March 22-25, 2006
Albuquerque, New Mexico

Papers: Magic and Multimedia

Slavko Milekic, University of the Arts, USA, Giuliano Gaia, InvisibleStudio, Italy. Stefania Boiano, Nature Publishing Group, United Kingdom. Francesca Pasquali, Università degli Studi di Bergamo, Italy, Lawrence Reichlin, Zuckerman-Honickman, Inc., USA


"Magic, also called prestidigitation or conjuring, is the art of entertaining an audience by performing illusions that baffle and amaze, often by giving the impression that something impossible has been achieved, almost as if the performer had magic or supernatural powers" ( [illusion]). Magic is about creating amazement and curiosity, and about knowing how human perception works. Both aspects are equally important in creating effective educational multimedia. It is not surprising that during the nineteenth century the phenomena of electricity and magnetism were presented as magic by people who were an interesting intersection of magicians, scientists and educators. The success of magic depends upon the mental models people have formed about how the world functions. By analyzing these mental models, their underlying processes and ‘how magic works,’ we will try to understand how some features of effective magic could be transferred into successful educational multimedia.

Keywords: magic, educational multimedia, interface design, Web


Almost a half decade ago, Arthur C. Clarke made the following statement, also known as Clarke’s Third Law: “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” (Clarke, 1961). Although this phrase has been quoted numerous times, it has been rarely used in the context of guiding the development of new technologies. In other words, having a goal to develop something with ‘magical’ properties may enhance and inform the development process. In order to do something like this, one has first to understand how magic works. In this paper we will try to understand how some features of effective magic could be transferred into successful multimedia applications.

Historical Background

Magic and magical thinking have existed since the beginning of humankind. Magical thinking precedes ‘rational’ or ‘scientific’ thinking. The roots of magical thinking are a basic human need to explain the world. Facing unexplainable phenomena, humans invoked magical forces. In this respect magical thinking can be seen as a precursor to scientific thinking although the method it uses is that of correlation (most often proximity of events in time or space) and not of causation. According to Frazer (Frazer, 1994), magical thinking follows two laws: the law of similarity (cause and effect resemble each other), and the law of contagion (physical contact or proximity at one point in time continues to have an effect even when physical connection does not exist any more). Magical thinking exists in all humans and cultures, but is especially common in children and adolescents who are just developing their critical thinking skills. However, even highly educated individuals resort to ‘magical’ thinking when they are unable to provide a rational explanation for phenomena they witnessed or were subjected to. For example, Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, one of the most rational fictional characters, was a great believer in ‘spirits’ and ‘fairies’. It is worth noting that this uniquely human capability provides the basis for both scientific and magical thinking: the sense of wonder or mystery. This notion has been expressed by intellectual leaders from classical to modern times:

“It is owing to their wonder that men both now begin and at the first began to philosophize.” (Aristotle)

“The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and all science.” (Albert Einstein)

We believe that facing the mysterious triggers two (not necessarily mutually exclusive) impulses:

  • the effort to explain the mystery, and
  • the effort to hold onto it

We can imagine these impulses as alternating and ‘causing’ each other. A mystery provokes a sense of wonder, which in turn gives rise to a desire to explain it, where the explanation itself often uncovers new mysteries…

How Does Magic Work?

How does magic work? Other than the physical actions involved, magic depends on the mental models people have formed during their lives and the assumptions to which these models lead:

a mental model is an explanation in someone's thought process for how something works in the real world. It is a kind of internal symbol or representation of external reality, hypothesized to play a major part in cognition. (Wikipedia, (illusion)

Magic depends on the magician’s being able to exploit these models. This is why magic performances for adults and magic for children are necessarily different. After all, magical thinking is natural to children precisely because they don't yet know how the world works. A successful children's magician focuses on making the path leading up to an effect as entertaining as possible, because the effect itself is no more magical than the rest of the world. A child is much more difficult to fool than an adult, and arguably the more knowledgeable the adults, the easier they are to fool. Stated differently, the greater the understanding of the intricacies of the world (in form of stable mental models), the easier it is to use that knowledge in the service of creating magic.

