ACM-funded Oral History Project on Women in Computing

Note: This post was originally written in 2018, when the Women in Computing project was conducted.  With the transfer of the project interviews to the Archives’ new Voices of Illinois oral history portal in 2024, this post is being reproduced here as the legacy platform it was originally written on has reached the end of its technical lifespan.  It has been slightly modified to remove references to one interviewee.  For more information, see the note at the bottom.

Guest Post by Bethany Anderson, Archival Operations and Reference Specialist at the University of Illinois Archives, and Alicia Hopkins, graduate student in the University of Illinois School of Information Science

Documenting women in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) has been challenging given the historically fewer numbers of women in STEM fields. Likewise, women in STEM have not been well documented by archival repositories. And similarly, archival sources about women in computing are underrepresented.

Oral history is an effective tool for filling and remediating gaps in archival holdings. Though it is sometimes viewed as a complement to paper and born-digital records, oral history is itself a unique form of archival evidence. Oral history can also be an effective form of archival evidence for underrepresented and marginalized communities and individuals, especially for women in a profession like computing, where archival documentation can be difficult to locate.

The project From Margin to Center: Reframing the History of Women in Computing and Information Technology through Oral Histories was conceptualized as a way to begin remediating information about women in the University of Illinois Archives’ own holdings for the Department of Computer Science (CS). Generously funded by the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) History Committee, this oral history project enabled archivist Bethany Anderson to conduct interviews with women faculty and alumnae from CS and IT professionals at the U of I.

Between May 2017 and April 2018, Anderson interviewed six women at different points in their career trajectories.* The result is two interviews with faculty members (Klara Nahrstedt and Tandy Warnow), two staff members (Ramona Borders and Debbie Fligor), and one graduate of CS (Ambika Dubey). The interviews reveal insight into gender dynamics in the history of computing on campus and what the computing enterprise looks like from the unique vantage points of the interviewees.

Ramona Borders is pictured far right, ca. 1950s. From Engineering Photographs and Negatives (RS 11/1/12).

Through Ramona Borders’ interview, we learn about what it was like to be the first woman operator for ILLIAC and computer supervisor in the Digital Computer Laboratory in the 1950s. Borders’ interview also enabled us to identify a previously unnamed woman operator with ILLIAC in one of the Archives’ photos (see image – it turned out to be her!). Through Debbie Fligor’s interview, we learn about the evolution of Tech Services and networking on campus from the 1990s through the present, and the representation of women in this area. Through Klara Nahrstedt’s interview, we learn about what it was like to be a woman computer scientist and student in Germany during the Cold War and later a student and faculty member in the United States, and the potential she saw for interdisciplinary research in computing early in her career. Through Ambika Dubey’s interview, we learn about undergraduate life in CS and the opportunities for community and support undergraduate women CS majors have through organizations like the Society of Women Engineers (SWE). Through Tandy Warnow’s interview, we learn about her path from mathematics to computational phylogenetics and historical linguistics and her foundational experience as a student at the University of California, Berkeley. Listen to the Women in Computing oral histories here to learn more.

With the help of graduate assistant Alicia Hopkins, the interviews were transcribed and have been made accessible in the University of Illinois Archives’ new oral history portal Voice of Illinois. If you have a suggestion for an interview to add to the Women in Computing collection, contact Bethany Anderson, or if you want to learn more about contributing your story and oral history resources, see Tell Your Story.

*One interviewee has since requested that her interview be removed from the portal.


Women in the Early UIUC Engineering Library: An Underexplored History

By Benjamin Eskin Shapson

Who was responsible for establishing the practice of engineering librarianship at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign in the early 1900s? Who made institutional information resource management a model for engineering libraries across the United States? How can we understand the context they worked in, given the century that separates us? A recent initiative at the Grainger Engineering Library Information Center (GELIC) explores these questions by using resources of the University of Illinois Archives, which has helped to bring the obscured history of early engineering librarianship at the university to light. By making visible primary source records tied to this history, we can understand the efforts and accomplishments of the women who served as the first two Engineering Librarians for the university—Elsie Louise Baechtold and Hilda Josephine Alseth—and recognize the legacy of their service.

