McDonough’s ‘Living Archive’ advances radical transparency


By Kira Gould

At our offices, there is a new refrain.

“I’m recording everything,” says William McDonough — designer, advisor, thought leader and author — on any given day.

In an effort to chronicle the sustainability movement through McDonough’s eyes, Stanford University Libraries has engaged in a unique experiment by creating the academic institution’s first “Living Archive.”

Digital and written materials of McDonough’s past and present will be fed to the Stanford team to capture and share his thoughts and efforts in architecture and sustainable design in as comprehensive a manner as possible, as recently reported by The New York Times and New Scientist.

The extensive writings, drawings, photography, objects and other collections of McDonough already cover more than 40 prolific years in his professional career. The archives are intended to continuously grow in tandem with the continuing generation of his work.

Stanford is an international leader in creating standards and best practices for realizing the digital library. McDonough has a long-standing relationship with the university; he has served as a consulting professor in the civil and Environmental Engineering Department for nearly a decade. In 1999, Stanford acquired the Buckminster Fuller archives, one of the libraries’ most in-demand collections. It is also one of the most extensive personal archives anywhere. The Fuller connection is personally meaningful for McDonough who, as a student at Dartmouth, heard one of Fuller’s famously long lectures (more than three hours) in an encounter that left an indelible mark.

The Stanford project is a massive undertaking and full of challenges, not the least of which will be to perpetually manage new material and keep up with a living donor’s many activities, appearances, projects, writings and even his tweets. Phone conversations and meetings are being recorded. Physical drawings are being digitized.

The libraries will use the digital components to create a set of open source archival technologies that will allow creators, archivists and selected contributors to actively participate in the collection. Eventually, the archive will be available as a digital library, available to everyone.

This is not just for scholars. We see that the soon-to-be-available access to his dialogues and thought processes through the Stanford Living Archive of William McDonough will help inform the future by building a rich perspective of how sustainability issues are perceived and addressed today in our time. If we’re lucky, the signposts here will help future generations work toward continuous improvement and abundance for all.

Roberto Trujillo, head of the Stanford University Libraries’ Special Collections, views this as a “real-time” archive: “We see the possibility to capture not just the writings and artifacts but the activities and conversations of a designer and thought leader — and the many influential individuals he works with — as they happen.”

This radical degree of transparency offers value beyond the confines of McDonough’s personal efforts: Seen through the lens of his life, we anticipate that the archive also will document important activities and conversations that intersect with other influential voices in the sustainability community. Bill likes to call this the “six degrees” factor, and we can already see it taking shape in powerful ways.

Through that, the archive will offer rich perspective on how the ecosystem of issues we’re presently addressing can help inform crucial human settlement decisions of tomorrow.

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