By way of illustration, let's take a simple example: the magician's wand. The common mental model is that the hand only holds one item at a time. Thus, the viewer’s assumption is that when a magician holds a wand it is the only object in his hand (we use the pronoun ‘he’ to refer to a magician for historical reasons and should not be taken as sign of bias against female magic performers.) The reality is that part of the magician's skill is in making the hand look completely natural while holding the wand and some other object, thereby creating the opportunity to do something unexpected and magical.

This is also why new technologies seem so magical. We have not yet formed the mental model that incorporates them.

The question is, how can we maintain the magical feeling? In other words, how can we maintain a sense of awe and delight in situations we have become familiar with and in which our mental models have been formed? It would seem an impossible task; however, we've all experienced continued wonder while observing a sunset, using the Internet, and many other situations we encounter on a daily basis.

Part of the answer lies in the notion of emerging mental models as opposed to mature ones. After all, if the paradigm is not fully formed, the part that is not yet explained remains magical. If this were true, there would be an inverse relationship between the degree of formation of the model and the degree of awe. This is not always the case, so we need to explore further the characteristics which keep magic alive.

Certainly, the level of novelty, together with the ability to keep something novel in spite of repeated exposures, is another part of the equation. Surprise can be a big factor in maintaining novelty. The fact that a given situation could have multiple outcomes keeps people feeling a sense of wonder as they repeatedly experience the same situation (with different results). This is one of the reasons that the iPod Shuffle works so well. But again, novelty can wear off, and in one sense, the degree of novelty is related to the degree that a new mental model is formed, in terms of its ability to create wonder.

Perhaps it comes down to the observers and their willingness, indeed their innate need, to play along. The phrase that is most often used in case of magic and other performances is “suspension of disbelief.” It is the motivation one has to capture the awe and be able to revisit it. It is the essence of the existence of art and what Einstein refers to in his statement that the mysterious is the source of all true art.

Magic and Media

Magic has also played a big part in the emerging of media technologies and apparatuses: not only because every new medium has a magical flavour in itself, but also because magicians’ performances were one of the roots of media industries.

In his well-known book The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962), Marshall McLuhan claims that every human technology holds the power to obnebulate human consciousness, in its first phase of diffusion.

This has been true for the old ‘new media’ - from the magic lantern to panoramas etc. (see, for instance, Oettermann, 1997; Blake, 2003; Burd Schiavo, 2003) - and it is true for the new ‘new media’ too. Such peculiar fascination with media is deeply interwoven with their uncertain status. Borrowing Richard Altman’s idea of “crisis historiography”, Gitelman and Pingree (2004, p. xii) in their book devoted to the media scenario between 1740 and 1915 wrote:

we might say that new media, when they first emerge, pass through a phase of identity crisis, a crisis precipitated at least by the uncertain status of the given medium in relation to established, known media and their function.

However, connections between media and magic don’t reside only in the innovation processes, in their ‘surprising’ nature. As a matter of fact, magic and media do share a common history - magic performances being among the archeological forms of media industries.

Of course, magic has always represented a way to relate to reality, and a way of thinking, but in a certain phase of its history it became a form of entertainment both in popular and aristocratic contexts. This was a long process which became extremely visible in the eighteenth century. While it is not possible here to examine this process in depth, let’s briefly consider the visual arts, and how in eighteenth century outdoor and indoor entertainment (for instance, in Hogarth’s paintings and sketches) magic became a topos, with the massive presence of the figures of charlatans, magicians, card players (e.g., in Pietro Longhi or Tiepolo paintings). We can easily find many earlier examples in the visual arts - like Hieronymus Bosch’s L’escamoteur (1480, approximately). Still, it was only in the second half of the eighteenth century that magic performances became a more ‘institutionalized’ form of entertainment. In the same period the connection between magic and technological innovation became extremely visible. For example, by the end of the century a magician named Gustavus Katterfelto settled in London where he started a permanent magic show, with regularly scheduled performances (including tickets, newspaper advertisement etc.), performing electrical and chemical experiments and demonstrations of a microscope (De Ritis, 2004). There were also numerous performances based on automata (Chapuis & Droz, 1949; Tiffany, 2000) or optical technologies (Hankins & Silverman, 1995), just to mention some of the better known ones. The importance of magic performances was clear in the nineteenth century when they became a significant part of the new society of symbolic consumption and spectacle (Benjamin, 1969), thus becoming an archeological form of urban entertainment and mass media (cfr. Crary, 1992, 1999; Cook, 2001; During, 2002). However, the relevance of magic for the establishment of media industries cannot be reduced to a matter of popularity. On the contrary, based on the above descriptions one can make the claim that:

  • Magic performances established themselves as a proto-industrial system (by means of advertising, establishment of an international star-system, and development of a para-literature);
  • Magic performances, before any other form of spectacle, started a specific phenomenon of cultural industries where technological innovations found their first use in entertainment and in symbolic consumption (for example, automata, visual tricks, talking dolls, but also electricity, magnetism etc.).

