Paul Conway - Transcript
Associate Professor of the School of Information, University of Michigan, Interviewed 5/25/2010 Digital Pioneers
-- Beginnings --
I am now associate professor of information in the School of Information at the University of Michigan. I’ve been there for four years and before that I was at Duke for five in charge of technology services for the library system, and before that almost 10 years as head of the preservation department at Yale. And before that—an archivist in the National Archives in two different capacities.
[How did you get into the digital world?]
Well, I went into it kicking and screaming. Against my better judgment, I was at the—it was about 19—89—no, it would have been 1990. So let me start—in 1990, I was working in—the National Archives, in what was called NSZ, the unit was NSZ research and development. And my job at the time, I was hired into NSZ to do a study of the users of the National Archives in anticipation of creating Archives 2. And the idea was if we could know more about our users, we might be able to rethink, remodel the—reference service operation or the new building. And so I was hired to do a comprehensive user study.
I did that, it was published—but I was working toward the end of that project, and the folks—the good folks at NSZ, who were supervising me on this got sick and tired of the user study and they wanted me to be done. And so Bill Holmes, the head of NSZ, since retired, came to me and said, I’ve got a project for you and I hope you’ll say yes. The assumption was that I ought to say yes, it would be good for me. And so he paired me up with Charles Dollar, who was the deputy head.
And Charles Dollar by then had already well-established his reputation for being technologically savvy, interested in electronic records. In a previous career he had written and award-winning textbook on quantitative history and was computer savvy and data savvy. And so—Bill basically said, you’re going to work with Charles Dollar and he’ll tell you what it’s all about. So what—the basic project that I—I got roped into doing was—was Charles Dollar’s assumption was that—we need—the Archives needs to know about what Federal government agencies are doing with this new imaging technology. Because a few years out, 5, 10, 15, 20, the National Archives was going to get stuck with this material. The more we knew about practices, the more we knew about companies, the more we knew about the standards that were emerging, the better the archives would be prepared to—deal with—with this technology when it landed on their doorstep.
So in 1990, the digital scanner was only about 12 years old. The first commercially available scanner I believe was marketed in 1978. So it really was new technology, but it was technology that was being embraced in the government sector and in the business sector—insurance agencies, any—any organization that had a lot of paper and a predictable workflow. Think insurance claims. Think IRS. Think Department of Defense procurement. Social Security Administration—was embracing these large-scale digital imaging workflow systems. And—the—Charles was right that—eventually this information was going to make its way to the Archives and we needed to know something about it. But I had no knowledge of, nor interest in, digital technologies in the imaging sector. I wasn’t afraid of computers—I was already using computers in different capacities, but I was not—comfortable.
So I spent a year complaining, essentially, and doing the project. But I came out the other end of it, knowing a whole lot about what standards are, how they’re developed, what government agencies decide to use or not to use standards in—in the technology arena, how they sort out what they’re going to do, how they work with vendors, because at the time there was no do it yourself, this was all—contracted out to DEC, to Wang systems, etc., all of which had very hungry appetites for government money and for corporate money.
And so this was a real thing, but it was under the radar for the cultural heritage sector at the time, in 19—except for a few places. It was pretty much under the radar in the mid ‘80s. Cornell had a bead on it, Michael Lesk at Bell Labs had a bead on the implications for the cultural heritage sector, but generally it was under the radar. So I had the good fortune of being—mentored/supervised/forced to do a very clearly defined project with a very clear deliverable that resulted in teaching me more than I ever imagined. And I came away interested and fascinated with the—with the potential.
So—and I did the project. We started by doing the work with—in the state and local government arena because Charles felt that it was less—politically complicated to do a pilot study with—with—in the corporate sector and in—in state agencies where nobody would care, nobody would ask any questions, nobody would wonder what our secret agenda was.
