Arvid Nelsen – Full-Length Interview

By Michael Martinez and Lori Cameron
Published 05/10/2017
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Arvid NelsenEditor’s note: This is the full-length transcript of an interview with Arvid Nelsen, a rare books and manuscripts librarian at Southern Methodist University, who examined tech’s racial history in his research entitled “Race and Computing: The Problem of Sources, the Potential of Prosopography, and the Lesson of Ebony Magazine.”

Also see our award-winning story and profile about Nelsen and his work.


Computer Society: What do you mean about the “whiteness” of historical records?


Nelsen: When I wrote about the “whiteness” of historical records, in large part, I was responding to the work of Carolyn de la Peña and her 2010 article in Technology and Culture, “The History of Technology, the Resistance of Archives, and the Whiteness of Race.” She describes the difficulty historians have in locating people of color in archival collections that document technology. For me, her work emphasizes, in part, the role played by archives in shaping history. The materials that archivists decide to collect, preserve, and make accessible for research play a very large role in shaping what can be known and documented about the past. Historians searching for evidence of persons of color in archival collections devoted to technology often find little or no explicit documentation. It must be remembered, however, that this does not mean that persons of color did not exist or contribute to technological developments, simply that the institutions that collected materials either consciously or unconsciously preserved only or substantially the records of white people, most often white men.


In the absence of records devoted to persons of color, Dr. de la Peña rightly calls on scholars to examine the role of whiteness in shaping technology, because it tends to be normalized and therefore unexamined. I push a bit further and ask historians and other scholars—as well as library and archives professionals—to examine proactively the role of whiteness in shaping the historical record about technology. In October 2014, I gave a presentation titled “No Singular Expression: Unseen Diversity in the History of Computing” as part of a series at the University of Minnesota called “Power in the Archives.” In that presentation I didn’t explicitly refer to the “whiteness of historical records”—in fact, the presentation looked at underrepresentation in respect to both race and sexual identity—but I did describe a three-tiered system of underrepresentation, in 1) computing itself, 2) the history of computing, and 3) archival collections devoted to computing. As I read the work of historians like Dr. de la Peña as well as scholars in cultural studies disciplines, I became more concerned about how underrepresentation in archives contributes to misimpressions about the historical accomplishments of persons of color. This can have a profound impact on young people making decisions about their future. History shapes contemporary perceptions about technological aptitude and interest among people of color, which contributes to a culture in which educational and career opportunities remain inequitable.


Computer Society: You’re a white researcher/librarian who works in Minnesota. What got you interested in minorities in tech?


Nelsen: Because I am an archivist and librarian, my work was rooted in my desire for CBI to have rich and varied published and archival source materials that would enable students and scholars to explore the vastness and complexity of the history of computing, as much as possible. Thus, in 2008, I started a new collecting initiative that I called Social Issues in Computing, which attempted to balance what I felt was a very one-sided view of computing found in archival collections from individuals and organizations involved with the computer industry and related arenas. I actively looked for published materials that expressed a wide variety of viewpoints, including those of individuals and communities of color, as well as materials looking at religion and spirituality, gender and sexuality, and political views ranging from the far right to the far left. Given how pervasive and important computing has become in virtually every aspect of life, it seemed to me that the history of the technology really needed to be seen within its broader social context. I also think that the history of computing is simply more interesting when we see how big and complex it actually is.

“I was surprised to discover a significant movement among computer professionals who worked specifically with low-income, inner-city communities of color in the late 60s and early 70s. None of the historians I spoke with seemed to be aware of these programs.”

As we built up what has started to become a sizable collection, I began promoting it more aggressively to CBI’s national and international community of researchers, as well as to faculty and students at the University of Minnesota. For the last few years I was at CBI, I received more requests to give class presentations on the Social Issues collection than any other. The Department of Archives and Special Collections has a robust public lecture program and I used opportunities there to speak about the collection. As I did more research myself, I felt that I could better reach broader audiences if I were to write more. I actually began researching a book in which I intended to have six chapters focusing on different communities found represented within the Social Issues in Computing Collection, including the African American community.  I had found some exciting books written by and for African Americans. Faculty members in the history of science with whom I spoke expressed both great interest in these materials as well as great surprise. I learned that several historians had written about the desire and need to look more closely at the role of African Americans and other persons of color in computing, but little had actually been written. I was aware of the success the field had seen in respect to examinations of women and gender and had mounted my first large exhibition at the U of M on this topic in spring 2008.


