Remembering Lynn H.Nelson, Pioneer Digital Historian
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|Lynn H.Nelson in 1936|
Sunday the 2nd of September 2012, Lynn H. Nelson, an American Digital History Pioneer passed away. His sun, Lynn Albert Nelson, informed me of this very sad news. From some years now, 2008-2009, we were unable to continue our correspondence. Lynn was becoming blind starting 2003, he lost most of his vision to Macular Degeneration and had to use enormous font sizes on screens for reading what was written in the many emails we exchanged for years between Florence in Italy and Lawrence near Kansas City in the USA. Lynn was a virtual friend and I felt deeply concerned that I should have written something to remember him telling about his role in the development of the history web.
I am not considering the few paragraphs below as definitive -we are on the internet in its 2.0 version and able to modify it and do better- and I would kindly ask who reads and who knew and met Lynn, to add his/her own comments or to tell more about Lynn H.Nelson. Also important would be to tell me about possible errors both in my written use of the English language and looking at the content of the text itself. But let me begin with Lynn’s own fascinating words evocating the birth of the WWW in 1993 he contributed to with the creation of one of the first history web site and looking at the virtual “new frontier”.
Lost in Kansas with revolutionary technologies
“...It was only two months until a new day dawned and colleges and universities throughout the country were scrambling to put up World-Wide Web sites, and HNSource and CARRIE lost their uniqueness and were overshadowed by the well-funded and professionally-staffed projects that began appearing. But there was time enough for me to see the sort of effect that computer telecommunications would have.
It was in August of 1993 that a friend came back from a business trip/vacation spent traveling in western Kansas, far off the main roads. After he had returned, we were having a cup of coffee downtown so that he could tell me of his adventures. One of these adventures was particularly striking. He had come to a wide spot in the road, you know the sort of place – a gas station with tractor tires and propane tanks stacked alongside it, a couple of farm houses some distance away from the road, an abandoned and decaying old schoolhouse, and the inevitable cafe. Since it was close to lunch time, he stopped and entered the cafe. It was pretty much like a hundred of other such establishments – a counter along one wall, booths along the other, and a few tables in the middle. There was a blackboard with the day’s specials, a sign that said “In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash,” a stack of glasses half-filled with tea waiting to be filled with ice and set before the lunch crowd, the usual friendly and smiling waitress, and the equally usual cook scowling out through the serving window in the side wall.
The unusual thing about this cafe, however, was that there was a piece of cardboard tacked on the hatrack by the rear booth, and someone had printed on it with a black felt pen the words PUBLIC LIBRARY. My friend was curious about what he considered must be a considerable overstatement, and went back to see the Public Library. As he neared the booth, he heard a strange clacking sound coming from it. The booth contained an old computer and an even older dot matrix printer that was chattering away to itself a line at a time. It had already printed out most of a roll of paper, which had curled under the table and come to rest on a mare’s nest of tangled paper sedges. He looked at the screen and saw the opening words “Call me Ishmael . . . ,” and, on a piece of paper pasted to the computer, he read “CARRIE: A FULL-TEXT ON-LINE LIBRARY,” followed by some words that he didn’t understand and couldn’t remember. I recall saying, more to myself than to him, “telnet http.cc.ukans.edu login=carrie pw=press [enter].”
Of course, all of that was a long time ago, as time goes on the net. CARRIE is still there, but has a new address. The lady herself is put a bit in the shade by the face she shows to web surfers who pause a moment at http://vlib.iue.it/carrie/. She has a new manager and boasts a number of web projects and several awards. I still remember the early days, though, and I feel myself fortunate to have been there when the world was just beginning to change.
For a short Biography
Lynn was born the 21st September 1931 in Harvey, Illinois, USA. He entered the University of Chicago in 1948, receiving the AB degree in 1950. He served in the United States Army 1952-1954 and spent the years 1954-1956 mastering the professions of land surveyor and general engineer. He returned to graduate work at the University of Texas, Austin, receiving another Bachelor’s degree in 1958 and, in 1963, completed his dissertation, The Normans in South Wales, 1070-1171, published in 1966 by the University of Texas Press, he joined the staff of the History Department of the University of Kansas where he was awarded the rank of Full Professor in 1972. He turned his academic attention to the history of Medieval Aragon, and has published several books and articles in that field as well as in Late Antiquity. He retired with impaired health in 1998 but continued to work on-line and to pursue historical research. In 1998 he wrote a syllabus for teaching world history which is still available online. He married Carolyn Ann Seymour, a doctorate in Roman History, in 1962, and Lynn Albert Nelson, their son and only child, was awarded a doctorate by William and Mary University in the field of United States Colonial Agricultural and Environmental History. Lynn always claimed that his life was managed by Sam, an assertive black dog who has been his constant companion until recently. Lynn’s attention was drawn to Internet communications in 1989, and he devoted much of his energies since that time to encouraging the development of on-line history resources.