And then we—we did that project and then we moved on immediately and carved out I think 15 government agencies and I got 80% of the way through that project before I left to go to Yale. And I took all of that knowledge with me to Yale, right into the heart of the cultural heritage sector—arena. So I was just—it was just fortuitous timing, a boss that cared, was willing to be patient with somebody who complained all the time. I’ve told this story about be careful what you complain about because you never know when what you think is the worst job you’ve ever had may turn out to be your ticket for the next decade or two. And that’s kind of the way it was for me.
[Tell us about the Cultural Heritage project at Yale]
Yeah. This is the small world. There are many small worlds. Very, very small and overlapping worlds. And in this particular case, my connection with Yale starts with the National Archives because Charles Dollar had a small amount of money—some seed money—to bring in visionaries and thinkers to do symposium—symposia or seminars for National Archives staff on cutting edge technology stuff.
And I got wind, through the research that I was doing, about Project Open Book, which was the microfilming project. And I also knew circuitously about what was going on at Cornell. So I gave Don Waters a call, who at the time was Head of Systems at Yale, and asked him if he would come down and do one of these symposia. And I—he came and gave a fabulous talk, nobody had any idea what was going on, but it was awesome—awesome talk. And over lunch, Don said, well, you know there’s a job at—a great job that you might be interested in applying for over at Yale, and it was the head of the preservation department. A position that had been open for almost two years, with unsuccessful efforts to fill the job.
And I had recently completed my PhD from the University of Michigan, in which I worked on the notion of archival preservation, defining a model preservation program for archives and then testing the extent to which a group of archives in the United States met this model. How close did the archival community approach what we would think of as kind of an ideal model for a beginning preservation model in archives. And I just finished that. That—my dissertation.
And in fact, I got the offer to come to Yale the day I got my diploma in the mail. I spread it out, put weights on it so I could frame it, and I got a call from Yale saying, would you like to take the job? So—so I came armed to Yale with recent—in depth investigation of—digital imaging technologies, which included a kind of R&D approach to where is the action and who’s doing what, combined with a dissertation topic that was fairly cutting edge in terms of the cultural heritage sector, was archives and preservation merged. So I guess I was—the fortuitously in the right place at the right time, and landed in probably the perfect job.
Now what was going on at Yale at the time is Don had gotten this—written this grant with Cornell. Each—each—Yale and Cornell each wrote a grant to the National Endowment for the Humanities based on a challenge that Michael Lesk posed, which he basically said, the digital technologies for digitizing books for microfilm and books is mature. And it’s already there, we just have to decide how we’re going to use it.
This was—he wrote a report—Michael Lesk wrote the gist of this idea in about 1990. And—he challenged Cornell and Yale to test the hypothesis about which is more cost-effective and generates a better quality product, scanning from the microfilm, of which we have piles of microfilm because of the Brittle Books digitization project, or is it more effective—and cost-effective and better to do—to scan first or to film first. Yale carved out the film first piece and Cornell carved out the digitize piece.
And Anne Kenney and Steve Chapman were—running the project and were already about six months ahead of the—of the project, Yale had no project administrator. So I got the job as head of preservation and was handed, yet again, unknowingly, handed a grant to administer, to partner with Cornell. And we already had the partnership with Xerox established. So the terms for the project were already very well defined, and for me the process was take what I know about digital imaging and apply it in this setting of—of run a project for two or three years and see what you can do with it.
Yale was already—had been positioned by Don to be in the R&D department to answer a question posed by Mike Lesk kind of rhetorically, saying, why are you cultural heritage—what’s stopping you folks in the cultural heritage sector from just picking up this imaging ball and running with it? Of course he was way ahead of his time.
[Tell us about Yale.]
Well, we—we both—I—I had known Anne Kenney, when I was still back at the Gerald Ford Presidential Library in Ann Arbor, I started my career as an archivist in Ann Arbor. And—at the time I had met Anne when she was still in Missouri, at—working at the University of Missouri Columbia as an archivist before she went to Cornell. So when I found out that Anne was running the project at Cornell, I was like, okay great, we can collaborate.
