My Year with Atari


Unprocessed Atari material on pallets (detail), June 2014, The Strong, Rochester, New York

Moving pallets off the semi-trailer, June 2014, The Strong, Rochester, New YorkLast year, I began processing the Atari Coin-Op Division records, a massive collection The Strong acquired in June 2014. These materials were previously held by a collector who purchased them in 2003 through a sealed-bid auction as Atari Games was liquidating its assets. Housed in four different storage facilities for 11 years, the materials arrived at the museum in boxes that filled 23 wooden pallets. Unloaded from a semi, the pallets went to the climate-controlled storage facility on the museum’s lower level. At that point in time, if a researcher requested to see any of the collection, it would have required searching for a needle in a haystack—or the equivalent in dozens of boxes on the pallets. For obvious reasons, that was not going to work. Thus, to make these materials accessible to researchers and the public and to ensure their long-term preservation, the museum needed to transfer the records to archival-quality storage containers and create a finding aid to assist interested researchers in understanding what the collection contained. And for the past year, that is precisely what I did.

Working in the museum’s archives can be exciting work (especially when we find a rare document that allows a new insight or perspective into the past), but it can also be overwhelming at times. As I began processing the collection, the materials were scattered in different storage areas. There were several pallets of unorganized and oversized materials stored in old and unstable wooden map cases; two large rolling racks of loose material; 63 cartons of documents; 110 boxes of videotape (including VHS, Beta Cam, and UMatic), with only a partial clue of what content they stored; six boxes of floppy disks—including 8-inch floppy disks containing original source code to classic Atari arcade games; two computer towers; and several disintegrating boxes that contained rolled cabinet assembly drawings and artwork. As I surveyed the collection and considered how to make it accessible to the public, I knew I had my work cut out for me.

Unprocessed Atari material on pallets, June 2014, The Strong, Rochester, New YorkWith such a large collection, and only a general idea of what it contains, it is best to perform an inventory to evaluate not only its contents but also how best to arrange it (archivists often arrange materials by what they call series and subseries; therefore, an inventory will assist informing those arrangement decisions). So, starting with box one, folder one, that’s precisely what I did. As I performed the inventory, I began to identify potential series and was able to contextualize the materials in a way that made sense. There was, for example, game development documentation—records that documented the process Atari undertook to create and design its games. The collection also included cabinet assembly drawings that informed manufacturers on how to assemble the arcade cabinets. I also came across market research, technical documentation, schematics, corporate memos, promotional materials, photos, videos, and cabinet artwork.

After completing my inventory and having a proposed arrangement of materials, it was time to start physically transferring, rehousing (an archivist’s term meaning to place materials into acid-free folders and archival containers), and arranging the records. With the majority of the collection stored on pallets in The Strong’s basement storage area, I made myself very familiar with the museum’s pallet jack and began to transfer these materials into the new map cases that the museum purchased to safely store the Atari Coin-Op Collection. The new map cases occupy prime real estate in the Brian Sutton-Smith Library and Archives of Play’s reading room, a more convenient location than the basement storage room at the opposite end of the building.

Dane with processed Atari collection, July 2016, The Strong, Rochester, New YorkAfter the arrangement and the relocation of the records, it was time to create what archivists call a finding aid. Finding aids are a helpful resource that provide interested researchers with an idea of the collection’s nature, information on the creators of the materials, a biographical or historical note about the creators, a scope and content note (providing a snapshot of the types of materials contained in the collection, very much like I did earlier in this post), and often a container list delineating on a folder level what each box and map case drawer includes. Currently, the finding aid is almost finished and will be made available to scholars in the near future. It is my hope that this finding aid will be of great assistance to those interested in the innovative and transformative company that ushered in the video game revolution.

Now my time with Atari is complete. It was truly exciting to get a first-hand look into the company that defined video games, and it still makes me sad to see the firm’s ultimate demise. Yet, Atari’s contribution to gaming will now be forever documented, and I am proud to have played a part in that effort.   


For more on toys, games, and all sorts of other stuff for play—past and present—from Dane and his museum colleagues, visit The Strong's Play Stuff Blog.

Leave a Reply