Stanford creates ‘living archive’ of papers, real-time conversations

Stanford’s archives might not be the first place one looks on the Farm for innovation and new technologies. However, Stanford Libraries’ recent partnership with renowned environmental architect William McDonough may change that with the creation of a “living archive,” the first of its kind.

The archive will hold not only all of McDonough’s papers but also– reflecting an era of increasing digitalization and technological innovation– recordings of all his meetings and phone calls, sent to the University in near-real time.

“It started when I first met Bill McDonough in relationship to working on a museum exhibition project with the Buckminster Fuller archive,” said Roberto Trujillo, head of the libraries’ Special Collections.

McDonough said that Fuller, who influenced McDonough’s work, and Fuller’s archive, which is also housed by Special Collections, inspired his participation in the project. He began his role as a living archive a few years after his initial meeting with Trujillo.

“I just can’t imagine a better place to do it,” McDonough said. “[Stanford] is so perfect.”

McDonough’s own personal physical archive– a collection of sketches, writings, and other various paper material– is estimated to be over 2,000 linear feet. It will take approximately three years to process all of the current material.

Rather than posing a challenge of time, however, compiling a digital archive has posed tests of technological innovation. Throughout the project’s preliminary stages, University archivists have worked to establish a archiving method for digital documentation in an effort led by Michael Olson, digital collections project manager.

“At this point what we’re doing is the scoping exercise for what it would take to do the software development,” Olson said.

Olson framed his role as determining the personnel and software needs posed by the project, as well as devising means of working with both the physical and digital archives.

“There’s all these new formats of media coming along,” Olson said. “What we’re trying to do is to hopefully be able to build in some emulations so you’ll be able to look at some of the older stuff and some of the newer stuff to create a more seamless environment.”

Olson said that he ultimately envisioned software that could be leveraged for other archives and made open source.

“This isn’t going to be a stand alone thing,” Olson said. “McDonough has hopes that other people can use this sort of infrastructure and that it will create new ways of collaborating in the architectural world and in environmental design.”

“We had worked a few years ago on an online delivery tool for born-digital material and money had run out,” said Glynn Edwards, head of technical service for Special Collections. ”But this is going to give us the opportunity to do interviews with… other people who are part of this archive and figure out what everybody’s needs and desires are when working with these materials online.”

Trujillo expressed hope that a variety of students would benefit from the archive’s content.

“His work… I felt was broad enough to have an interest to a student at Stanford working on an undergraduate paper, or a doctoral student working in School of Engineering or the design school or the art department or public policy [program],” Trujillo said.

“I’m hoping they can get their own archive out of it,” McDonough said, describing the archive as a gift that will keep on giving.

During a public talk on Wednesday, McDonough stressed the importance of leaving a legacy behind.

“If you give someone the notion that what they’re doing matters and they can record it and that somebody might care about it like their great-great-grandchildren, they’ll find out ‘Who was grandma?’” McDonough said.

Trujillo emphasized the potential for the archive’s expansion and the emphasis on sharing and collaboration with other institutions.

“We’re starting with Bill and we’re going to see how this goes,” Trujillo said. “I think in the archiving community, this is the next step.”

“We can’t do it all so somebody else should do it too,” he added. “Others will do others and between all of us there’s that much more access to this kind of content. It’s a public good in a bunch of ways.”

About Brittany Torrez