent chills up my spine.

When I finally got a chance to actually watch all of my father’s talk from the Symposium, I noted that he had neglected to say anything about how he first encountered the article, which is a great story in itself! I had heard him tell it many times in many contexts. I scoured his oral histories and other first-hand accounts to double-check the facts, wrote up a  thumbnail sketch under a new section of the Symposium homepage titled Influence on Doug Engelbart, with links to some amazing resources that had surfaced:

  • a 1962 letter he wrote to Bush — already online (courtesy Stanford Libraries Special Collections)
  • his personal copy of Bush’s 1945 article with his hand-written notes in the margin — Jake Feinler had recently discovered and indexed in her archive collection of the Network Information Center, which the Computer History Museum were kind enough to scan in for me to post, to which I affixed a source citation (courtesy Computer History Museum and Atlantic Monthly).

I also located the Philippine island where he first encountered the article in 1945 on a GoogleMaps map, which I copied into Photoshop where I could add labels in large enough to be easily read after sizing down the map to fit on my webpage (endless fussing!).

As this sub-collection came to life for me, I was struck again and again by how honored I felt, how deeply touched — one of the great rewards of participating in the archive process. Somewhere in there I also got to chat with Andy van Dam and Paul Kahn who had organized the 1995 Symposium, provided all the historic context for the Symposium, and had coalesced the conference resources onto a very impressive conference website for its time (1995). I love these guys.

More Vignettes

Other sub-collections I have developed over time are available at the new Stories section of our Archives portal page, including pioneering firsts from my father’s lab:

  • the story of the Mouse
  • interactive computing
  • the 1968 demo
  • the first ARPANET transmission and online community
  • hypermedia
  • groupware
  • …and more…

My next task is to find better ways to tell the whole story.

1 Comment on A day in the life of a personal archivist

  1. Finding this so interesting! I am interested in new UI/UX to make it all work better in context.

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