And what we decided to do was to do a dual study in which we tried to control for as many variables as possible so that when we reached a conclusion, we—we have controlled for all the things that could be different. So we decided to do many things exactly the same way. We set up a workflow. We used the same technology, we used Xerox technology. We—beta—beta version of technology. And we set up a workflow process that we defined where we followed exactly the same processes. We gathered data in the same way, we decide—we did the same number of books. We did—so many things as much as possible so that the only conclusion we could reach was about the cost effectiveness of scan first or film first and the quality—question. Do you get a better product or a usable product from microfilm or from digital. And the argument of putting cost and quality together was it may be—the hypothesis we were going—we went in this project with was that microfilm scanning would be far less expensive than scanning from the original. And that even if the quality wasn’t as good, the cost offset of scanning from microfilm would offset the loss of quality and therefore continue justifying the micr—initial effort in microfilming because then you could go on and digitize the microfilm and everything would be wonderful.
What we found was the opposite. We found almost no statistically significant difference between the cost of scanning from the original and the cost of scanning from microfilm. And yet there was very significant differences in quality. At the time you had to—cut the books in order to get the cost-effectiveness. If you were scanning an original book, you had to cut the spine and scan the pages flat. But those technologies have advanced and we don’t have to do that anymore, but the key to cost-effective original book scanning was to destroy the book. So—so we talked about that.
And—but in the end we did a really good cost study and a really good proposal for moving ahead, which was never accepted by—we wrote a report to the National Endowment for the Humanities in which we suggested that digital and microfilm together is the appropriate preservation solution. And our suggestion was to scan first and then produce computer output microfilm. And the reason that our report I think was less well-accepted, there were two simple reasons.
One is adding digital to the Brittle Books Project would mean fewer books would get microfilmed. And adding digital—our key to cost-effective digital microfilm output was 16mm film. And the preservation community had just spent the last 15 years convincing everybody that silver halide high-contrast preservation microfilm of 35mm character was the only way to go. And we were saying, well, if you can relax that one assumption, and move to 16mm preservation film, we can create the ideal hybrid preservation solution. That idea went nowhere. It might come back someday, but—that’s the end of that very long—but we came out—I came out of that—that fairly long process, from starting with the National Archives in 1990 and ending in 1996 with the final work—the serious work that we did on the hybrid project was six or seven years of basically self-education. Centered around a couple of really significant projects.
[What did you do at Duke?]
My job at Duke was a career shift. At Yale, technology was around the edges. And books and paper and wonderful massive collections were in the center. At Duke I had a chance to reverse that and put technology at the center and collections around the edge. So my—my thinking in going to Duke was to leverage the technical knowledge that I’d acquired and the project management expertise that I’d built at Yale and try to see if I could help do something in the digital library domain at Duke.[Top] [Back to Interview Breakdown]
[What kind of challenges did you face?]
In the project at the National Archives, investigating the state of the art of the use of digital tech—imaging technologies and my project at Yale focused on digitizing microfilm. The real challenges that I faced were vendor—relationships with vendors. And I use vendors very loosely defined. In some cases it’s services providers, vendors as service providers, and in other cases it’s vendors as product developers.
And in the first—the National Archives project it was how are—how—the real key to understanding the future of digital imaging in federal agencies was to understand the deals that federal agencies were making with an industry that was just itself beginning to—stabilize. There weren’t enough international standards yet, they were starting to emerge. The—highly competitive storage medium—competition in the storage area, competition in the tools area, competition in the workflow, software area—every one of those competitive pieces generated income for private industry via contracts, procurement contracts with federal agencies. On the—Yale—so that was complex—and I became convinced that understanding that relationship between the—an emerging industry and its clients was the key to understanding how technologies were adopted and what would happen if we went forward with them.
On the Yale side, the challenge was inheriting a pre-established relationship with Xerox’s research and development operation. They had a brand new product, that they wanted to take from beta to production, and their market—they saw their market as the cultural heritage sector. And I think at some level they were right because the business and government industry was being chewed up and spit out by groups like Wang and DEC.