Elsie Louise Baechtold circa Dec. 1936. University of Illinois Archives, Record Series 26/4/1, Folder Baechtold, Elsie Louise.

Before we can consider these two librarians, we must recognize the difference between the library services the college offered then and what it offers now. Today, GELIC is one of the most-visited buildings on campus. Boasting an experimental technology center (the IDEA Lab), a Computer-Based Testing Facility, abundant study spaces and group rooms, and a café, the GELIC is well-positioned and provisioned as a modern academic library. But the GELIC’s important presence on campus belies its recency: it only opened in 1994 under the direction of its former head, Professor Emeritus William Mischo. In the context of the University’s history, however, Baechtold and Alseth’s story begins in Engineering Hall Library.

Opened on September 20, 1916, on the first floor of the north wing of the Engineering Hall on the Bardeen Quadrangle (directly south and across the creek from the GELIC today) the General Engineering Library and Reading Room was intended to serve as a resource information center and study space for College of Engineering students. It was later renamed the Engineering Hall Library at the time of the second librarian. Its first director was Elsie Louise Baechtold, who served as its first librarian and thus as the first Engineering Librarian at the university.

Announcement letter concerning collection requests for the newly-opened Engineering Library. Engineering Library Correspondence, University of Illinois Archives, Record Series 35/3/11, Box 1.

Baechtold, who earned a Bachelor of Library Science degree at the University of Illinois in 1916 and had previously served as a Library Assistant during her studies, was given direction over the operations of the Engineering Library. As the sole salaried employee in the library, everything—from the establishment of the initial collection to the hiring of Library Assistants and the planning of physical renovations—was her responsibility. Her efforts were critical to the outsized success of the Engineering Library: attendance skyrocketed after the first week and remained strong throughout Baechtold’s three-year tenure.

Baechtold was a frequent advocate for increasing Library Assistant employment in the library: her concerns were primarily tied to distributing the staggering workload of being sole librarian. After Baechtold departed in 1919 to begin work in public and academic librarianship, the role of Engineering Librarian was taken over by one of these Library Assistants, Hilda Josephine Alseth, who served as the second Engineering Librarian at the University from 1919 to 1954.

Alseth, who had earned a Bachelor of Library Science degree at the university in 1919, oversaw a 35-year period of enormous expansion at the Engineering Library. The collection swelled in volume such that, by the time of her departure, the Engineering collection encompassed some 75,000 items, an impressive quantity for the time, a consequence of Alseth’s concerted collection development efforts and skills as well as its absorption of the Electrical Engineering and the Railway and Mining Engineering Libraries [1]. She was particularly adept in collecting non-English engineering publications and periodicals, especially in German. Equally important, Alseth was also a staunch advocate for the importance of generalized reading in engineering education and the incorporation of non-engineering leisure and educational literature into the lives of engineering students, publishing articles and surveys on the subject in her early career. It is an initiative the GELIC continues to champion today through its themed pop-up collections, where non-engineering items from other campus libraries are gathered at displays in the GELIC for patrons to check out, with each display being themed around a topic, such as Queer Romance or AfroFuturism, to broaden the range of literature available to the GELIC’s patrons.

Hilda Josephine Alseth circa summer 1954 in an article in the “News-Gazette” regarding her career and her upcoming retirement. University of Illinois Archives, Records Series 26/4/1, Folder Alseth, Hilda Josephine.

