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UVic library opens window to both the future and the past

Behold, the obsolete computer lab of 1980s fantasy
John Durno, a UVic library technologist and part-time digital archaeologist, in one of his favourite places, the Obsolete Computing and Media lab. The lab is open to the public for a rare opportunity during UVic Libraries Idea Fest family open house, Saturday, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. (Travis Paterson/News Staff)

On the bottom floor of the McPherson Library is a room of 1980s era desktop computers.

Upon boot up the monitors flicker with the yellow and green fonts. Remember inserting a disk to boot the computer? And then another to boot a program?

Welcome to the Obsolete Computing and Media Lab.

Yes, there is a Commodore 64, an Apple II (it’s a IIE, not a GS, but hey, you can’t expect the moon) and even an Atari.

The lab is open to the public for a rare opportunity during UVic Libraries Idea Fest family open house called Class of 2030: Your UVic Library of the Future. It runs Saturday, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., in the main lobby of McPherson Library (they’ll direct you to the lab of obsolescence).

In all, there are several interactive stations for kids and adults alike to enjoy, such as bookmaking by hand, a tech petting zoo (think virtual reality goggles and fun digital gadgets driven by the Raspberry Pi operating system). There are 3-D printing demos, all-ages storytimes with our friends from the Greater Victoria Public Library (10:30 and 11:30 a.m., 12:30 and 1:30 p.m.). Thunder, the UVic’s Vikes mascot, will be on hand for photos.

And everything is free.

READ MORE: Tech petting zoo shows the ‘lending future’ is here

“It’s the second year hosting the family open house during Idea Fest and we’ve expanded it greatly as it was quite popular last year,” said education librarian Pia Russell, who is coordinating the event.

Among the many giveaways and prizes are the chance to bind a handmade book with learning and research librarian Michael Lines.

Participants take the empty book home and fill it out there. Binding uses a needle to poke a hole in the spine and Lines demonstrates how to thread the pages of colourful and textured paper.

“There’s an element of literacy that comes with the bookbinding process,” Lines said.

As for the computer lab, there are plenty of classic video games, a question many want to know, said volunteer Jacob Lower.

They have Oregon Trail, and semi-famous Mario knockoff Jumpman Junior and Tetris clone Nyet.

“The younger audience love the analog feel,” said Lower, who interned two summers with the project and soldered many of the machines to bring them back to life. “They love seeing the floppy disks and how they go into the computer.”

Many are intrigued by the lesser-known models among the 30 functioning classics, such as the Zenith Data Systems Z150.

Lower is generally on the hunt for missing parts that he needs to rebuild another machine from the first generation of household computers.

What’s ironic about the computers is that most of them originally sold for prices over $1,000 US back in the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s. The cutoff for the lab is around 1999. In the early 2000s, when millions of people finally accepted the realization the dusty Macintosh Classic on the garage shelf would never be useful again, computers like these weren’t fit to give away.

And yet, a functioning IBM, Tandy, or Atari computer in 2020 is a rare find, said John Durno, the UVic Libraries technologist and part-time digital archaeologist who started the Obsolete Computing and Media lab.

“Most people love it when they visit here, people who remember these computers, that is,” Durno said. “It’s surprising how much appeal old equipment still has.”

Idea Fest runs from March 2 to 7 with 35 events on research, art, and innovation. For more information visit​ and for the open house visit