Sep 8, 2009

Do You Remember Community Memory?

Community Memory was the first public computerized bulletin board system. Created by Efrem Lipkin, Mark Szpakowski, and Lee Felsenstein, Community Memory first appeared at Leopold's Records in Berkeley in 1973. Utilizing an SDS 940 timesharing system in San Francisco that connected via a 110 baud link to a teletype, users were able to enter and retrieve messages.

While initially conceived as an information and resource sharing network linking a variety of counter-cultural economic, educational, and social organizations with each other and the public, Community Memory was soon generalized to be an information flea market. Once the system became available, the users demonstrated that it was a general communications medium that could be used for art, literature, journalism, commerce, and social chatter.

Several of these machines popped up around the Bay Area -- at the original Berkeley Whole Earth Access Store and another at the Mission Public Library in San Francisco -- but each one varied in content and physical manifestation. The only photo I've been able to find shows the machine housed inside a large but homespun box (apparently, the machine was very loud and the record store asked that the sound be contained). Users operated the pin-ball shaped object by sticking hands through arm holes in the front of the brightly painted box.

Community Memory eventually disappeared from public life, its function eclipsed by other early iterations of the internet. From what I can tell, the project was more or less abandoned by 1974 yet I've heard rumblings of its creators writing a memoir. I'm so curious to know more about Community Memory -- what it looked like, what kind of information was gathered, if it was useful, how it served as a reflection of the Bay Area in the early '70s, if in fact communities were created by these machines and their archive of messages. I wonder if any part of the half-dozen or so Community Memory machines still exist. Wouldn't it be interesting to revisit Community Memory 35 year later? What would a contemporary Community Memory look like? With the advances of the internet, have we surpassed any need for localized, shared information? How did short-lived, home-grown initiatives like Community Memory usher in a more globalized information network and what are we to make of these legacies?


  1. I love the idea of a BBS full of smart users with no prior knowledge of what a BBS should be.

  2. I used the Community Memory terminal at Leopold's Records in Berkeley from time to time. There's one on display at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California.