A teaching assistant in one of the classes for whom I gave a presentation offered to introduce me via email to someone working in Oakland at the group #YesWeCode. Through that contact, I was connected to several other leaders of contemporary initiatives to provide out-of-school computer education programs for people of color. I had previously stumbled on one article on what seemed like a similar program from the early 1970s, and the first book authored by an African American, which I acquired for the Social Issues collection, seemed to be similarly focused. I was curious about the history of these initiatives and simultaneously began to look for print sources documenting early programs while interviewing leaders of recent and current programs.


In respect to early programs, I was surprised to discover a significant movement among computer professionals who worked specifically with low-income, inner-city communities of color in the late 60s and early 70s. None of the historians I spoke with seemed to be aware of these programs. Evidence of these initiatives was difficult to find, mostly because few feature articles addressed them. Instead, they were most often reported in back-page “News and Notes” sections of professional journals. Some of these articles stated that outreach efforts to communities included ads in African American newspapers. Hoping to find any additional evidence of the programs, I began to search online databases of African American newspapers and journals. I did not find any of these ads, but I did get results referring to Ebony magazine and to their brief biographies of women and men in often high-level professional positions. The number that I found seemed to stand out starkly against the received wisdom that we didn’t know anything about people of color in computing. I printed off a huge stack of these profiles, walked in to the office of my CBI colleague Tom Misa, dropped them on his desk and said, “Look what I found!” That’s when he suggested I write the article. I drew a lot on the research I had conducted on educational programs and reading the work of scholars in cultural studies.


Ultimately, I was extremely interested and excited to learn not just more about the people involved and the fact that there was source material available, albeit not always in the places one would expect to look. As I said before, I think the history of computing only becomes more interesting as we learn about different people and communities involved. The work of cultural studies scholars revealed to me that there is a very significant, negative impact on the real lives of young people of color and frankly the industry and educators and all of us when we don’t see these people properly presented in history. I believe and hope that when the truth about the role and contributions of persons of color in computing becomes more broadly known, it will have a positive impact on the attitudes of the industry and the potential and opportunities young people of color will see for themselves. I additionally hope that it will make the history of computing appear more attractive to people of color. The history community also appears to be very white and I think history will benefit if we can get people with broader backgrounds interested and involved. However, I should also say that while the people and stories I write about in the article represent African American history, they still most definitely represent the history of computing and I would hope that anyone genuinely interested in the history of computing would want to see the full and complex truth of the people who contributed to it. It shouldn’t be unusual to be interested in the accomplishments of people who don’t share our own personal race, ethnicity, sex, gender identity, place of origin, or any other identity we may hold.

” I wasn’t expecting to find any, let alone so many…. I think that I was like most people who have perhaps unconsciously accepted the prevailing narrative that computing was mostly white and male. And while I was certain that there must have been people of color in the early days of computing, what I’d heard from historians I encountered in my work and through my own experience with institutional archival collections was that they simply weren’t documented.”

Computer Society: You found that Ebony magazine published only 57 profiles of African Americans in electronics and computing for nearly the second half of the 20th Century. How did you react to that discovery?


Nelsen: The truth is, I wasn’t expecting to find any, let alone so many. Again, I was actually looking for advertisements about programs geared toward entry-level training for underserved communities. I wasn’t looking for information about accomplished professionals with advanced degrees. I think that I was like most people who have perhaps unconsciously accepted the prevailing narrative that computing was mostly white and male. And while I was certain that there must have been people of color in the early days of computing, what I’d heard from historians I encountered in my work and through my own experience with institutional archival collections was that they simply weren’t documented. I’m not a historian of computing myself, so I accepted the perceptions of the experts.


That leads to my second reaction, which was astonishment that materials were out there, though not perhaps where one expected to find them. I’d had a similar experience in respect to the source material for my book chapter on the education programs of the 60s and 70s. There was a very definite history of the computer profession engaging specific communities of color, but it was documented in the end matter of professional journals rather than feature articles and they used terms like “underprivileged” and “disadvantaged” in titles, so they were coded in a way that emphasized educational and economic inequity and obscured racial and ethnic identity. Actually, these same articles also obscure the role of professionals of color in developing and providing these educational programs. So, I was very excited to find actual evidence that could be used in historical research, and in respect to Ebony that we had the names, photographs, and position titles and descriptions. Here was concrete evidence of real people.