“I more or less stumbled into computer telecommunications in 1989 –he wrote telling us about his curiosity for the new digital humanities discipline– rather late in life, but, led by Thomas Zielke, of the University of Oldenburg and list owner of HISTORY@FINNHUTC, and encouraged by Herb Harris, Director of Networking at the Academic Computing Center of the University of Kansas, I soon found myself spending all of my “spare” time attempting to aid in the development of online History facilities“.
The World Wide Web Virtual Library History Central Catalogue
I met Lynn for the first time virtually when I started to collaborate in 1998 to the WWW VL History Central catalogue, adding my Italian History Chapter to it. I remember only few direct phone-calls in Lawrence in Kansas in 2004-2005 during the move of the History Central Catalogue to my University, the European University Institute in Florence, Italy in April 2004 and during the international crisis that suffered the WWW VL project before its destruction in 2005. My mission after the move of the History Central catalogue to the EUI, was –together with Inaki Lopez Martin which contributed a lot to add original contents to the project and with George Laughead from Kansas– to secure the excellent Lynn Nelson old network of sites in a safe and distinguished not for profit environment and to maintain the project as best as we could.
|History Catalogue’s Logo|
But this mission was in danger in 2005 because of a threat the whole VL suffered. Lynn contacted maintainers and members of the elected WWW VL Council, the old decentralized Virtual LIbrary project to defend the History Catalogue. I was able to build a “dossier” with copies of many emails, explaining the reasons why the WWW-VL History Central Catalogue separated from a faken web site which copied the History project home page and sub-libraries together with its name, “History Central Catalogue“. This sad adventure happened because of an obscure individual ambition to centralize and control what had always been, starting 1991, a series of disciplinary separated entries to the web coordinated by an elected Council. In December 2005, Tim Berners-Lee himself felt the need to support Lynn and argued about the originality and authenticity of the History Central catalogue: “The Virtual Library is a valuable thing for the global community, and it does represent the integration of a lot of effort from many people“. And in another letter Berners-Lee said: “I would like to thank, on behalf of all the people who have benefited from it, Lynn Nelson for his great effort to build and maintain the WWW Virtual Library for History.” During these events, Lynn wrote the following email for me to use with the management of the European University Institute.
Quoting the letter fully below is important because it is about Lynn’s own description of how the WWW VL History project was created:
I maintained WWW-VL history by myself, without funding, as a mega page of about 250 Kb for the next five years. I was joined from time to time by people who wished to set up pages supplementary to WWW-VL History and, with the approval of Arthur Secret, provided them with a link to the WWW-VL logo as well as one to the logo I has established for WWW-VL History sites subsidiary to my own. Serge Noiret was one of my earliest co-workers in this project.
In 1998 I became aware that the potential of WWW-VL History could not be realized using the structure that had evolved over the years, and so converted WWW-VL History from a mega-page of links to a catalogue pointing to the member WWW-VL History Index sites. At the same time, I realized that I neither could nor should be the sole developer of what was becoming the WWW-VL History Network. I encouraged Serge Noiret to take charge of developing the European section of our network while I concentrated on other regions. Serge and Inaki Lopez-Martin developed that section into the strongest part of the History Network.
In 2003, I lost most of my vision to Macular Degeneration and was no longer able to perform the functions necessary to maintaining the Network. It was clear that someone would have to take over the task of maintaining what had become the WWW-VL History Central Catalogue. The choice was obvious, and upon Serge Noiret’s acceptance, I transferred to his care the WWW-VL logo that Tim Berner-Lee had given me, the mission with which I had been entrusted, the History logo that I had created, list ownership of HISTOPS-L, the discussion list established for the use of History site maintainers, and the coordination of Network activities that I had previously performed. He, along with Inaki Martin-Lopez are now managers and owners of the WWW-VL History Network’s Central Catalogue, which was mine to give, subject only to the requirements of the mission with which I was entrusted by Tim Berners-Lee.
University of Kansas
1631 Alabama Street
Lawrence KS 66044-4033 USA
Sharing worldwide -and openly- digital scholarship
A part from the years 2004-2005 when moving the project to the EUI and 2005 with the crashdown of the whole VL galaxy, my personal relationship with Lynn in Lawrence, was exclusively build on virtual contacts, sometimes long personal letters, something that only modern Internet technologies during the last quarter of century have allowed to happen. In 1998, the web was very young and it was still possible to imagine that a history network could have been monitored by a team of volunteers that Lynn coordinated. The Wikipedia concept -appeared for the first time in 2001- was already the raison d’être of Lynn’s own Virtual Library project. “Maintainers” around the world were sharing openly with a worldwide community of users their knowledge of what was available in national, regional, local history web sites. They used the index Lynn had developped and the organized hyperlinked structure of Berners-Lee’s World Wide Web Virtual Library built in 1991. The Virtual Library recognizable everywhere thanks to its very personalized logo, is not belonging to any specific place but is ubiquitous and accessible from everywhere with a computer and an internet connection.
|Lynn H.Nelson, 1976|
The Center for History and New Media at George Mason University has kept online Lynn’s original online text as it was first published in Italy together with other materials and essays accompanying the online version of the outstanding book dealing with the origin of “digital history” as a discipline written by Daniel Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig: Digital History: A Guide to Gathering, Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005).