Magic and Science in Relation to Emerging Technologies

At the end of the eighteenth century magic and science were often intertwined. The half-magician, half-scientist Comus declared himself “electric doctor” and was appointed “Royal Professor of Physics” by King Louis XV, who was fascinated by his experiments of “Physique Amusante” (entertaining Physic). People were thrilled by the experiments of magicians because these performers knew how to use (or simulate) the most spectacular characteristics of electricity and magnetism. For example, Benjamin Rackstrow created in 1748 a famous “glass crown” which enabled people to see “electric” waves coming out from their heads (During, 2002). Today, two and a half centuries later, the same ‘spectacular’ principles are used by science museums and science centers to entertain and stimulate visitors.

Fig 1: The “electric theatre” at the Palais de la Decouverte, Paris.

Fig 1: The “electric theatre” at the Palais de la Decouverte, Paris.

The photograph above, taken at Palais de la Decouverte in 2001, shows an interactive lab for museum visitors set up as an “electric theatre”, where a museum guide plays with visitors using electricity and magnetism, on a very spectacular stage, surrounded by enormous machines. In the photo, the guide shows how a Faraday cage works by hitting the cage with high-voltage “lightning bolts” while the visitors are in the cage. The effect is highly spectacular and educational; the ‘retro’ atmosphere adds a special touch to the whole representation.

The Exploratorium of San Francisco is another educational institution which seeks the emotional involvement of the user. Its founder, Frank Oppenheimer, director of the atomic bomb research program during WW II, was very interested in creating a truly educational and emotional environment for users of every age. In some ways, the Exploratorium has always worked on ‘low-tech’ exhibits, to focus on the scientific principle and not on the technology. On the other hand, it has always used technology in a very creative way. For example, simple as it may seem, the idea to put optical illusions on-line when the Web was in its early stages was quite revolutionary, because it was a real on-line exhibit. People could experience on their computer screens, outside of the museum, exactly the same feeling of amazement they would have felt inside the museum.

Fig 2: The scintillation grid, a classic optical illusion. Try to count the black dots…

Fig 2: The scintillation grid, a classic optical illusion. Try to count the black dots…

Optical illusions have always been a classical area of interest for magicians, but they also tell us a lot about how our senses work. Advancements in studies of optics and refractions offered magicians a whole new series of tricks, such as the “phantom”.


Fig 3: The “phantom” optical effect.

The history of the “phantom” is interesting because it shows the close relationship between magic and science in the past. The phantom trick is based on refraction: placing a glass plate at a 45° angle and projecting an image onto it creates an illusion of a ghost-like presence on the stage, as illustrated in the nineteenth century print above. For a detailed description of this and related optical illusions, see (Steinmeyer, 2005).

The phantom effect was invented by an engineer, Henry Dirks, but first put onstage by John Henry Pepper, who was the director of the Royal Polytechnic Institution in London, an institution devoted to the spread of scientific culture (Steinmeyer, 2005). The Royal Polytechnic’s attractions included exhibitions, working machines and models, scientific lectures, rides in a diving bell - a major attraction - and, from 1839, demonstrations of photography. The Polytechnic regularly organized shows of magicians as “educational entertainment”, so it is not a surprise that the director was a magician himself. Moreover, the Polytechnic also specialized in “magic lantern” shows, the precursor of cinema.

In fact, the invention of movies is one of the most illustrative cases of interaction between magic and an emerging technology. A famous example of this is the work of George Méliès (1861-1938), owner of the small Théatre Robert-Houdin in Paris, a well-known place for magic shows. In 1895, The Lumière brothers established their photographic laboratory in the same building. Méliès was fascinated by their experiments with moving images, and applied magic effects to the new art. We owe him the first sciencefiction movie (Le Voyage dans la lune, 1902), the first special effect (the stopmotion) and, in more general terms, the vision of movies as a way to create a new reality. In fact, Méliès not only was fascinated by the ‘magic’ of the emerging technology, but also fully realized its ‘magic potential’ as a communication technology.