The most visible of Alseth’s accomplishments was the expansion of the library in 1930 into a lecture room directly above the formerly single-floor (and largely single-room) Engineering Library. This was the most dramatic renovation and physical expansion of the library since its opening, and it helped the Engineering Library continue to grow its collection and its national prominence throughout the second half of Alseth’s tenure. The impact of the Engineering Library was also felt in less visible ways: according to annual reports in 1944, the College of Engineering was involved in several sensitive military engineering projects organized by the United States Military during World War II. As another one of her duties, Baechtold was responsible for managing and meeting the information needs of the faculty who were connected to these projects [2]. Alseth was an active participant and chairwoman of several library and engineering education professional associations, and when she retired in 1954, she had left behind a storied career as, according to then-Dean of Libraries Phineas L. Windsor, a “no.1 engineering librarian,” and as the woman who took the developing Engineering Library and made it, according to then-Professor of theoretical and applied mechanics Jasper Owen Draffin, into one capable of standing “beside any other Engineering Library in the country.” [3]

Floor plan drawn by Alseth in 1930 for the imminent expansion of the Engineering Library to another floor. Engineering Library Correspondence, University of Illinois Archives, Record Series 35/3/11, Box 2.

All this information, and much more concerning their professional careers and personal lives, is represented through the primary source documents produced by both Baechtold and Alseth and preserved in the University Archives. Alseth’s only attestation of her impact is a scholarship bearing her name and a mention in the Baker and King’s “History of the College of Engineering of the University of Illinois, 1868-1945” alongside Baechtold [2]. While no small recognition, these still share little about the people and the professionals that they were. A short-term exploration into the archival folders and boxes that bear their names cannot itself bring everything to light, nor can a single exhibition. The documents themselves have critical gaps (there is scant pre-1916 documentation on Baechtold, and Alseth’s second decade of librarianship, from the mid-1930s to the later 1940s, is largely invisible). Yet there is still a responsibility to at least make the attempt: the attempt to discover, to highlight, and to recognize.

GELIC owes much of its present success to the legacy of the accomplishments of these two women. It was their efforts that first opened the GELIC’s predecessor and built its collection and prestige to the point where it was regularly and widely regarded as one of the country’s pre-eminent engineering libraries, a model by which others could and should aspire to. This is reflected in the documentation that attests to Alseth’s professional prominence and the frequency with which she received questions from other libraries about how they might learn from the organization and substance of the Engineering Library. It is a reputation that is maintained today. Credit for the GELIC’s current importance can and should also be owed to the Engineering librarians who came after, and to all the staff, faculty, and graduate assistants who helped make it possible. But it remains important to recognize the two librarians who came first, and whose histories have yet to be explored more completely.

A fuller picture of the lives and institutional impact of both Elsie Louise Baechtold and Hilda Josephine Alseth is offered through the Women in the Early UIUC Engineering Library: A Women’s History Month Exhibit, currently featured on the third floor exhibit space in the Grainger Engineering Library Information Center until May 2024. This exhibition features letters, reports, photographs, floor plans, and a fold-out blueprint of the Engineering Hall Library. All patrons and members of the public are welcome to visit to learn more about these two women and their contributions to engineering librarianship at the university and beyond.


[1] Baker, Ira Osborn and Everett E. King. A history of the College of Engineering of the University of Illinois 1868-1945. Part II. University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, 1947.

[2] Annual Reports, 1903-71, 1978-79, 1987-88, Record Series 11/1/3, University of Illinois Archives.

[3] Engineering Library Correspondence, Record Series 35/3/11, Box 2. University of Illinois Archives.


University Archives Acquires Papers of Donna J. Cox, Innovator in Scientific Visualization

By Kathleen Corcella and Bethany Anderson

Thousands of dots swirled across a computer screen. These scientific data points would soon be transformed into a mesmerizing film for the large screen. This is but one example of the many scientific visualizations created by Donna J. Cox, Michael Aiken Chair Emerita, Professor Emerita of Art and Design, and former Director of the Advanced Visualization Laboratory (AVL) at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA). Projects like this are documented in Cox’s recently donated papers, which are now available for research use.

