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Citizens of PLATO Digital Archive



Citizens of PLATO Digital Archive is an online archival project created and maintained by Jeff Michael, a graduate student in the School of Information at the University of Michigan.  This site is focused on the computing communities of the PLATO computer system, the first computer-based educational system which revolutionized information technology and cyberculture. 


Archival records were chosen for inclusion based on personal appraisal of historical significance, scholarship of source material, diversity of representation and availability of resources.  Records that were from scholarly archives, were exclusive to these archives and not widely reproduced, and which included a diversity of PLATO users were given priority for inclusion.  All archival records were sourced from digital surrogates due to limitations of archival and library access during the COVID-19 pandemic.


Citizens of PLATO serves two primary goals: 1) providing a brief historical overview of the PLATO system and its place within computer and education history – hence, this site is an archival introduction and path to further research; 2) showcasing the diverse communities and persons that both used PLATO and helped shape the socio-technical and economic systems in which it was implemented – as such, this site is an active memory project aimed at continued remembrance and knowledge production of some of the forgotten, overlooked, understudied or unknown PLATO figures and users and the contributions they made.


This archive was made with a range of primary and secondary potential users in mind.  Primary target users include various historians (of computer science/computing, information technology, education, social work, cybernetics, cyberculture, online communities, video games, or library and information science).  Secondary potential users include teachers and educators, computer scientists and game developers, and documentarians and filmmakers (see Mattock and Mattern, 2015).  These users need access to multimedia formats with clear data related to the provenance and context of the documents, ability to browse gallery exhibits of media, search for specific documents related to their research interest, analyze documents through either relationships organized by metadata architecture or text based descriptions, and additional sources for further research.


Archives build a narrative through the selection of which records are included, preserved and presented, the mode and design in which they are arranged and presented, and the desriptive architecture used to describe the records.  Descriptive metadata transcends archival spectrium boundaries connecting users, source materials, information creators, platforms and the archives (Yakel, 2003).  As Duff and Harris (2002) explain, "The power to describe is the power to make and remake records and to determine how they will be used and remade in the future" (272). 

It should be noted that there are several missing perspectives and even more missing voices in the scope of this digital archival project.  For example, there are only a few mentions of LGBTQ+ notesfiles in the PLATO system in which users could anonymously post notes and responses in the form of a forum or group chat dealing with gender and sexuality topics (Dear, 2017: 259).  However, documents related to such notesfiles are significantly missing from this archive as such documents are unable to be found at this time, or it could be the case that such private communications were not preserved in a way that can be documented.  I suspect this is the case with many more similar topics in the PLATO community, although conferences such as PLATO@50 have helped shed more light on these early online communities as well as the role of multiplayer gaming in building PLATO communities.  Online gaming on the PLATO system was not given as much focus in this archive compared to other computing communities due to this area being already the most documented segment of PLATO users, such as on the creator of the PLATO Empire game John Daleske's site dedicated to the PLATO system and the design of PLATO games and the PLATO page from AtariWiki.

From extensive research on the only preserved public PLATO notesfiles from 1972 to 1976 at the University of Illinois archives, Dr. Joy Lisi Rankin has controversially pointed to evidence of sexual harassment and misogyny on the PLATO system during these years and has argued that PLATO more generally reinforced American Cold War gender roles.  It is worth noting that women who were PLATO users, programmers or engineers during this time have taken issue with Rankin's conclusions, but more research on this area would be invaluable as only in the last few years has PLATO become a topic of academic interest.  Nevertheless, documents related to each of the examples Rankin includes in their research such as Valarie Lamont's Boneyard Creek program and Maryann Bitzer's program for nursing students can be found in PLATO Reports and Research, except for all the notesfiles which are beyond the scope of this one-person project as they are numerous enough to warrant a whole separate archive.

Further, since a motivating factor was showcasing overlooked members of the PLATO use and development communities, I made a point to include any archival document related to Control Data Corporation's outreach programs such as Homework and Fair Break.  In this regard, I attempted to apply Brilmyer's political/relational model for archival description drawn from disability and feminist studies to illuminate archival assemblages (Brilmyer, 2018).  However, these sources were limited in number, and all documents within this range were found in the Control Data Corporation records collection at the University of Minnesota.  Hence, these documents may be moreso in line with the corporate perspective of CDC while not fully representative of all who were part of these programs.  Nevertheless, through the selection of documents, archival descriptions and textual discussion hopefully this digital archive will give perspective and power to some of the missing voices in this segment of computer and technology history but also shed light on social, racial, economic and power dynamics in education in the 1970s and 1980s.  Besides the introduction and brief historical overview given on the Welcome page, I have chosen to have each digital archive page with documents function as gallery exhibits.  In this way, it is my hope that the images of members of PLATO communities and their own writings in original research documents may speak for themselves in telling the story of PLATO.


Citizens of PLATO emerged in the context of the course SI 580: Understanding Records & Archives taught by Dr. Patricia Garcia at the University of Michigan in the School of Information.  However, motivations and interest in the project stem from my aunt and uncle's involvement in the PLATO system as programmers and developers (authors).  My uncle, Gary Michael, was a handicapped (paralyzed by polio) programmer on the PLATO system, first at the University of Illinois then as coursework developer at his own company Duosoft followed by a management position at Control Data.  This project is dedicated to his memory (see image below).


If anyone was a PLATO user or programmer or author, was part of a PLATO computing community including but not limited to at University of Illinois or one of the various Control Data programs, or has archival documents related to any of these PLATO communities, please feel free to contact Jeff Michael at floating[at]umich[dot]edu.