And so they saw—Xerox I think saw—they already were selling photocopiers to—to libraries—archives. So why not take it one step further and take—take what’s—a well-established technology in libraries and move it one step further. Just—but just one step further. But then bring in all these—ideas about workflow. Of staging and processing of files—that was in the commercial sector. Bring that in. And—and introduce that to the library community. And I think the biggest challenge that I faced and it—it was a challenge all the way through my time at Yale, was to get my head and the institution’s head around this relationship with Xerox. And it ended—it ended unfavorably. And the product that Xerox developed never—never—never developed. I have my theories about that, but for Yale, we ended up severing our relationship with Xerox and moving on.
[Tell us more about vendor challenges.]
Yeah. It was Documents on Demand was—XDOD or exdod was the—was the product. And we started working with this system, which included scanners, software to control the scanners, and then software to manage the data from the scanner into a storage system, which was a jukebox. Optical disc jukebox, about the size of a mini fridge. It was 18 inches by 24 inches by about—three feet high. And it contained about 48 discs, I believe, or it may have been 90. But it was—it was very mechanical. And the storage system—we think of storage—digital storage as being quiet, compact—flawless. And—the—at the state of the art of—large scale digital technologies in 1990, ’91, and ’92 was—big, loud, clunky, clugy.
And so it wasn’t about scanning. In the end, what I thought was going to be about scanning turned out to be all about file management, all about vendor relations, all about storage in a completely proprietary environment, in which we were completely dependent upon Xerox for everything, from supplying the next upgrade, installing the next upgrade, telling us when the next upgrade was going to come, insisting that we buy the next upgrade because if we didn’t, they weren’t going to support the immediate previous. It isn’t—it isn’t a difference about Microsoft not supporting 2.0 when they go to 6.0, it’s about Xerox not supporting 1.1 when they go to 2.0. So the obsolescence problem, which has become an obsession with the cultural heritage sector, was—real—in the early 90s. How real obsolescence is now is not—so the vendor piece was surprisingly complex and deterministic.
Could you have gone to an open source option?]
At the time, there wasn’t any. And—it wasn’t even a figment—I—you know, in a sense, the initial internet, of which none of us knew anything about, was open source by definition. But it was—it was a community of people who built something and maintained it. And they built it in the same way that open source technologies are built and maintained now, but it was a closed shop. It wasn’t open source, it was closed source but open. In a weird kind of way. So the concept of open source was there, but it wasn’t something that the cultural heritage sector had any idea about.
[How did you create those first digital catalogs?]
The question was, and still is for many libraries and archives, build it or buy it. And at the time, the feeling in the mid—early to mid 90s was that it was much more cost effective to acquire technology externally. Form good working relationships with the vendor community. And in doing so, in a sense, we fostered the development of tools that meet our needs. So the idea was to plunge in, form these relationships, perhaps at the R&D level, at the beta prototype level, so that we can have some influence over what—what these tools were going to be like, so that we can continue this relationship. And it was far more effective than building these tools from the ground up. There were other organizations around—I think Harvard has been a building organization for a very, very longtime—where they may have had a different philosophy from the get go. But at Yale, the—the—and Cornell—the heritage that I inherited, it was a don’t build it, integrate it. Don’t buy an—build an online catalog, buy it. Integrate one.
[Would you build or buy?]
I—I think that there is—I think that the build it works now at the two ends of the spectrum. On the very small pilot project when you’re not committed and you’re not sure. You want to experiment. Then buy some tools, repurpose some staff, find a dark room, go to work. And test and evaluate and figure out what you can do and what your organization can bear. At the other end of the spectrum, when you get to a certain size—a collaborative approach or a vendor-driven approach to—content management, digital preservation, I think makes a whole lot of sense. It’s—it’s—it’s where you—and I’m sorry—sorry. What I meant to say is that the large end, building—building tools collaboratively, like Hathi Trust is doing, like the California Digital Library is doing, like Harvard is doing for its internal management system. If you’ve got a particular scale and a level of institutional commitment, then building makes a whole lot of sense.