Lynn’s essay was telling about the accomplishments of a group of pioneers digital historians from their gathering on HISTORY@FINHUTC, the first Internet discussion list for historians -see Perspectives Newsletter of the American Historical Association, February 1991– to the development of a world-wide network of History-oriented information servers in 1993. This adventure started before the release of the Mosaic browser in August of 1993. “Historians, wrote Lynn in his abstract, had already been working on the Internet for several years to create facilities and assemble materials for the use of other historians generally. Although people were fascinated by the wealth of materials available when the World Wide Web was opened, few asked who had prepared these materials and so the work of these men and women is in danger of being forgotten.” In an addendum to this essay, he said also about himself and recounted some of his own experiences during this period of growth of the Internet and especially the BITNET project he coordinated at the University of Kansas. (Email di Lynn H. Nelson, [firstname.lastname@example.org], 29 of October 1998 to Serge Noiret).
Kansas Heritage Group Symbol
But at the same time Michael Hart’s Project Gutenberg was collecting all kind of digitised version of texts with the idea that “Electronic Texts (Etexts) … were to be made available in the simplest, easiest to use forms available” but were not easily distributed in that format yet, Lynn was convinced that scholarship should have been freely accessible through the Internet for everybody to read through all different hardware and software systems thanks to the Lynx browser: less developed areas of the world would have benefitted of this virtual knowledge. So Lynn created one of the first Open Access Digital Library worldwide asking in Kansas and elsewhere through his own transnational network of convinced “geeks”, for Ph.D. thesis, books, essays, syllabi that could have been entered bites by bites using a FTP connection into the Virtual Library of E-books he called CARRIE:“I was sitting at my computer one evening several years ago, waiting for the printer to finish plodding through the last few pages when a message from the printer appeared on the screen, telling me that it was out of paper. Or maybe the message was from my fancy new WordPerfect 4.2, telling me that the printer had told my computer to have it tell me that the printer said that it was out of paper. I don’t really know. I never have understood these things very well. Anyway, as I was getting the paper and preparing to put it in the printer, I suddenly understood what had just happened and had to sit down to think about it. […] HISTORY@FINNHUTC was trying to find new places to store the data that it was accumulating. One of the members of the list, Don Mabry at Mississippi State University, had set up RA, a “public FTP” site, from which anyone who knew the net address could fetch copies of any of the files stored there. It was the only such site devoted to the storage of materials for historians. For some reason or another, I was seized by a passionate desire to construct a second site for historical materials, went to the Academic Computer Center here at the University of Kansas, and impetuously asked for the facilities to do so as well as someone to teach me how such a thing was done. It may have been because I was a fat, old, bespectacled, and grey-bearded medieval historian. The technicians could always point to me whenever someone told them that he or she was too old to be learning something like computer telecommunications. Or it might have been that I was the first faculty member to ask to learn how to build something on-line. Whatever the reason, the technical staff took me under their wing, and we soon had KU’s first public FTP site, MALIN, named after perhaps the finest historian ever to serve at the University of Kansas. […] In a talk he was giving at London University on 3 March 1993, Don Mabry clicked on the monitor of the computer at the front of the room to reveal HNSource, with automatic links to every source of historical materials I could find on the net. After demonstrating that HNSource could fetch any of the files in the sites to which it could connect, and could display them on the screen instantly and without downloading, his audience carried him away to a gala lunch at Simpson’s on the Strand. Not long afterwards, I fell to thinking about the Gutenberg Project. The Gutenberg folks were planning on distributing the ten thousand books they hoped to have by the year 2000 on a set of CD- ROM’s. With the Lynx text browser, that was clearly unnecessary, and I began to build another information server designed to point to electronic texts, to fetch them with the pressing of a key, and to display them on-screen without further ado. By early June , the site was ready with pointers to more than two thousand texts, and had been given the name of CARRIE, in honor of Carrie Watson, the first professional librarian at the University of Kansas and the true founder of its library system and collections.“
Constructing such a library, maintaining a network of history volunteers, keeping constantly in touch with them, was Lynn’s intact juvenile task performed with unaltered enthusiasm until he was able to read his computer. The many persons that have had the chance to meet him personally -or online like me-, will never forget how fun it was also to interact with him, hear his marvelous stories and feel always his subtle irony. Virtual and closer friends and collaborators will all miss him.