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Software Trove Is Testament to Its Collector

History: Before his death, a young enthusiast amassed a 20,000-piece collection. Now his family is seeking a home for it.

August 12, 1996|GREG MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

One of the world's largest vintage software collections is not housed in the Smithsonian, or the Computer Museum in Boston, or even the in-house museum at Microsoft Corp. in Redmond, Wash.

Rather, it is stacked up to the ceiling of a house in suburban Massachusetts that was the home of Stephen Cabrinety. Stephen, a former Stanford University student who died last fall of complications of Hodgkin's disease, spent the bulk of his short life collecting software and left behind a trove of more than 20,000 pieces.

"I'm not sure exactly why he started to collect it," said his sister, Margaret Cabrinety, 36, who along with the rest of the family is now trying to find a permanent home for the collection. "He's just one of those people who really enjoyed it. He sort of fits the [stereotype of the] classical nerd."

The collection consists of more than just software. It also includes more than 60 computer systems, game machines and other pieces of hardware needed to run all the software, plus more than 5,000 books and manuals.

Stephen, who was 29 when he died, started his collection while he was in high school, and it became a full-time endeavor after he dropped out of Stanford in the early 1980s, his sister said.

He bought software at computer stores, by mail order and at swap meets and flea markets, said Margaret, who estimates that her brother spent more than $100,000 on his collection.

His parents financed his collecting, perhaps because he was so passionate about it, and also because they knew that his life would probably be cut short by disease, Margaret said. Lawrence Cabrinety, Stephen's father, was an executive at Digital Equipment Corp. in Massachusetts.

Stephen "tried to be comprehensive so you could go back 100 years from now and understand what happened," Margaret said. "At one time he was getting 60 periodicals a month, including Byte and Wired. He has all the early issues of a lot of magazines."

But the Cabrinety family must now decide what to do with Stephen's collection. The likely destination, Margaret said, is Stanford, which has proposed to share the collection with the Computer Museum as part of a plan to build a computer history museum in Silicon Valley.

Henry Lowood, curator of the science and technology collections at the Stanford University Libraries, said software collections such as Stephen Cabrinety's are a vital piece of America's modern cultural tapestry.

Software is "the major cultural media of the moment," Lowood said. "If we don't document it, we won't be able to say much about the evolution of culture in the late 20th century."

The Cabrinety collection raises some problems for historians, however. Chief among them is how to preserve an inherently unstable medium. Software tends to deteriorate over time and must be recopied periodically, said Brent Sverdloff, manager of the historical collection at the Computer Museum.

There is also the question of exactly what should be preserved.

"You have to ask what historians will be interested in looking at 100 years from now," Lowood said. "Will somebody be interested in who used the software, the source code, advertisements? It's a lot more than just carrying the bits forward."

Regardless, Cabrinety's collection is bound to become an important resource for technology historians, a prospect that would have made Stephen proud, his sister said.

"I think he'd be glad," she said. "After he spent 10-plus years of his life doing nothing but [collecting], I'm sure he would want us to try to take care of it as well as possible."

Information about Stephen's collection can be found at a Web site created by Margaret, a freelance writer who lives in Maryland. The address is http://www.clark.net/pub/kinesixd/

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