Donna Cox and colleagues working on the Venus series visualizations, ca. 1987, Press Releases (Public Affairs Office), Record Series 39/1/10, University of Illinois Archives.

Cox is renowned for bridging both art and science in her work and for innovating the creation of scientific visualizations and collaborative interdisciplinary teams. Cox and the AVL have created visualizations that have garnered numerous accolades, including an Academy Award nomination. Hailing from Enid, Oklahoma, Cox cites her upbringing by her mother and grandmother, “two strong, determined women,” as instrumental and inspirational to her pursuit of science and art. [1] Following the death of her father during World War II, her mother and grandmother raised Cox and brother, working day and night shifts respectively: “Their perseverance inspired me to take risks and make the most out of life, regardless of the odds, exhibiting the power of women and collaboration.” [1] In 1967, Cox became the first individual in her family to graduate from high school. Following graduation, she moved to Denver, Colorado, and eventually to Seattle, Washington, where she worked in the corporate sector.

Donna Cox, 1989, Press Releases (Public Affairs Office), Record Series 39/1/10, University of Illinois Archives.

Cox left her job and enrolled full-time at the University of Wisconsin-Madison where she earned a bachelor of arts (1982) and a master of fine arts (1985). [1] While at U-W Madison, Cox met several people who would influence the trajectory of her career, including fellow student Pat Hanrahan. Hanrahan introduced Cox to computer graphics and gave her code he developed for color displays on campus. Cox was inspired by the possibilities of technology and learned how to create computer graphics and programs and created 2-D imaging software. [2] Cox also met Professor Dan Sandin from the School of Art and Design at the University of Illinois Chicago, who was visiting U-W Madison to give a guest lecture. During his visit, Sandin toured the computer lab where Cox created the Interactive Computer Assisted RGB Editor (ICARE), a digital tool for color images and mapping. [2] Sandin was impressed with Cox’s work and introduced her to the Electronic Visualization Lab (EVL) in Chicago.

In 1985, Cox accepted a position at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign as a visiting assistant professor of art and design. Prior to coming to Illinois, Cox developed the idea of a “Renaissance Team” to describe a group of individuals from a variety of disciplines who work together to achieve a common goal. [2] During her time at NCSA and tenure as Director of the AVL, Cox employed this concept to the formation of collaborative projects.

At the urging of her grad advisor, Cox reached out to NCSA founding director, Larry Smarr, after learning about the new supercoming center. [1] Smarr invited Cox to one of the opening events for the new NCSA, where she showcased her computer collages (called “compulages”) and advocated for collaborations between artists and scientists to visualize data. [4] Smarr appointed Cox as a faculty affiliate at the NCSA. It was during this time that Cox launched a scientific visualization program, drawing on collaborations formed with the EVL in Chicago and other Renaissance Teams that she created for various projects.

Story board for NSFNet visualization, Donna J. Cox Papers, Record Series 7/5/20, University of Illinois Archives.

Cox worked on many computer graphic arts and visualization projects while at the NCSA and through her involvement in the Association for Computing Machinery’s (ACM)  Special Interest Group on Computer Graphics and Interactive Techniques (SIGGRAPH). These projects include NSFNet, a visualization of the early internet, and Venus, a series of abstract conceptualizations of the Paleolithic female figure Venus of Willendorf rendered two-dimensional for display on a computer screen, which Cox created as a tribute to her grandmother, Sadie Elmo. [3] Cox also illustrated the capabilities of NCSA’s supercomputers and visualizations through a remote-control demonstration at the SIGGRAPH 1989 Boston conference. In addition, the work of Cox and the AVL has appeared in several films and documentaries, including Cosmic Voyage (1997), Hubble 3D (2010), and The Tree of Life (2011). Notably, these projects use real scientific data and cinematic computational science as a method for creating visualizations. Cox has won numerous awards for her work, and in 2006 was selected as one of forty modern-day Leonardo da Vincis by the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago.

