Beautiful, Interesting and Good: Information Storage for a New Age

I have just received some information from the Museum of the City of New York. I had been searching for some information on Truman Capote in 1966 and, after being unsuccessful in my original web search, located a reference to it in one of the blogs of the researchers of the Museum of the City of New York. I sent a query about the possible availability of what I was looking for, received more information on who to contact and, just after midnight on the 24th of March, I received not only what I was after but also the accompanying information that was the obvious companion piece. Of course, not knowing until I received one that I needed the other, this saved me time but, as well, left me slightly awestruck that I am roughly 24 hours away from almost the entire visual, social and literary history of New York. I have, at the other end of my e-mail, someone who will not only give me answers but fill in the holes in my knowledge to give me the answers to questions that I should have asked!

This is, quite frankly, amazing. The sheer amount of work, technology, indexing, curation, information management and money that has gone into making this happen is slightly terrifying – yet, here we are.

Ten years ago, I might have been able to find out the name of the librarian, who probably would have had e-mail but perhaps not the knowledge or the ability to send me an upload link to a temporary file holding server. I probably would have had to use a fax to request information, to provide follow-up to e-mail and assert which organisation was my umbrella, and then negotiate access to file transfer services to get the files across. I don’t think that I would have been able to read a blog, follow-up with a post, get the right e-mail by automated reply and then, in less than 18 hours, be downloading from a cloud-based share site!

Twenty years ago, it may have been a personal visit or a fax – and, even then, we may have had to be part of an ongoing formal or financial arrangement for me to waste the time of remote staff searching the stacks for a particular card in a given box. (Roughly 11 years ago, I couldn’t even look inside the NY Public Library without a library card and had to content myself with looking at lions.)

Thirty years ago, this would have been just too hard.

(Yes, the decade boundaries are a little fuzzy and I am aware that Library Science and Information Science have been doing a lot that most people are unaware of, yet perception is important here and not knowing whether something is available, or not knowing how to get to it, are almost as bad as it not being there or available in the first place.)

The fact that this is now available every day doesn’t make it any less amazing – it just means that every day we stay in this technologically advanced place, where beautiful, interesting and good things are stored, index, curated and watched over by a combination of people and… of course, machines of loving grace… is amazing.

When I talk to my students about what it is we do as Computer Scientists, I talk about handling scale, solving problems, developing algorithms and doing amazing things. My students have grown up with things like this and, if I don’t point out some of the amazing things that today just happen, then they miss out on some of the rich heritage of computing – the world before the Internet, the frontier of the early Internet, before the Web, before the Commercial Web, before mobile computing, before you could wonder something in Australia and have an answer from America with no special training or knowledge beyond how to type and send an e-mail.

I don’t focus on good old days – I have to talk and live in the amazing now, training students for the unimaginable future. Today, I have another example of something that is amazing now, and I look forward to an opportunity to teach about it, sometime soon.

One Comment on “Beautiful, Interesting and Good: Information Storage for a New Age”

  1. Alex H says:

    Indeed, we didn’t get the 21st century we were promised, but we got a different 21st century, amazing in some unexpected ways.


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