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Computer History Museum archive traces industry's early days

Immense trove of records now available to the public

Sara Lott is intimately familiar with the marvelous feats that computers can accomplish -- but the immense archive of data she needs to process can only be done by humans.

As the senior archives manager at the Computer History Museum, Lott has been working to sort through a massive collection of old documents spanning the early decades of the Information Age, mostly from 1945 through 1998. This trove includes corporate memos, business plans, research notes and marketing materials from bygone companies and message boards.

After three years of effort, Lott and her team are ready to share their new archive with the public. This collection is now being made available for any researchers or amateur scholars out there interested in learning more about the development of the modern computer.

"This is a huge step forward for us," Lott said. "This archive is open to anyone with an interest ... but if you don't have an idea what you're looking for, you'll probably be overwhelmed."

It was a daunting job from the start. The records totaled about 1,000 boxes of documents, a paper stack nearly high enough to rival the Empire State Building. Back in 2014, Lott and her team had received a $275,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to process the collections.

Indexing these records might seem deceptively simple for today's computer users -- just put them all into a database and let character-recognition tools make the content easily searchable. That wouldn't work, Lott warned. Many of these papers were handwritten or would be unclear without any context. Plus, scanning the materials would be a grueling endeavor that could damage irreplaceable documents.

"Our material is fragile, always rare, and often one-of-a-kind," Lott explained. "What you would have, if you digitized everything before arranging and describing (it), would be a giant digital barf."

In other words, much of this cataloging work had to be done the old-fashioned way: by hand. Luckily the museum had a solid pool of volunteers, mainly retired tech engineers and employees eager to help chronicle their industry. After a two-day "boot camp" to learn the museum's cataloging methods, the 11-person team was ready to start.

Many of the records were already organized to some degree, and the museum's archive team worked to build on the established ordering systems. It took about four-and-a-half hours to move through each box of records, Lott said. Working out of the museum's research center in Fremont, the archiving team produced index guides to help future researchers track down where each document could be found.

The giant new collection includes the corporate archives from the Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC), which was the world's second largest computer company before it merged with Hewlett-Packard in 2002.

Her favorite part of the new collection is the logs from Community Memory, an anonymous discussion list that sprang up in Berkeley in 1973 and is believed to be the first computerized bulletin board. For the price of a quarter, a user could post a message from terminals located at laundromats, bookstores and other sites. Community Memory was basically the predecessor for Craigslist, Reddit and even social-network sites, Lott said. Much like today, the online chatter ranged from starkly political rants to gentle debate over who had the best bagels in the Bay Area.

In the future, the museum will also make available the records from Charles Bourne, a Stanford Research Institute engineer credited with developing the first network search-retrieval tools about 40 years before Google was launched, Lott said.

Earlier this summer, the Computer History Museum's volunteer crew held a little party to celebrate reaching their goal, as outlined in the grant. It was great to reach that milestone, Lott said, but she pointed out the museum still has an even larger backlog of thousands more boxes of records to get through.

The Computer History Museum's research archives are available for the public to peruse at the Shustek Center in Fremont. Appointments can be made to visit the center, Tuesday through Thursday, by contacting research@computerhistory.org.

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