Volunteer Spotlight: John Churchman

To celebrate Volunteer Appreciation Month, we would like to recognize John Churchman, a research associate who has been documenting the history of computing at the Smithsonian.

Dr. John Churchman is a research associate with the Institutional History Division. He documents the history of computing at the Smithsonian and can be frequently found pouring over records in our reading room. 

Three men test out new computer equipment. They are all wearing suits.  

What is your background?

For 30 years, I worked in the Smithsonian's central computing office (now known as OCIO). Before that I worked for Blue Cross and Social Security. I have a doctorate in U.S. History. 

What brought you to the Smithsonian Institution Archives as a volunteer?

As I was retiring, I realized that there were key people in the history of computing at the Smithsonian who were getting quite old; some had already died; I was afraid that if we did not get to them soon their knowledge of the original automation efforts at the Smithsonian would be lost. Other people were interested in studying this as well, and it was serendipitous that we were all able to come together at the same time. 

What has been your favorite part of working here so far?

When I was in graduate school, I loved to do research and would have spent the rest of my life doing just that if there had been any money in it. In the current project, I have luxuriated in the rich resources of the Archives that contain many interesting stories which I have thoroughly enjoyed reading.

What is the coolest or most interesting thing you have found or learned about at the Archives? 

Before there were email and smart phones, people in the bureaucracies communicated in part by writing memos. I have been struck by how frank they sometimes were in these documents that were to become permanent. 

Has your impression of the Smithsonian changed since you began volunteering? 

I learned how difficult it was to be a manager of the Smithsonian at the highest levels because there were so many contending interests for limited resources such as financing and personnel. When it came to automation, an additional element of complexity was trying to decide which technologies would be cost effective as well as long-lasting enough not to require replacement before yielding benefits commensurate with the cost.

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