Current Project: Historical Origins of Student Technologies in Residence Halls

One of my current projects is an examination of the history of student-used communication and entertainment technologies in American college and university residence halls. Examples of such technologies include buzzers, telephones, televisions, computer labs, and in-room computer network connections. I’ve still got a lot of work to do, particularly on the older technologies, as those resources are more challenging to identify and locate. This is serious historical research complete with examinations of dusty old papers and searches for hand-scrawled notes and letters (it’s not Indiana Jones-type work as it’s all 20th century material but it’s still fun and exciting, especially for a computer geek). I am trying to anchor the research in the history of student affairs/college student personnel but as most of the student affairs technology literature is both (a) recent (so far, my oldest document in my literature review is from the 60s) and (b) very focused on the here-and-now I have even that portion of my job cut out for me.

That is all very vague so let me share with you a few questions related to residential computer networks that either I am working to answer or that have arisen in the course of this research:

  1. Were most networks preceded by computer labs in residence halls? It is clear that in many cases computer labs (sometimes referred to as “clusters” instead of labs), composed of dumb terminals, preceded in-room network connections. However, I don’t know how prevalent this was nor do I think that I may be able to answer that question except in particular cases. And that’s okay as the question really seems to get at the historical evolution of computers in residence halls. So the question really reduces to “Did those institutions who were the pioneers of in-room network connections have computer labs before they installed in-room connections?” Of course, that means that I have to identify the “pioneers.” That question is easy to dodge answer by simply stating that those institutions for whom I have the earliest records are, as far as I can tell, the pioneers. I can only work with the information that I can locate but if I do a good job hunting for information then my answer should be okay.
  2. What role, if any, did the 1984 divestiture of AT&T have on the development of American college and university campus computer networks and telecommunications, particularly computer networks installed in residence halls? I know from the primary and secondary sources that in-room connections were being explored and piloted by several institutions in the mid 80s. Was it just coincidence that these experiments were being tried right after the telephone monopoly was broken? Was innovation stirred by the AT&T breakup or were old habits and mindsets shaken loose? Or was it just a coincidence? Of course, this is complicated by the fact that networking technology and minicomputers were becoming mature enough for these experiments to be tried at that same time.

As stated before: I still have a lot of work to do. The ultimate goal with the current project is to see if I can figure out the reasons why these technologies were introduced. That’s a difficult question to answer, particularly in a historical context. Figuring when or how something was done is rather straight-forward. Figuring out why it was done seems to be a different and more difficult challenge. The AT&T question is a rather large question and I will almost certainly put it aside for later; I need a much better grounding in the history of AT&T and telephony in America before I can adequately begin to search for the answer to that question. But it sure is an interesting question and I hope it yields interesting answers!

This appears to be a novel and underresearched topic and I feel as if I am having to build the foundation as I go along. I am spending as much time in the Indiana University archives as I am in the library or online looking for resources with the hope that the historical questions about which I can not provide general answers I may be able to provide answers for one institution. I have even found a few gems in the archives that relate to other institutions.

I hope I can report back in a few months that I have some answers. The immediate goal is to produce a final paper for one of my classes (Andrea Walton’s History of Higher Education in the 20th Century) but this topic is close to my heart. It’s a joy when I am able to pursue a project such as this for a class or for work as it serves multiple interests and needs. If it turns out well, I hope to spin the paper and other findings into a handful of articles for publication. In the meantime, I hope to begin adding the documents I am locating to my bibliography in the near-future if anyone would like to follow along or glance over my shoulder.