I was also perplexed that so many people could be readily identified in published materials and yet go undiscovered or unnoticed by scholars. So much had been written about the need to address race in computing and the difficulties in locating materials and here it was, just where apparently no one had looked. It seemed that publications by the profession had been privileged while publications by people of color had been ignored, which struck me as a gross oversight and emblematic of the normalization of whiteness which I addressed above. I realized over time that other dichotomies were involved, including the difference between professional and popular journals, and the fact that the data found in Ebony’s profiles were much briefer than perhaps that found in archival collections. This briefness of data, enhanced by sheer numbers of individuals, is what led to the investigation into different historical methodologies.


I do have to say that coupled with excitement over this “discovery” is an uncomfortable feeling. The “discovery” of these materials feels akin to the “discovery of the new world,”  and I wonder if these sources would have been known, valued, and utilized sooner if more people of color were active in the history of computing. As I stated above, I think that an excitement about the history of computing or any discrete field should embrace excitement over all of that field’s participants and that it shouldn’t be surprising for someone to be engaged with the work of people from different backgrounds and communities. Yet I do think that the history of computing as a field would benefit from the expanded knowledge, experience, and values a more diverse population of historians could provide.


Computer Society: What can be done to improve the representation of minorities in archival and popular sources?


Nelsen: As above, I think that archives can look at their collection development policies and see if they have been constructed in such a way that—consciously or unconsciously—limits the identities of the people collected and represented. Also, collections don’t have to be limited by format. I concede that popular magazines may be out of scope for well-defined special collections departments, and maybe they won’t want or be able to take in complete runs. There may be ways to define subsections—specific issues or offprints, for example—that can be included. They should at least be aware of the potential for material relevant to their researchers to be found in such publications and be able to point students and scholars to print or electronic holdings in the general collections of their libraries. Format restrictions may also need to be examined. The Social Issues in Computing Collection was possible because I decided to start acquiring print resources. Prior to my tenure as Archivist, CBI had focused narrowly on archival collections. By being able to bring in a single book, journal issue, or pamphlet rather than courting complete collections from specific individuals or groups, I was able to expand the number and diversity of perspectives much more easily. For me it was more important to focus on content rather than format.

“I was recently asked if I thought the movie Hidden Figures really demonstrated that computing was more diverse than has been represented or if the protagonists were the exception rather than the rule. Let me say that I think there are many more stories to be told and we need more people to tell them.”

I also think that as libraries rely increasingly on electronic journals they should be cautious before deaccessioning print holdings. Many electronic versions of old print journals include only feature articles, decontextualized from the source print. Most of the information I found for the book chapter on programs in the 60s and 70s came from end matter that I don’t believe has been reformatted into electronic versions. I suspect that the publications of other professions from this period may have treated stories about communities of color in similar fashion. If so, I fear that getting rid of print journals will erase this history, unless it is confirmed that electronic replacements are complete representations of the original print issues.


Computer Society: What do you want the average reader to take away from your research?


Nelsen: I hope that different people take away different things.


I hope that libraries and archives devoted to the history of computing and related fields will become interested in examining their own collecting strategies and will prioritize identifying collections of persons of color and/or business started, run by, and/or serving persons of color for acquisition, preservation and promotion.


I hope that researchers will be inspired to complement their conventional archives searches and look more directly at the communities they have long hoped to write about. It does require something of a shift to place computing within the context of communities of color instead of placing people of color within the context of computing, but I don’t think it’s a huge shift for historians genuinely interested in examining race and computing, given the relationships between computing and history and sources.


I hope the general reader will see that we have only begun to scratch the surface in showing the contributions of persons of color to computing. I was recently asked if I thought the movie Hidden Figures really demonstrated that computing was more diverse than has been represented or if the protagonists were the exception rather than the rule. Let me say that I think there are many more stories to be told and we need more people to tell them—just as in computing itself, there are opportunities in the history of computing. Whatever your field of interest, yes, collections specifically devoted to a particular subject need to be consulted, but the search should also look at collections devoted to other subjects. Archives by nature are themselves complex and sprawling. I used to tell students, “Don’t judge an archive by its cover” (to mix metaphors). Search creatively and broadly.


Michael Martinez


About Michael Martinez

Michael Martinez, the editor of the Computer Society’s Computer.Org website and its social media, has covered technology as well as global events while on the staff at CNN, Tribune Co. (based at the Los Angeles Times), and the Washington Post. He welcomes email feedback, and you can also follow him on LinkedIn.