Magic and Technology

Magicians of all times have made inanimate objects apparently come to life, either by making them move or by transforming them into animals. This was particularly true during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries when recently discovered energy sources (electricity and magnetism) were hidden inside objects. The natural extension of bringing inanimate objects to life is to create an artificial human being, with artificial intelligence, one of the most intriguing dreams of the humankind throughout history.

The Turkish Chess Player

Artificial Intelligence has always been measured in interactions with humans: the famous Turing Test assesses the intelligence of a machine based on its capability to hold a conversation with humans. Well before Turing, Europe was shaken by the appearance of a machine, the Turkish Chess Player, able to perform in a very effective way, a specific kind of conversation: chess playing. The Turkish Chess Player was created by Baron Wolfgang von Kempelen in 1769. It was a life-size torso of a chess player positioned at a table and capable of playing chess against human challengers. ‘He’ achieved international success by winning matches with the most renowned chess players of that time, including Katherine the Great and Benjamin Franklin.

The Turkish Chess Player was a fake, even if a remarkable one. It was operated by a talented human chess player hidden inside the table where a rolling chair and a set of sliding panels allowed him to remain hidden even while the interior of the ‘machine’ was being exposed. Then he controlled the automaton using mechanical levers and played his match on a magnetic board replicating the real board (Figure 4).

Fig 4: The mechanical “Turkish Chess Player” - 1769

Fig 4: The mechanical “Turkish Chess Player” - 1769

Building a virtual replica of the Turkish Chess Player was the aim of a 2004 project by the Interactive Media Systems Group of the Vienna University of Technology. The project created a digital image of the Turkish Chess player, and users could play a match of ‘virtual chess’, using an optical tracking system. Further info on the project can be found at the Web pages listed in the references.

Fig 5: The Virtual Turkish Chess Player - 2004 (image: medien.welten at Technisches Museum Wien)

Fig 5: The Virtual Turkish Chess Player - 2004
(image: medien.welten at Technisches Museum Wien)

The Vienna researchers tried to recover the magical effect by focusing on the ‘interface’ of the machine rather than on its playing performances. Using the 3D recreation of the player and distance interaction, they created an ethereal, ghost-like presence similar to the ones so popular in the spiritists’ magic shows of the nineteenth century. Nowadays the ‘supernatural’ is gone, but wonder and emotional involvement are still the aim, and a recent technology is still the tool to get it.

Euclide, The Virtual Puppet

Studio Azzurro is one of the most renowned Italian groups creating digital art. They specialize in exploring new forms of interaction between users and artworks. More specifically, the research at Studio Azzurro is aimed at creating “sensitive environments” where technology is married to narration and space, where the outcome is the result of individual choices, and where the relationship between individuals coexists with the human-machine relationship.

One of their most successful creations is Euclide, a ‘virtual puppet’ which can be seen as a modern counterpart of the Turkish Chess Player. Euclide is a computer-animated character controlled by a hidden human operator. Using a glove with embedded sensors, the operator can alter the expressions of the character and speak with a synthesized voice. The exhibit is highly effective because visitors expect the character to be unintelligent and are surprised when the character interacts with them in a very ‘human’ way.

Here the users’ first question is: “How is it possible”? As mentioned before, children tend to consider the event as more natural. They take it for granted that Euclide is a real, autonomous being, and ask him all kinds of questions; for example, to explain how the VCR works, since it should be related to him, being a technological item…

Adults are less interested in the pure interaction with the character and more interested in understanding how the system works, and how an artificial machine can be so intelligent. In both cases the exhibit has proven very effective in getting visitors’ attention and in stimulating social interactions between groups of visitors. The downside is the necessity of the constant presence of a skilled operator capable of using the machine and amusing and interacting effectively with visitors. Moreover, the system is quite expensive and the glove is quite delicate, making it more appropriate for single-shot appearances than for permanent operation.

