Director of Web Technology,
The JFK Library Foundation
Gone nearly 50 years now, John F. Kennedy, an icon whose election at the dawn of the TV era defined the mystique and glamour of the U.S. presidency, still resonates in the American consciousness.
Kennedy’s era could only see hints of the new world of information dissemination, one where even classified documents, photographs, and artifacts can be instantly available for public consumption and debate.
Yet it was JFK who in his inaugural address declared “the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans.” It is fitting that his legacy is now passed to another generation through the country’s largest presidential library digitization undertaking.
Christopher Reichert, director of Web technology at the JFK Library Foundation, is a key part of the team connecting the massive digitization effort—the White House photograph collection from Kennedy’s term has 35,000 images alone—to a new search tool launched in January 2011.
At the foundation, Reichert is part of a public-private partnership that includes the National Archives and Records Administration, which carries the burden of the actual digitization, and IT infrastructure giant EMC, security experts Raytheon, search experts Endeca, document management group Iron Mountain, and AT&T.
The project marries search technologies with rich archival metadata to make public what was once only available to researchers. Tagging of PDFs, documents, photographs, and recordings adds to the meticulous cataloguing to ease access for all users. For researchers with specific interests, and the casual browser, this means finding material in unexpected documents.
“Part of what we want to do is bring Kennedy’s materials to people,” Reichert said. “In the process, we hope to humanize Kennedy, the man, and advance research into his presidency. Many of his ideas and ideals have aged well.”
“You find great things in odd places,” Reichert said. “They literally packed up filing cabinets exactly as they existed in the White House, so it’s hard to categorize from an archivists perspective. But that’s one part of the joy and serendipity of finding stuff; once obscure items are now just as easy to stumble across as the most popular items. You can find Robert Kennedy’s bachelor party bar tab and scribbles of a young Caroline Kennedy practicing her name on hotel letterhead next to her father’s notes about nuclear weapons in Cuba. It is like traipsing through the attic of our nation’s history.”
The search engine has been evolving since January, when it was launched in conjunction with JFK50.org, a multimedia-heavy site that shares Kennedy’s legacy with a new generation on the 50th anniversary of his inauguration. The site won the gold award for education and outreach from the American Association of Museums’ Media and Technology Committee.
“JFK50.org tells the story of the administration in a storybook context using a comic book format,” Reichert said. “The content is accurate and deep, just presented in a less formal fashion.”
Innovative storytelling is a theme for Reichert, whose Twitter bio declares that the “nexus of design and technology is where I play best.”
A graduate of St. John’s College, with its classical Great Books Program, Reichert backpacked Southeast Asia after college and landed in Australia, where he earned dual citizenship and spent 14 years after founding an IT firm. He returned to the states in 2003 to complete back-to-back degrees at MIT Sloan and the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.
Reichert has maintained ties with MIT Sloan, serving on the board of directors at the MIT Sloan Alumni Club of Boston and as executive chair of the MIT Sloan CIO Symposium since 2005.
Reichert uses the CIO Symposium as a test-bed for new Web technologies some of which have found a place on the Kennedy Library website.
“CIO Symposium has been a great playground, in a way, allowing experimentation with new technologies to tell a story,” he said. “The Kennedy Library brings that to a huge audience.”