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University of Michigan School of Information


Faces of UMSI: Clayton Zimmerman

A photo of Clayton Zimmerman sitting in the Computer and Video Game Archive

Clayton Zimmerman firmly believes archives should be welcoming. And if you walk into U-M’s Computer and Video Game Archive, where Zimmerman greets visitors as an archives assistant, you’re more likely to feel giddy than intimidated.

Housing an interactive collection of video games, consoles and board games from the 1970s to present, the CVGA is a hybrid of a Blockbuster store and your childhood best friend’s basement. 

A photo of Clayton Zimmerman among the collection in the Computer and Video Game Archive
Clayton Zimmerman poses for a photo in U-M's Computer and Video Game Archive.

Zimmerman first visited when they were an undergraduate and Go Blue Guarantee recipient at U-M, majoring in computer science. “It was a Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory moment for me,” they recall. “I was like, ‘Oh, you can do that as a job?’”

Now, they are an MSI student at UMSI, studying library science and digital archives. “I knew, coming out of undergrad, that I didn't want to go into software. I wanted to go into something that's more person-facing on a day-to-day basis — more in the realm of a helping profession,” they explain. 

They taught fourth graders in Chicago through City Year, then moved back home to Michigan, where they worked as a page, then library assistant, in the Lansing library system. While interacting with the library’s patrons and collection, Zimmerman had a feeling similar to hitting the perfect drift in a game of Mario Kart — it just felt right. They wanted to continue on the path to becoming a librarian by getting a master’s degree.

“The Graduate Guarantee made it a very easy and enthusiastic decision to come back to U-M,” Zimmerman says, after they were admitted both to UMSI and a program in Maryland. “I was very grateful to find out that opportunity was available.”

One year in, Zimmerman says the MSI has broadened their perspective on what is possible in the field of information. First semester, they took SI 580: Understanding Records and Archives with assistant professor of information Patricia Garcia — a course that solidified their interest in archives. 

“She talked about how pasts are constructed,” they say, “and how much power there is in the archive.” 

This semester, they decided on digital curation as their specialization within the program, which speaks to their own past. 

“My whole life, I've been interested in Internet culture and digital objects and digital spaces, as someone who, in a town of 1,200 people, would say that I also very much grew up online,” Zimmerman says. While their upbringing was shaped by their rurall surroundings, it was also shaped by the “strange, extra texture of being part of online communities.” 

In the CVGA, where Zimmerman works part time, visitors encounter a familiar texture, running their hands along the spines of cases and ROM cartridges. They can select a game — maybe one from their childhood — and play it with the original hardware and accessories. “I think there's something really powerful in recreating the experience of engaging with that artifact,” Zimmerman says. 

This work also brings them face-to-face with a longstanding debate — one that is central to their field of study. Over the years, they’ve witnessed public backlash against video games, including claims that video games are obscene and concern that they might negatively impact children. 

“I think that really echoes, or rhymes with, what we’re seeing happen right now in libraries, with this huge pushback against progressive values and fair representation of people of color and queer people, where people say, ‘Whoa! Think of the children. We need to protect them from this dangerous media,’” Zimmerman says. 

They point out that video games are now afforded protection under the First Amendment, following a 2011 Supreme Court ruling that cited their ability to communicate ideas, like books, movies, plays and other forms of art. 

At the CVGA, Zimmerman leads class tours and aids students with research for media studies, gender studies and English courses, helping them “read games as texts.” They find themself thinking about “how the past gets passed on” not only through letters, memos and photographs, but through retro games, controllers and instructional manuals. 

They are experiencing, firsthand, what it looks like to connect people with information, in a setting in which even newcomers and non-experts feel welcomed into the fold. 

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