From a strictly educational point of view, however, Euclide is a very effective application because, due to the emotional involvement of the interaction, the attention paid to what the character is saying is usually higher than with regular human guides. On the other hand, the operator cannot just describe objects and concepts in a normal way, but has to use narrative styles compatible with the character. In other words, the persona cannot just describe how a computer works, but has to describe it in relation to fact that it is a computer as well (Do you know how I work? etc.).

Implications for Multimedia and Interfaces for New Technologies

If we adopt Arthur C. Clarke’s postulate that any sufficiently advanced technology becomes indistinguishable from magic, one of the implications is that analyzing the ‘magical’ can inform the design of multimedia applications and interfaces for new technologies and media. In previous sections we have pointed out how a ‘magic’ effect depends on the discrepancy between a viewer’s expectations (mental model) and a witnessed event. We also analyzed the relationship between magic, science, media and new technologies. In this section we focus on those characteristics of magic that may have practical implications for interface design.

One of the most evident differences between magic and new technologies is in the relationship with an individual. The following table illustrates some of them:

role relationship outcome understanding
magic viewer passive surprising not necessary
technology user active desired not necessary

Fig 6: Relationship with the individual

Note that the actual understanding of a technology or magical effect is not necessary - in fact, partial knowledge often interferes with the pleasure derived from using new technologies or watching magic performances. Besides this shared characteristic it seems that the relationship and the role of the user/viewer with magic and technology are very different and of little use for interface design. However, the situation changes dramatically if we adopt the view of user-as-a-magician in regard to new technologies. Using this notion allows us to find many parallels between magical thinking, doing magic and the use of new technologies.

First, let us point out that any practice of magic involves knowing and following certain ‘procedures’ which cause the ‘magical’ effect. For example, casting a spell on someone requires certain phrases or specific actions, and similar procedures are necessary to ‘neutralize’ someone’s spell or ‘ward off evil’. These procedures are still common in many cultures, like throwing salt over one’s shoulder or wearing a ‘lucky charm’ (an interesting modern ‘magic’ tool is a plastic figure of an angel which, mounted on your car’s dashboard, increases the likelihood of finding a parking spot).

Fig 7: “Parking Karma” angel

Fig 7: “Parking Karma” angel

Modern conjuring also uses (although less and less) magic phrases like the stereotypic ‘abracadabra’ or ‘sim sala bim’. We would argue that there is a parallel between these procedures and successful modern interface metaphors. Examples include ‘point and shoot’ cameras, ‘drag-and-drop’ computer interfaces, voice dialing and the use of speech recognition in modern cars, etc. In other words, knowing the ‘procedure’ (I drag the little icon of a document onto the printer icon and the document is ‘magically’ printed) allows us to invoke powerful magic provided by modern technologies. In other words, user-as-a-magician does not have to understand how things are happening, as long as s/he knows what the appropriate procedure is to invoke the desired effect. Continued use of the specific procedure creates a mental model of how-things-work in this realm and allows a user to develop a set of predictions (expectations) on how to use the same procedure for performing the magical effect in new, but similar, situations. For example, adopting the drag-and-drop model, one may try to e-mail a photograph to someone just by dragging its icon on to an e-mail address. In a well-designed application, a user’s intuition is rewarded, thus creating a sense of joy and empowerment. However, this is most often not the case, leading to user frustration.

Most magical procedures also contain an element of ‘action at distance’ (Frazer, 1994) which provides an interesting parallel with many modern technologies. Using a cell phone I can ‘shout’ to someone in Australia; using a sniper I can cause someone to die a couple of miles away; using Internet surveillance cameras I can be in several places at once. This list also includes the devices that have become almost invisible due to their frequent use in daily life - the humble remote-control.

We use a certain form of magical thinking in everyday life much more than we are aware of. The phenomenon was described by the philosopher Daniel Dennett (1989) and is known as the ‘intentional stance’. In simple words, adopting an intentional stance means ascribing intentionality to inanimate objects (most often complex machines whose mode of operation we do not exactly understand). Examples of ‘intentional stance’ are, for instance calling a car ‘temperamental’ (because it will never start when I really need it), accusing a computer of sabotaging my work because it always ‘freezes’ at the most inconvenient moment, etc. According to Dennett, adoption of ‘intentional stance’ provides an efficient way of describing and sharing with others ways of interacting with complex technologies without the need to understand their actual mode of functioning. For example, my home computer ‘does not like’ printing when the Internet connection is active, and although I am aware that there is a perfectly rational explanation for this problem, this is what I tell other people before they start using it.