Visualization from the Venus series, ca. 1987, Press Releases (Public Affairs Office), Record Series 39/1/10, University of Illinois Archives.

Donna J. Cox’s innovative work illustrates the ways in which art and science can be powerfully fused. Cox’s papers in the University Archives are an important source for engaging with and studying her work and contributions. These materials include original storyboards and notes documenting Cox’s creative process, correspondence with colleagues relating to digital arts and various projects, copies of media features and interviews with Cox, photographs and slides of works, awards, and more. Beyond her papers, researchers can learn more about her career and experiences through her talk in 2023 for the Archives’ Women in Science Lecture Series (recording is available here). For questions or more information about Donna J. Cox’s papers, please contact Bethany Anderson,

[1] Bui, S. A. (2021, July 30). The Donna Cox Legacy: Inspiring and Visualizing the Future. NCSA.

[2] Cox, D.J., Sandor, E., Fron, J. (Eds.). (2018). New media futures: The rise of women in the digital arts (pp. 71-84). Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

[3] Cox, Donna J., Press Releases (Public Affairs Office), Record Series 39/1/10, University of Illinois Archives.

[4] This idea is described in Donna Cox’s article, “Using the Supercomputer to Visualize Higher Dimensions: An Artist’s Contribution to Scientific Visualization,” Leonardo 21, no. 3 (1988): 390-400,; see also in box 10, Donna J. Cox Papers, Record Series 7/5/20, University of Illinois Archives.

Q&A with University Archivist Joanne Kaczmarek

Meet the new University Archivist!

Longtime University Archivist Bill Maher retired in December of 2022, and Joanne Kaczmarek, Archivist for Electronic Records and Director of Records and Information Management Services, stepped into the role in an interim capacity.  She was confirmed as the permanent University Archivist in November 2023.

Joanne was kind enough to answer a few questions about herself for the blog and Out of the Vault, the Archives’ newsletter.  Read on to learn about her background, what lead her to the Archives, and her visions for the future!

Joanne Kaczmarek, University Archivist.

What was the path that led you to become an archivist? What was your background before becoming an archivist?

My path to becoming an archivist was a bit circuitous, I’d say. After my undergraduate studies, I was not financially positioned to pursue graduate studies and I needed a job that I knew would probably not “go out of style”. I had enjoyed cutting hair during college (both my own and that of my friends) so I decided to get a cosmetology license and cut hair professionally  – at least for a while. Doing that, led me to an opportunity to open a salon called “Armadillo, the salon” right on Neil St. where Circles is today. This was just before the Internet became ubiquitous and I was very curious about the technology. I decided to set up a network of NeXt computers in the waiting area of the salon where clients could surf the Web for free rather than going to what was then known as an “internet café”.

I had a number of clients at the time from the iSchool (then called the Graduate School of Information Science or GSLIS) who were involved in the launch of Prairienet, a service run by GSLIS bringing the Internet to the community at no cost. They encouraged me to get involved and suggested I consider enrolling in their MLIS program. Because they allowed me to enroll as a part time student, I was able to make it work. While I was not at all focused on archives during my time at GSLIS, my work in the salon built my appreciation for and skills in what might be considered an informal approach to oral histories. I gathered from my clients personal stories about the town and the University community as they sat in my chair. In exchange,  I taught them simple styling techniques and how to cut their own bangs. Once I graduated, I had the good fortune to work on a research project in the Library which led me to begin to explore various facets of electronic records and ultimately opened the door for my first position in the University Archives.

What was your prior role in the Archives and what were your responsibilities?

