The Archives' Videohistory Program aims to document the work and lives of Smithsonian staff through planned recorded interviews, which preserve their voices, memories, and perspectives. We have a dedicated trio of former Smithsonian information technology staff who have taken on the task of documenting the history of computing at the Institution. In their efforts, Carla Roeper, John Churchman, and David Bridge, have been conducting interviews of former Smithsonian IT staff.
One of their recent interviewees was Ching-hsien Wang. Wang was selected to be interviewed because of her critical work in the computerization of the Smithsonian's library and archival processes, as well as for her work in making the Smithsonian's collections more readily available online through the Smithsonian's Collections Search Center and Smithsonian Online Virtual Archives. Wang was at the Smithsonian from 1988 until her retirement in January 2020.
Originally from China, Wang came to the United States to attend college and ended up getting her degree in computer science from the University of Maryland in 1982. Upon graduating, she went to work for a Canadian company, GEAC Library Information System, which, among other things, created library automation systems. Through her work for GEAC, Wang got to know the Smithsonian and its staff well, since the Institution was a GEAC customer. It was through this connection that Smithsonian recruited Wang in 1988. Before retiring, she recounted the history of computerizing the Smithsonian's libraries and archives in an incredible three-part series of posts on the Smithsonian Collections Blog.
Carla Roeper and John Churchman conducted videohistory interviews with Wang via Zoom on February 22 and March 8, 2021. The interview recordings and transcripts are not quite ready for use by researchers, but we wanted to share a few excepts from them to give you an idea of the wealth of information and insights it contains.
In talking about working at the library at the University of Maryland (Interview 1 -February 22, 2021, page 19):
. . . I was trying to earn some money on the side to support me. My tuition—my relatives in the U.S. tried to help me and lend me money to—for the tuition. So, I needed to earn some money. And I went to the school guidance people and they said, "Okay, here are some choices." And one of them was to—first to file books in the library. So, I got started there. A few weeks later, my supervisor came to me and said, "You know, there is a job opening at acquisitions department of the library." So, I was technically working for circulation department at the time, meaning that you circulate the books, right? And he said, "Well, you seem to pick up things quickly. Maybe you want to go there?" So, I went for an interview and I started order books for the library. […] Until one day my supervisor came to me and said, "Hey, you know, the university has bought a new computer and we're going to be automated for our library collections, and books and serials. They’re looking for people to be computer operators to run the computer. You learn things pretty quickly, why don't you go try that job?" So, I went and had an interview and got my job.
Getting her job at GEAC (Interview 1 - February 22, 2021, page 21):
So, the story keeps going that I was on my last semester as a computer science student at University of Maryland. And it was my final week. So, I was in and out of the office there. I just kind of—I keep my books there so I don't have to carry them all over the place. And I was onto my final, final exam of the semester—or actually the school. I was graduating. And my boss stopped me and said, "Wait a minute, before you rush off, I want to make sure that you’re coming back this afternoon, because I have someone waiting for you, and he wants to talk to you. He's from GEAC." So, as it turned out, he was offering me a job to work for GEAC as a computer programmer.
Difficulties in working with archival information in a system designed for library materials (Interview 1 - February 22, 2021, pages 29-30):
. . . archival notes are very long. Archival collections are very complex, unlike the library, you have a single book and you have a single record describing that book. And information is fairly straightforward and brief for books, and serials, and journals. For archival collection, on the other hand, you often have several boxes of one collection. And content in there are numerous. You have letters, you have photographs, you have postcards, you have published papers. You name it. To fit all that description into a single bibliographic record, in MARC format, was challenging. And so, we often reached the limit—literal character lengths, field lengths limit -- on the number of words to fit. And so, we constantly get "field too long" message on GEAC system.
How members of the Smithsonian Institution Research Information System (SIRIS) management committee wanted to have a single place to search for collections information (Interview 2 - March 8, 2021, page 24):
But then, as more and more data went into the computer, then the focus becomes, "How can we" -- we had nine different SIRIS databases for different kinds of materials. So then, the question became, "Okay, we are successful in creating databases, getting information into computer systems, and allow people to do some searching. But how do people know when to go to what system to search for what they need?" So, there were consistent requests from the SIRIS management committee, as well as the SIRIS members meetings, that, "We want to be able to search our information in one place. We don’t want to have to constantly tell our reference customers from the outside this kind of information you go to this database to search, etcetera." So, really, the desire for having information to search in one place has been a loud desire from all of the SIRIS members.
Approach to creating the Collections Search Center interface (Interview 2 - March 8, 2021, page 26):
And the whole goal is that a stranger on the road far away from the Smithsonian, without any training, they should know what to do to search for something. And so, we talked among ourselves and decided that we should use a mechanism that people are already familiar. And so, using examples of Google, some of the online shopping, even including hardware store online shopping mechanism, bookstore online shopping. Basically, that faceted filtering searching functionality. And we thought that if people can do online shopping, they should be able to do online searching for Smithsonian collections, or for SIRIS collections, back then. So, that was the whole mindset and the reasoning for how we came up with the design. The one box searching. Forget about customized author browse searching, title browse searching.
A monumental figure for the Smithsonian libraries' and archives' staff, Wang received a Smithsonian Unsung Hero Award in 2010. The work of Carla, John, and David continues as they interview more Smithsonian staff to capture, first-hand, their experiences, feelings, perspectives, and background that illuminate the history of computing at the Smithsonian.
History of Smithsonian Institution Computing Oral History Interviews, 2016-2021, Record Unit 9637, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- "The Smithsonian’s Journey of Computerized Library and Archives" by Ching-hsien Wang, Smithsonian Collections Blog
- "Profile in Perseverance: Ching-hsien Wang" by Amy Rogers Nazarov, October 2017, The Torch
- Oral Histories of the Smithsonian, Smithsonian Institution Archives