Catalysts for Memory: Online Access to the vast CHM Collection
Whether it’s a “Speak & Spell” educational game or an IBM mainframe computer, everyone finds something from their own lives on display at CHM — but there’s more to the museum than meets the eye. As the largest international collection of computing artifacts, the museum only displays a fraction of its over 100,000 items. About 85% of the museum’s collection, 60% by volume, is stored off-site in an environmentally-controlled storage facility. This means that, while many objects are not regularly seen by the public, a team of volunteers and staff is working full-time to increase artifact visibility by documenting objects and making the information available online.
The Collections Cataloging and Reconciliation Project (CCARP) began in November 2013 with a grant from the Institute for Museums and Library Services (IMLS). The grant funds a two-year effort by two Collections Specialists and a qualified team of industry volunteers to photograph and catalog 10,000 objects from two backlogged collections, as well as a collection of objects acquired more recently between 2007 and 2011. The team of two staff and fourteen volunteers have been hard at work, with volunteers donating over 4,000 hours of their time through March 2015. With over a year of cataloging and photography behind them, our collections volunteers press tirelessly on! They’ve accomplished a lot, but there is plenty of work to go before CCARP comes to a close at the end of October 2015.
The team has completed two of the three collections and the project is now in its final stage. Finishing the first two collections required creating or updating over 7,600 catalog records and 7,800 new photographs linked to the database, all of which are now available online. Completing the final collection, formerly housed at our former home at Moffett Field, will present unique challenges. Many of the objects in this collection will require extensive research into both CHM’s records and the files kept by the museum in its former incarnation as The Computer Museum in Boston.
Addressing these challenges will be easier because CCARP benefits from a partnership between museum trained staff and computer industry experts. CCARP volunteers come from every corner of the tech landscape and include technical writers, engineers, programmers and others. These volunteers contribute valuable time and industry-specific knowledge to describe diverse objects. As the Collections Specialists on staff, Sarah Schaefer and I are able to make sure that museum standards regarding record- keeping and artifact handling are rigorously upheld while volunteers document the artifacts.
Each day the volunteers work in pairs either cataloging or photographing. The cataloging volunteers choose what to work on from a variety of pre-identified materials. Cataloging teams often collaborate to ensure that descriptive vocabulary is accurate, consistent and robust. Toni Harvey, one of our most prolific cataloging volunteers, reflects on her experience this way: “I’ve always enjoyed ‘old stuff’ though I never thought that items which came into use during my lifetime would be considered part of that category. Putting the information about this ‘old stuff’ into a database and eventually working toward consistent descriptions, etc., ensures that the story will not be lost. I like that.”
After objects have been through the cataloging process, our photography volunteers take their pictures and move the objects to packing shelves. The final step is the storage process, which consists of packing and moving objects or boxes onto warehouse shelving. CHM’s collection is unusual, consisting of artifacts that are often large and heavy with components that are small, fragile, and made up of mixed materials including plastic, metal, and glass. Packing thus requires careful consideration and access to a range of packing supplies. For example, an artifact may have components that require the use of special anti-static archival bags or fragile components on all sides that require custom mounts carved out of thick archival foam. The grant provides a budget for the archival-quality supplies, which ensures that each artifact is packed according to its specific needs and made safe for future research or display.
The CCARP team is committed to preserving history and arrives at the offsite storage facility excited and dedicated to completing the work at hand. Allen Baum, a volunteer cataloger and photographer, writes, “I have a chance to examine bits of those machines that I’ve studied, read about, and (in one case) have actually personally used. Often, I come across artifacts donated by someone I know or know about or designed by someone I know or know about.” The collection has astonishing breadth. Almost every day a team member runs into an object significant to their personal history or career. For me, the project has highlighted how computer history is everyone’s history. I have a deep love for live theater, so running across parts for the first computerized lighting controller used on Broadway was like meeting a celebrity. Everyone is enthusiastic about the project, so there is a fun atmosphere where jokes abound, and volunteers come together over shared histories and interests.
By collaborating on CCARP, the volunteer team has learned how museums think about preserving history, and staff has obtained unique personal insight into why these objects are significant for the community. Looking forward, it’s exciting to imagine how this project will aid researchers and enthusiasts in the future.
If you’d like to be a part of a project like this, there are still opportunities for you! CHM will soon be seeking volunteers to help process 26 hidden yet significant archival collections. For more information, see the Museum’s press release about this grant from the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR).