Dr. Nelson, Chronicler of the Web
By Rashad McDowell
Back in 1981, Michael Nelson went into a Circuit City with $300 he’d saved up. He had one prize in sight, an Atari 400. Nelson’s purchase would be a defining one, one that would change the trajectory of his life. That Atari convinced him of his future career.
“Ever since that day, I knew I that I wanted to be in computers,” Nelson said.
Middle school and high school would see Nelson doing programming on his prized Atari. Various hardware upgrades kept the Atari running as well, if not better than other computers out there. While such things seem commonplace today, Nelson’s affection for his computer would have been very hobbyist in the 1980s.
Nelson’s years of higher education were dedicated to the study of computer science. He achieved his undergraduate degree from Virginia Tech. From there, he started his professional career working at NASA’s Langley Research Center.
His first area of expertise was online information systems. As the years went by, Nelson started to become more interested in the web. Between 1993 and 1994, he helped set up the Langley Technical Report Server. This put NASA’s technical publication online. During his time with NASA, Nelson attended graduate school part time at Old Dominion University. He was allowed a graduate release in 1996 at which time he realized he had more credits than he needed for his master’s. So he went ahead and got his Ph.D. in digital libraries in 2000.
“I was enjoying what I was doing and I was kind of doing research at Langley anyways,” Nelson said.
With his new doctorate degree, Nelson went on to take part in a post doctorate program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in the School of Informational Library Science.
After UNC, he returned to NASA with a renewed interest in research and an eye on teaching. When he found out ODU had an Assistant Professor opening, Nelson applied with no regrets. He got the job and spent most of his time working on digital libraries, mostly at systems level.
Nelson has been very active in the open archives community. He’s been the editor on the Open Archives Initiative Protocol for Metadata Harvesting and the Open Archives Initiative Object Reuse and Exchange. He is one of the many driven individuals working on the preservation of the Internet.
He and ODU’s own Michele Weigle, Ph.D., recently received an award from the National Endowment for the Humanities for the Archive What I See Now project. Nelson was quoted in The New Yorker in regards to his work with Memento and web archives. Together with Weigle, Nelson is poised to create a system that will allow less technically savvy users to create and manage their own web archives, similar to the Internet Archive.
Starting this summer, Nelson will assume the position of full professor at ODU.
“That means I’m old,” he said with a chuckle.
Outside of his fantastic work in computer science, Nelson collects Ford muscle cars. He has a collection of five and he uses them as a metaphor in class for the preservation of information. Another metaphor that he uses is a parallel between electronic music and web preservation. As a fan of electronic music- one of his favorite artists is DJ Shadow- Nelson draws a connection between the manner in which electronic music makes use of samples of older music that has been preserved.
“If all of this really obscure old music wasn’t recorded on vinyl, then all these DJs can’t go create something new out of this historical information,” Nelson said. “I see an analogy between this and what I want to see happen with the past web.”