It’s in the middle, which is where most of us are, is—from the smaller—almost the smallest of the small up to the largest of the large, the great middle—is—I don’t think it makes economic or technological sense to build a—little skunk works in the basement and say you’re—doing—you’re getting your collections digitized. It’s not cost effective to do it. For lots of reasons.
[What issues did you run across when building your own?]
One of the things that came out of the Yale—the Yale-Cornell project was—was a model for how to measure how much it costs to do this kind of work in-house. And you could quibble with the model, you could quibble with the figures. But the basic idea of how to measure was pretty well-established. And it’s been replicated in other—in other places.
And the fundamental—problem with home grown digitization services is throughput efficiencies. In order to—pay the cost of the hardware and the software and the people, you need to keep the equipment running like a factory. Preferably two shifts. And libraries don’t work on two shifts. They don’t work on one shift. You know, I mean, in our economic model for Yale, we estimated that a productive working day was six hours. And we—because we had to take away meeting time, we had to take away coffee breaks, we had to take away other things that always get in the way, we had to take away the occasional need to stop and clean up the space. By the time you took away everything you were left with six hours a day when everything was going exactly right.
Vendors can run two shifts. Vendors can supervise staff who specialize in different tasks. Vendors can have seven different pieces of equipment optimized for seven different types of material. And it’s very, very—when you do the math on what it costs to actually run an in-house shop, it—it really takes your breath away.[Top] [Back to Interview Breakdown]
[What would you have done differently?]
…this comes from this idea—you used the word experimental. And in the research—one of the things that I’ve researched at the University of Michigan is the emergence of—guidelines and best practices and standards, but especially guidelines and best practices within the cultural heritage sector.
My work is focused mostly on photographs. But it—photographic digitization. But the lessons could be—applied to books or maps or almost anything else that we do. And I think my—in hindsight, now that I’m in 2010 and having done this research work, my biggest single concern was the time it took for the library and archives community to come to a consensus over what the best way to get the job done was. And in—in the process there’s been a tremendous amount of wheel reinvention. Issuance of new and better guidelines. Guidelines tweaked for a particular audience. Guidelines more specific. Guidelines less specific. Guidelines that are regionally based. Guidelines specially for archivists. Guidelines especially for librarians.
But my research has shown that by about 1999 or 2000—I could almost put a specific date on it—the people who had been experimenting knew what the answer was and had already developed a well-documented set of guidelines that could have been—either turned into standards or could have somehow been adopted, in some—through some mechanism not fully clear.
But instead we’ve spent another decade—still trying to figure out what the right guidelines are. And then Google steps in and does all the books and—Corbis comes in and does all the photographs and Getty steps in and does—Getty Imaging does more photographs. And I fear that the scale—our ability to—to migrate our collections into the digital realm at a scale that it’s worth doing—we’ve lost precious time. And lost precious momentum in an effort to perfect the workflow. And that bothers me. Even today. It—it bothers me a lot.
[Is there an issue between perfection and getting the job done?]
I—I think there’s a—it goes to the character of the organizations that comprise libraries, archives, and museums. It goes to the personalities of the people who decide to be librarians, archivists and museum curators and rise—very nicely through the ranks to lead these organizations. It’s the reason I asked my question today about risk aversion—was because my concern that so much of our devel—our work is developed around making sure we don’t make mistakes. And I think—we don’t need to make—we can afford to make some mistakes.
And—so—and then, the other thing that I’m—that is increasingly dawning on me about this whole digitization arena is how blind—the more we try to perfect the workflow, and the more we try to establish just the right—perfect technical guidelines, the more our focus and our—gaze shifts to what do the materials need that we want to digitize instead of what do the users who are going to use our digital products need. And so the more we focus on process and the more we focus on technology, the more—the more we lose sight of the fact that real live people want to get their hands on this material and that their definition of perfection or their definition of okay may be different from our technically driven definition of perfection and okay. And that gap is growing rather than shrinking. That’s my—so I think it’s partly cultural with the library cultural heritage community, and then it’s partly a—a sense of where the priority needs to be placed in—in getting it right.
[Do we forget why we are here?]
