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Being Digital–Before You Were Born

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I am introducing a new occasional feature for my posts on this blog — a series called “Before You Were Born.”

Albert Hoxie in his home slide library
Albert Hoxie in his home slide library, 1990. Photo by Richard Payatt.

When I was an undergraduate and a graduate student at UCLA in the 1980s, one of my faculty mentors had been teaching there since 1950.  His name was Albert Hoxie†, an historian who lavishly illustrated his lectures with slides of relevant art and architecture — and he had taken all the slides himself.

He had vision issues at that point and needed someone to drive him around to photograph, which a group of us happily did for many years.  When I traveled with him and we visited some amazing location, I would ask him when he had last visited, to which the answer often was: “before you were born.”

That’s how I sometimes now feel about my own history in digital cultural heritage.

I got my first job in 1986 at a museum where I was entering and normalizing records from print into a collection management system, as well as taking digital images of museum objects to add to records.  Yes, that’s a digitization project from 26 years ago.  The MARC standard format for cataloging in libraries goes back further to 1967 — 45 years ago.  The first networked museum project that I know of also dates from 1967.   Remember publishing collections on CD-ROMs?   SGML became a standard in 1986, with its roots at IBM in the 1960s.  The Web is already twenty-one.  Encoded Archival Description  is approaching its twentieth birthday.  XML appeared fifteen years ago.  There were projects of that more recent vintage — the 1990s and 2000s — that provide important lessons in what has succeeded (or failed).  An excellent example of what I want to cover is Martha Anderson’s post on the Archive Ingest and Handling Test from 2001-2003.

I plan to write posts about projects that deserve to see the light of day again, so we do not forget what has gone before and learn from it.

What can I say?  I love computing history and the history of our community.  I am still an archaeologist at heart. And I want to honor my first and perhaps best mentor’s love of his work and longevity.


†Albert passed away on January 3, 1999, at the age of 86.  The Hoxie slide collection is partly available online at, for anyone who is interested.  Only 100,000 of his slides are online so far.

Comments (3)

  1. Leslie, I think this is a terrific idea. Whenever I have occasion to delve into documentation of the “recent” past I usually find something of interest -a good idea that was ahead of its time or that deserves to be revisited, or a bad idea that now takes on a nostalgic cast. It always gives me an appreciation of the hard thinking that has gone into standards and practices that we take for granted. I look forward to your posts!

  2. Thanks, Heather! I keep getting more and more ideas for topics to write on. All suggestions are welcome!

  3. Albert always loved this photo. It really captures him in his study, doing what he loved best: his work.

    Don’t forget to credit the photographer. I think you know who that was.

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