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The new age of algorithms: How it affects the way we live

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But isn't banality the point? Historians want to know not just what happened in the past but how people lived. It is why they rejoice in finding a semiliterate diary kept by a Confederate soldier, or pottery fragments in a colonial town.

It's as if a historian today writing about Lincoln could listen in on what millions of Americans were saying on the day he was shot.

Youkel and Mandelbaum might seem like an odd couple to carry out a Big Data project: One is a career Library of Congress researcher with an undergraduate degree in history, the other a geologist who worked for years with oil companies. But they demonstrate something Babson's Mr. Davenport has written about the emerging field of analytics: "hybrid specialization."

For organizations to use the new technology well, traditional skills, like computer science, aren't enough. Davenport points out that just as Big Data combines many innovations, finding meaning in the world's welter of statistics means combining many different disciplines.

Mandelbaum and Youkel pool their knowledge to figure out how to archive the tweets, how researchers can find what they want, and how to train librarians to guide them. Even before opening tweets to the public, the library has gotten more than 400 requests from doctoral candidates, professors, and journalists.

"This is a pioneering project," Mr. Dizard says. "It's helping us begin to handle large digital data."

For "America's library," at this moment, that means housing a Gutenberg Bible and Lady Gaga tweets. What will it mean in 50 years? I ask Dizard.

He laughs – and demurs. "I wouldn't look that far ahead."

*     *     *

Arnold Lund is looking ahead. Lund has a Ph.D. in experimental psychology. He holds 20 patents, has written a book on managing technology design, and directs a variety of projects for General Electric.

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