Yeah. Brewster’s—Brewster Kahle’s answer today. But if there was some way to bottle the last five minutes of his talk—when I asked him a question about risk aversion and he turned the tables on me and said, let us think about why we got into this business in the first place. It was to—it was to get content out there that people could use and—and—it was like, wow, you know, of course. And I’ve been saying this in a more academic way for years, but he said—he nailed it in a kind of visceral—the reason we’re doing this—we need to do it the way he’s proposing is because this is why we exist. As organizations. And that’s the most compelling argument to just move ahead. And—and get the job done.
[Are we passed the growing pains?]
…you can only take—guidelines and best practices so far and at some point you have to decide to do the job. And—and—see, I mean, years ago we didn’t think—if 10 years ago, somebody would have walked—if I would have gotten up in front of a conference and said—all the books are going to be digitized in five more years, it would have been—it would not have gone down very well.
And now we can—you can’t not get up in front of people and say, well, in a decade maybe all the photographs are going to be done. They’re easy to do, they’re fun, everybody wants photographs, there’s a finite set—yeah, there’s lots of photographs, but the photographic era is over. Kodak isn’t producing film anymore, nobody’s buying film cameras. We effectively have a 150 year period in which the concept of still photography exists. Why not to say, let’s digitize everything. Like Google did every book. Just do it all. And—five years ago, you would have been considered weird and why would I have listened to anything that Paul Conway has to say. If he’s going to talk like that. But now I can get up and say, it’s going—the day is coming when all of our fixed visual resources are going to be available digitally. And if they’re not, they don’t count.
[What happens to the tiny historical collections that are bypassed?
[Yeah. I—I—yeah. I worry about marginalization on two levels. I worry about marginalization of the smaller organizations that want to be] and are online but are highly selective. They’ve—they’ve got 27 things on their website. And there’s lots of other good stuff. So there’s marginalization of the small organizations.
And then there’s the skewing of our view of what history is all about. If the histories get written, if my high school son is going to write a history paper and it’s only stuff that he can find online, if a doctoral student is going to choose a dissertation topic because he or she has found an invaluable resource of newly digitized records and it makes it possible to do this dissertation without spending 18 months in Tanzania, okay. So then that collection is going to define Tanzania. That dissertation, that book, those articles.
And so—I think we’ve got a very, very long time to go before—the—archives, the special collections and the non-book material is sufficiently ubiquitous and sufficiently culturally diverse that—that we don’t lose—that we don’t skew history. So we’ve got several decades worth of this. And I worry about our grandchildren coming up with their high school textbooks, their view of the world, which is going to be written by people who write digitally. Documentary films are being made because the material can be made available digitally. Music videos, the online environment and then formal histories, English literature, on and on. So I—I—at the meta level I’m very worried about a kind of cultural skewing that is—that is almost inexorably driven by digitization.
[Is there digitization from the bottom up?]
It could very well be. Or it would be systematic gap-filling that needs to—that needs to happen. And it might be the historical community that—that nails the cultural heritage community again for—for its culturally driven decision-making on digitization. So—that’s why I’m a proponent of large-scale digitization as an antidote to historical skewing. And the more that we can do this collaboratively, the more that we can—push the costs down and do—and be realistic about the quality requirements, the more we can get done. And the more we can get done, the broader the reach. We can reach into the smaller organizations. We can reach deeper into collections that aren’t considered treasures, they’re just considered good stuff. Does that make sense?
So I think the biggest single argument for mass digitization is—is because that’s the way the world works now, and there—it will be working that way in—for the foreseeable future. So if we want to be a part of the way the world is now, then let’s get on board and get the job done. And if we don’t do it, Google, Microsoft—or other organizations that are in the content business are going to do it. Bartlesman.
Entertainment industries, they’re going to do it. The movies are going to get digitized by the Hollywood back offices. And the sound motion picture—the sound recordings are going to get done by the people who see commercial value in the—in the bits and bytes. So we’ve got to do it. If we want to—if we want to manage it and own it and control it and foster open—uses in new and interesting ways, then we’ve got to do the work. And it means not doing something else, which we haven’t figured out yet. What that something else is. Yeah. [Top] [Back to Interview Breakdown]
[What’s your advice for the future?]
