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Berkman Community Newcomers: Jack Cushman

This post is part of a series featuring interviews with some of the fascinating individuals who joined our community for the 2014-2015 year. Conducted by our 2014 summer interns (affectionately known as "Berkterns"), these snapshots aim to showcase the diverse backgrounds, interests, and accomplishments of our dynamic 2014-2015 community.

Interested in joining the Berkman Center community? We're currently accepting fellowship applications for the 2015-2016 academic year. Read more on our fellowships page.

Interview with Jack Cushman

Berkman fellow working on digital preservation at university libraries
interviewed in summer 2014 by Berktern Nicole Contaxis

Jack Cushman understands that the library is an evolving institution. Students no longer need to wander up and down corridors of books in order to complete their assignments or explore their fields. More and more material is available online, and the nature of research is changing as information technology advances. As such, the responsibilities and designs of the library are also changing, and Cushman’s project at the Harvard Law Library Innovation Lab situates itself within this dialogue. As an extension of the Perma.cc and Permabox projects, Cushman is attempting to build a network of preservation technologies owned and operated by libraries.

Cushman’s connection to Berkman began when he was volunteering on the Perma.cc project, and eventually his co-workers convinced him to apply as a fellow so that he could continue to help full-time. Perma.cc helps scholars provide permanent links to online works cited in their writings and helps prevent link rot. This service allows scholars to cite a wide variety of materials without concerns about how long those materials will be available online. In other words, it provides the permanence and security to digital materials that have long been afforded physical materials in libraries. Permabox helps extend the perma.cc network by helping smaller, perhaps underfunded, libraries and universities participate. Cushman’s project builds on this work and will help provide permanent links to online legal materials referenced in judicial decisions.

As Cushman helps libraries implement a preservation network like this one, he heavily considers the present and future form of libraries. With three over-flowing bookcases at his home, he is connected to the physical manifestation of the library and maintains that it should stick around, at least for as long as he does. And while he understands that it is currently important for libraries to provide access to the internet and technology literacy materials, he believes that this responsibility will shrink as technology becomes cheaper and tablets are given away in cereal boxes.

Yet, when discussing the future of the library, Cushman remains focused on the importance of the “alternate universe” that libraries provide. Unburdened by the expectation of financial transactions, the library has a different set of goals and responsibilities that many businesses and institutions. It maintain an atmosphere that is difficult to define but easy to enjoy. More concretely, it may be the only type of institution where your late fee is just fifty cents, and you can pay it “whenever.” The library is a unique community space, and Cushman believes that it is this quality that is most desirable and most important to preserve during and after these current upheavals.

Cushman’s work with libraries is informed by a diverse set of experiences. With an undergraduate degree in electronic arts, a law degree, and experience in film, Cushman ties his interests together with one overarching concern: how to help people grasp and fulfill their potential. He describes a deep passion for humanism and enhancing the human experience, particularly as it exists and is understood online. Drawing comparisons to the goals and intentions of the Founding Fathers as they drafted the Constitution, he believes that the Internet has provided a new space for the creation and proliferation of tools for human growth.

Yet where the Founding Fathers had a history of legal and governmental action to call upon, the Internet is a space that lacks the same sense of history and seems to lack an analogue. Cushman explains one difference: when the Founding Fathers were writing the Bill of Rights, a safe could be broken into with a considerable amount of effort, but now as “safes” currently exist online, they are either terribly easy or impossible to open. The physical limitations that provided the context for the theory and philosophy behind the Constitution do not exist online, and this is just one of the issues that need to be addressed as the Internet proliferates. Cushman understands his work, as well as the work done at Berkman in general, as a way to bridge a humanistic philosophy and new technological platforms. For Cushman, the future of technology is bright and human-centric.