Using the notion of user-as-a-magician, the guidelines for multimedia design, as well as for the design of interfaces with new technologies, include the following:

  • use simple ‘magic’ procedures: for example, ‘just point to…’, or ‘just say…’;
  • reward the user’s intuitions (about interaction mechanism) by making the procedure work across different modes of interaction;
  • infuse applications with ‘intentionality’ that is beneficial for the user: for example, a Web search engine that ‘works just for me’, a tax preparation program that is ‘on my side’, a car that is ‘eager to please’.

Extending the notion of simple ‘magic’ procedures to invoke actions, one can make a case that the simplest procedures are those that are already used by humans. For example, the act of pointing to something is used across cultures as a way to focus attention on a certain object, or to indicate a selection. These universal intentional gestures provide a powerful mechanism for interacting with new technologies, a mechanism that does not have to be learned and that comes with a series of expectations as to how technologies should work. An example of such an interface is the ‘intention aware’ environment developed by one of the authors of this paper (Milekic, 2005). In this environment the proximity of a user’s face to an object (displayed on a computer screen) is taken to indicate user’s interest in the particular object or one of its features. Using the proximity sensors, the environment is capable of detecting these ‘intentional gestures’ and reacts simply by providing more information about the particular area of interest. The environment works consistently over different modalities, so if the displayed object is a painting or a photograph, moving the head closer to the screen will trigger the ‘zoom’ function (Figure 8), allowing the user to examine the object in greater detail. However, if what is displayed on the screen is a newspaper title and a summary of an article, the same gesture would provide the user with the full text of the article.

Fig 8: Intention-aware environment. Moving the head towards the screen (expressing interest) zooms into that portion of the screen.

Fig 8: Intention-aware environment. Moving the head towards the screen (expressing interest) zooms into that portion of the screen.

Not yet as common, but soon to come, is the use of eye- and gaze-tracking-based interfaces. An example of such an interface developed at the Eye Tracking Lab at the University of Tampere, Finland, is a ‘gaze aware dictionary’. This application is designed to help native Finnish speakers while reading a document in English on their computer screens. It is based on the phenomenon that whenever we encounter a word or a phrase that is hard to understand (increased cognitive load), our eyes move in a very specific pattern (coming back to the ‘questionable’ word or phrase). Eye-tracking application is capable of picking up this pattern, so whenever a user comes across a word or phrase not fully understood, a translation and a dictionary entry for the specific word literally ‘pops up’ on the screen. The effect is truly ‘magical’ and borders on mind reading, because it does not require any conscious action on the user’s part but provides support only when needed. For a description of other intention aware environments that use eye- and gaze-tracking based interfaces, see (Milekic, 2003).


In this paper we have tried to explore the historic parallels between the practice of magic, science, media and the development of new technologies. It seems that the sense of mystery is the driving force both in scientific and magical thinking. Emerging technologies provide this sense and thus have often been presented as ‘magic’ in the early stages of development. As the technology becomes common and wide-spread, the sense of mystery wanes. The same is also true for magic, where watching the same trick over and over again leads quickly to boredom. We can say that the practice of magic and exposure to new technologies in their initial stage share many common characteristics. However, with wide adoption of new technologies, the role of the individual changes from observer to user. For this reason, we suggest that the most fruitful approach in designing the interfaces for new technologies is the one of user-as-a-magician. Adopting this view is consistent with current cognitive science’s views about human ability and the use of magical thinking, and may be used as a guiding principle in interface design.


While the authors worked together on all parts, the paragraph How Does Magic Work is by Lawrence S. Reichlin, Magic and Media is by Francesca Pasquali, Magic and Science in Relation to Emerging Technologies is by Stefania Boiano, Magic and Technology is by Giuliano Gaia, and Implications for Multimedia and Interfaces for New Technologies is by Slavoljub Milekic.


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Cite as:

Milekic et al., Magic and Multimedia, in J. Trant and D. Bearman (eds.). Museums and the Web 2006: Proceedings, Toronto: Archives & Museum Informatics, published March 1, 2006 at