My prior role has been as Archivist for Electronic Records and Director of Records and Information Management Services. At the time I was hired, the challenges of born digital content were just beginning to make themselves known more broadly. There had been a great deal written about the pending “lost of history” by archivists in the 1990s. In the early 2000s the deployment of Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) systems was becoming widespread across higher education and the expectation was that archivists needed to get ahead of the curve and engage with the IT folks rolling out these systems to ensure the historic record of universities would not be lost. I have to admit, I was not particularly successful in wrangling the University’s ERP system to ensure all important records were preserved. But I developed a strategy to build out an enterprise-wide records and information management program in hopes of developing long-lasting relationships with various administrative units. This has been a slow but steady process of bringing more awareness to units about their records, helping people sort out that which they have that may have archival value and that which can be disposed of eventually. This work has expanded my appreciation for the University as a whole and all that we do to support our students, faculty, and the broader community both at home and abroad.

What excites you most about your new role as University Archivist? What are some plans/ideas you have in mind for the Archives?

I am excited to have the opportunity, and perhaps even the mandate, to learn as much as I can about the vast holdings of materials we have in the Archives. I believe our various programs have been run by professionals over the years that are second to none.  I look forward to finding ways to make a broader audience aware of and benefit from what we have to offer.

When it comes to plans/ideas I have in mind for the Archives, the immediate focus is in creating more opportunities for communication among members of our staff. Because we operate out of three distinctly separate locations, it can sometimes be difficult to stay up on everything everyone is doing. I’m also looking for opportunities to help us increase collaboration between the Archives and other Library units as well as units and community organizations outside the Library.

What is the funniest/strangest/most memorable or satisfying experience at the Archives?  

  • Funniest/strangest: Finding one shoe with two socks stuffed in it in the old stacks of the Archives when moving some materials. (Never did find the other shoe)
  • Most memorable/satisfying: On many occasions, watching the staff take particular care to help bring to life an old college memory for a visiting alumnus by sharing with them a select slice of our materials.

What would you like people to know about the Archives (or University history) that may surprise them?

Perhaps one of the surprising facts that some may know is that there are several individuals (human and animal) buried on campus, and not in the cemetery. We just found out about another one, the old University Fire Station dog, Susie. The others are John Milton Gregory the first University Regent, Illini Nellie the cow, and Al the Transgenic the Pig.

Q&A With Linda Stepp, Archives Program Officer

Black and white image, shows Green Street with 1920s cars and storefronts.
Green Street looking east c. 1922. This is Linda’s favorite Archives image!

Q&A With Linda Stepp, Archives Program Officer

How did you end up in the Archives, and did you think you’d be an archivist? 

While in library school (GSLIS /the i-school) I thought I wanted to be a children’s librarian, but then in a practicum I discovered that I did not like working with kids who misbehaved without parents present.  At the same time I had a Graduate Assistantship with the Student Life and Culture Archives and liked processing but also enjoyed doing research for reference questions.  Ironically, I believe I was hired for the GA position because I had been in a sorority, which turned out to be my least favorite part of being an undergraduate at Elmhurst College.

What are your responsibilities?  How has your work changed over the past almost 20 years?

I have much more responsibility than I’ve ever had.  In the 20 years I’ve been here, the Archives has expanded exponentially in the amount of records and staff at our locations.  More materials and staff means more work in all aspects of Archives.  I lead the reference and administrative operations for the Main Library Archives location within the University Archives.  We help visiting and remote researchers from all over the world every day.  Topics I’ve personally helped with include historical enrollment statistics, identifying an Arabic manuscript, Illinois farming lesson tours across the country by train, and the experiences of Japanese American students during and after WWII.  The Japanese American experience resulted in an exhibit currently running at the Spurlock Museum on campus.

What has been your funniest/strangest/most memorable or satisfying experience at the Archives? 

Finding a jar of soil, with the former University Archivist, in an Archives box related to Agriculture records.

What would you like people to know about the Archives (or University history) that may surprise them? 

I suspect many believe all we have is University history and they would be right, but we have so much more!  We have records that involve groundbreaking research and new inventions.  We are rich in records from science, engineering, and agriculture.  With the Sousa Archives and Center for American Music, we also have an abundance of University Band and music materials from around the world.  I would love for us to acquire more records from the College of Fine and Applied Arts involving material art, drama, theater, and architecture.