The Man Who Pushed Art Museums to Embrace Computers

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The story of the early efforts to use an IBM 360 to catalog the holdings of a handful of art museums

ibm360-body.jpgIt's a shift so widespread and seemingly inevitable it's hard to imagine that individual people had to argue for it: the adoption of computers as tools for cataloging a museum or library's holdings. But of course there were people behind that shift, and one of them, Everett Ellin, recently passed away, The New York Times reports.

Ellin was the first executive director of the Museum Computer Network (MCN) from 1967 to 1970. Before he began his efforts, museums kept their catalog records on index cards, and curious researchers and students had to travel from museum to museum, paging through the countless cards. In a 2004 interview with Liza Kirwin of the Smithsonian Institution, Ellin recalled the early days of MCN and the computer they used:


I got IBM to give us access to one of the first delivered mainframes, the 360. And they also gave me free computer time and programmer time so we could develop the software, and we were able to figure out criteria for fields and things so you could do some research, and this material actually useful for scholarship. By the end of three years, we had files that were useful and being used. And there was proof of concept.

Museums are still today working on improving their digital records, and the technology for scanning art and making it searchable continues to get better. But it was Ellin who gave them their initial push.

Image: Save vs Death/Flickr.


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Rebecca J. Rosen is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the Business Channel. She was previously an associate editor at The Wilson Quarterly.

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