The many passions of Librarian John Durno

John Durno

In your position as Head, Library Systems, what does a typical working day look like for you?

Lots of email and meetings, with some report writing thrown in. Every once in a while, I do a bit of hands-on programming too, but not so much in my day-to-day work anymore. The majority of my work involves tracking the various projects we’re working on and assigning resources to them. I supervise staff working on a wide variety of project areas (physical computing support, server administration, application administration, web application development, digital asset management, digital preservation, digital scholarship, website user experience), so a lot of my time is taken up meeting with staff and coordinating activities. I also have primary responsibility for coordinating work with University Systems at the operational level. 

You started a unique Obsolete Computing and Media lab in the library. How did you acquire those age-old computers?

The collection was actually started by a fellow in our Purchasing Services department named Stephen Wylie. It’s Stephen’s job to deal with surplus stuff – furnishings, equipment, that sort of thing. Every so often, an interesting old piece of computing equipment would come his way, and he would squirrel it away in his warehouse rather than sending it off to the e-recyclers. He had no immediate takers for it, but he had the foresight to realize that this old gear might one day have some value. We connected back in 2016 when I did a study leave focusing on working with old computer media in our archives as a case study in digital archaeology. At the time, I was looking primarily at emulation and format migration as strategies for keeping old digital artifacts accessible. I wasn’t that interested in old hardware because I thought it would be a lot of work to keep it running. But when Stephen offered up the old equipment that he had collected to the library, I couldn’t very well turn it down. That became the core of a collection that has since expanded considerably thanks to additional finds in various storerooms around campus plus some wonderful community donations. We’re getting an increasing number of those. Also, the library has been quite supportive of the project and has contributed both space and funding. One or two of the computers in the collection are ones we’ve purchased.

You directed the Glenn Howarth Telidon Art Restoration Project, which recovered Howarth’s digital art from computer disks. Tell us more about the project.

Honestly, I don’t think I could give you a better summary than what’s on my website. Or if you really want to go in-depth, there’s a whole booklet that I wrote on the subject.

I will just add here that the restoration of Telidon art continues to be a major ongoing research focus for me. To that end, I’ve been working with a small group of Toronto-based collaborators to locate and recover as much Telidon art as we can find before the media it;s typically stored on (8 and 5.25” floppies, and videotape) goes unreadable.

We’ve been quite successful, having recovered over 10,000 Telidon files and a couple of dozen tapes in the past year or so. It will probably take another couple of years for us to sort them all out and develop an exhibition around them. There has recently been a very positive development regarding this project, and I’m hopeful we will be able to announce it soon. 

You call yourself a part-time digital archeologist. What does it involve?

I call myself that largely in relation to my Telidon work. It’s like the digital version of what I imagine field archaeology to be like. My simplistic vision of archaeological work involves archaeologists digging up fragments of things––bones, pottery, whatever––and figuring out how the pieces all relate to each other, and then how the reassembled objects relate to their historical context. I excavate files from old media (e.g. floppy disks) and then try to make sense of them. That can involve tracking down sometimes very obscure software and finding systems to run it on. Sometimes I have to develop parts of the old software that are missing, just like (I imagine) what needs to be done to restore a vase when some of the pieces are missing.  And also, I need to figure out the relationships between the files. For example, many Telidon artworks consisted of dozens of separate files all linked together by a database that might not exist anymore, or might not be readable if it does exist. How to reconstruct those linkages can be an interesting challenge.

If given a chance, would you go back in time and change the way the first computer was made?

Some time ago, I read a book called Code by Charles Petzold that was recommended by my colleague Matt Huculak.  It describes how computers work at a very fundamental level, the level of electrical relays and switches. And I found I could understand that part pretty well. At that level, computers are very simple. Then Petzold went on to describe how you could combine relays and switches to create different kinds of logic gates – AND gates, OR gates, NAND gates etc. And then how you could combine logic gates to solve various problems. And I’m thinking, “OK, I can kind of see how something like that would work, but I’m not sure I could actually construct anything like that myself.” And at this point, we’re still way below the actual level of complexity that’s involved in building a real, working computer. Anyhow, what I’m leading up to here is that there is no way I’d have the hubris to say I’d change anything about how the first computers were made. I’m just not that clever, and I’m somewhat in awe of people like Alan Turing, who were.

How many years until laptops become obsolete?

Forty-seven years. Maybe 48 at the outside. Of course, I’m kidding. Interestingly, the concept for a laptop-like device was developed by Alan Kay in 1968. He called it the “Dynabook.” It sort of looked like a tablet with a built-in keyboard, so it wasn’t quite a laptop, but it was surprisingly close for an idea so far ahead of its time. As such, it was unbuildable with the technology of the day. There’s a good argument to be made that the first working laptop was developed in Canada. It was called the MCM/70 and went on the market in 1974, but not too many were sold. The first widely available cproduct we might identify as a proper laptop was released in the early 80s. It was absurdly limited compared to what we’ve got now, but the general form factor has proven to be very durable, and it would not surprise me if something like laptops continued to be commercially available for decades.  

Other devices such as phones and tablets have encroached on the territory of laptops a bit. However, it’s still hard to beat the combination of a physical keyboard, screen and pointing device when you want to get work done. When you kit out a tablet to replace your laptop, it winds up looking a lot like a laptop.

What do you think is the greatest invention of all time?

Agriculture. Civilization isn’t possible without it.


Interview conducted by Zehra Abrar