Jack Thomas has turned his childhood fascinations with computers and museums into a career. “I’ve always liked computers, and I started teaching other students how to use them in elementary school,” Thomas said. By the time he was in high school in LeRoy, Ill., he was teaching a Fortune 5-O investment club how to use computers and doing Web design for the Regional Office of Education in Normal, Ill. During high school, Thomas also volunteered at LeRoy’s one-room J.T. and E.J. Crumbaugh Museum and held a seat on its board of directors. When he came to Illinois as a freshman, he found a job at a campus museum. After earning a bachelor’s degree in economics with a minor in information technology studies in 2002 and a master’s degree in library and information science in January 2006, Thomas accepted a full-time position as information technology director at Spurlock Museum.
Tell me about your work at Spurlock.
My first week on campus I began working at the World Heritage Museum (now called the Spurlock Museum). I wasn’t sure what job was available. I just knew I needed a job and I liked computers and museums. I got a job as a registration assistant, doing data entry. It was a really exciting time to start; several months before, the museum had closed its doors to prepare for the move from Lincoln Hall to its new building.
I worked as a registration assistant from 1998-2000, then I switched majors from computer science to economics with a minor in information technology studies. I also changed jobs from registration to information technology assistant at the museum. When my boss left, I stepped into his role as director of information technology. On a suggestion from my outgoing boss, I decided to apply to graduate school, and I got my master’s in library and information science. When I graduated in December 2005, my job was made full-time, and I applied during the search and got it.
What are your responsibilities?
We have more than 50 computers here. We have lots of staff members who work intimately with the artifacts and visitors, and they develop news stories about programs, behind-the-scenes work and collections. My staff and I take the textual content and develop the Web site and do the graphic design. Our entire permanent collection of about 43,000 artifacts is online. We make sure users can do an online search and find the information they need. During 2006, the museum’s Web site got about 350,000 hits or an estimated 75,000 unique visitors – about five times more Web visitors than walk-in visitors.
I’ve had a hand in developing every one of our 40-plus databases, designing some from scratch to address new needs. In addition to our permanent collection database, we have databases for our props collection, items that are used to stage displays; a documentary and multimedia collection that helps us record institutional history; a publication resource database that tracks references to the museum in the media; a complex database that runs the virtual tour, and several databases that organize educational programs and membership.
We also produce video projects, including three annual reports about the museum for different audiences, and supplemental material for exhibits. I’ve helped the museum prepare for accreditation with the American Association of Museums by helping draft and edit the museum’s policies.
What intrigues you about museums?
It’s a great way to get exposure to different cultures and ideas. I’m really intrigued by the presentations of displays and how people create engaging environments.
It’s great to be able to help kids, families or professors find and use the resources they need and to see them interacting with the displays.
I enjoy the overall climate and the variety. There are always new projects, new ideas. It’s never dull. And I like working with the undergraduate student workers. I see my role as supervisor, mentor and teacher.
What do you do when you’re not working?
My wife, Carolyn, and I met when we were students volunteering as ushers at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts. In 2003, we got married on the stage in the Studio Theater. We still usher, probably 12-15 shows a semester, and have worked a total of about 250 shows.
I’m a huge Walt Disney World fan; I’ve been there 10 or 12 times. Carolyn and I also like to take day trips and stay in bed-and-breakfasts. We took a road trip to Las Vegas on our honeymoon. We also like to get together with friends and sing karaoke.