Yeah. It’s getting the job done. And it’s probably in—at least in the current economic environment, which, you know, let’s say three to five years out, there’s some tough choices here. To be made about what—what doesn’t get done. Do we buy fewer books because so many of them are available digitally? Do—on—on Kindles and iPads? Do we catalogue fewer books? Let people browse through unprocessed collections of books and forage like they’re in a thrift shop of books?
I—I think something has to give in the short run, and I’m a very strong proponent of something other than digitization giving. I think the priority has to be making the job happen. And if it means making deals with Google or—Internet Archive to get the job done, so be it. It’s got to get done. If it—several people said today, if it isn’t digital, it either doesn’t exist or it doesn’t matter.
[What about these small boutique operations and historical societies?]
Yeah, and they’re all wonderful. Every—every one of these organizations either was founded or continues to exist because its collections resonate with someone. And there’s always something interesting and good in every one of these—they’re all valuable. And—we do have to figure out some way—that’s my—my—I’ve been doing so much work with photography and I know enough about the history of photography—that I tend to gravitate back to visual—visual resources.
But it—it is completely conceivable that we could declare as a community that we’re going to push ahead on visual materials and we’re going to—we’re just going to get that job done right away. We’re going to do for ourselves what Google did for books and we’re just going to get all the photo—if you have photographs, do ‘em. Get ‘em done. But we could also say the same thing about other—you know, like you said, the diaries and letters and literary manuscripts. It boggles the mind, it’s all good. It’s all good.
[Is there anything else you would like to add?]
Yes. Yeah. The—the storage arrays that have now become—that can fit in your back pocket. We had—a jukebox that was the size of a mini fridge—now. It had—let’s day 50 discs that each one had 650 megabytes. So if we did the math, even if we said it had a gigabyte, we’re only talking about 50 gigs. Okay. You can buy a thumb drive for 79 bucks. This thing was the size of a mini fridge.
And in the end, our—Yale’s reluctance—Project Open Book went offline and died a relatively painless death—which left behind only a stack of optical discs that were unreadable because of the proprietary format, but it all came down to the fact that Xerox decided one day that they wouldn’t support this mini fridge and that they wanted us to spend a fairly large amount of money at the time to replace the mini fridge with a new optical jukebox mini fridge. And our unwillingness to commit to continued access to Project Open Book material led us to saying no to spending the money on a mini fridge and we decided we would keep this mini fridge storage system going by looking for parts, like you would keep a—you know ’57 Chevy going, you know, if you want to replace the shifter.
But it all came down about a year out—a rubber band mechanism that drove the mechanical arm that picked up the—discs and shoved them into the disc drive, that rubber band broke and we couldn’t get—a replacement part. And we tried and we tried and we tried to buy a used—parts— there was no Ebay, so we couldn’t go online and find it. We were unable to find a used part for the rubber band, so we made the administrative decision that Project Open Book was a prototype. Prototypes are designed to die.
We had a little ceremony and declared Project Open Book over. We removed the organs—the discs, stacked them up on top, put a sign on top, and that was it. I took the rubber band out and wrapped it around the discs and said, this is Project Open Book. Took a picture. That’s the end of it. So it all—it all really came down to a rubber band and the inability—you know, there was no J.C. Whitney for used—optical disc drive systems. And I bet that there are scrap heaps full of 80s-era optical systems sitting around that have the same legacy data that’s driven largely by the mechanical failure. Not lack of standards. Not lack of—read-write standards, but just lack of rubber bands to keep the systems going.
And I don’t know that that—I don’t know if the world is that much different. I don’t—I just don’t know enough about the—right now we’re in a mode where—if a disc drives you—you have it backed up and then you swap out the old and put in the new and you keep going. But those options were more cost—more costly and we were more deeply tied to the resale market for—that Xerox was running and we just couldn’t do it.
[Top] [Back to Interview Breakdown]