Life in Lore: History—and students—at work

Opinion by Melina Walling
June 11, 2019, 1:32 a.m.

Last quarter, I wrote an article urging a serious reconsideration of the upcoming renovations to Green Library. To recap, the renovations are the result of a $25 million gift from Harold Hohbach, a patent lawyer and real estate developer who passed away in 2017. The newly designed wing will work with the Silicon Valley Archives project to create a “vibrant collections-centered research hub,” and will also include an exhibit space featuring a rotating gallery of oil paintings commissioned by Hohbach that honor Silicon Valley innovators and inventors.

I stand by my previous article: I believe that Green Library, as one of the most central spaces on campus, does not need to be infused with the often misguided Silicon Valley ethos of progress. I also believe that the oil paintings that will be on display are a flagrant illustration of sexism, racism, classism and borderline tech-worship. It takes little more than a cursory glance to notice that nearly all the subjects of these paintings are white men who made their fortunes off the tech industry, and that the few women in these portraits are not presented with the same hero status of their male counterparts.

However, as I described before, I also care deeply about the space of Green Library. I want it to be a space that other students of all academic disciplines can appreciate as much as I do, as a humanities student. So, to find out more details about the upcoming renovation, and to explore ways that students might be able to engage with the project, I sat down with Gabrielle Karampelas, Director of Communications and Development at Green, and Henry Lowood, Curator for the History of Science and Technology Collections and one of the key social historians associated with the Silicon Valley Archives. Both Karampelas and Lowood were extremely open about the project and spoke to me at length about the donors, their intentions, future directions for research and possibilities for student involvement.

Ultimately, I came away with this: the renovations may still hold the potential for putting forward an image of Stanford as a tech-centered, Silicon Valley institution, but they also hold the potential for students to use the space to reckon with that image.

First, a few clarifying points about the logistics of the East Wing makeover. The first floor will be closed to students from summer 2020 to summer 2021. The design is still in its schematic phase, and the layout is a work in progress, but the essential functionality of the space isn’t set to change. Much of the first-floor space will be dedicated to group study spaces ranging from quiet study to more conversational areas. Of course, these group study areas will still be accompanied by the exhibit space containing archive materials and whichever one of Hohbach’s nine commissioned oil paintings is on display.

Additions to the first floor will include two new rooms and adjustments to the current classrooms used by Program in Writing and Rhetoric (PWR) classes. One of the new rooms will be a Special Collections teaching room, primarily to be used by the Silicon Valley Archives, but it will still provide secure room resources that can be used by all Stanford affiliates, students and classes using materials from Special Collections. Another room will be an events room with an approximately 80-person capacity, similar to the existing main room of the David Rumsey Map Center on the fourth floor of the Bing Wing.

Part of the optimism I noticed from Lowood and Karampelas certainly stemmed from the success of the Map Center, which has partly inspired the directions of this new project.

“That’s the hope here,” said Karampelas. “To serendipitously experience Special Collections, we’ve seen how impactful that is with the David Rumsey Map Center […] that’s what they wanted to mimic down on the first floor, and that’s our benchmark of trying to emulate that experience with completely different material and a different space.”

I would point out that the Silicon Valley project has much greater stakes due to its location — students will be unable to avoid seeing this space, while many spend all four years without ever knowing of the Map Center’s existence tucked away on the fourth floor. Moreover, both the Map Center and the new Silicon Valley Archives project follow a trend of pushing humanities and technology together; the map center’s focus on technology-oriented methodology such as digitized maps and Google Earth projections clearly indicates this infusion of tech into humanities. That said, I still appreciate the sentiment of a space connecting academic programs with Special Collections engagement.

The academic programming side of the Silicon Valley Archives project struck me as an opportunity for gaining a different perspective on the materials that will be on display. Lowood described the Archives and Hohbach’s legacy as “compatible,” offering Hohbach’s future-oriented vision the opportunity for inquiry into the past. The Archives are a research destination for Silicon Valley historians around the world, a “hidden gem” of a collection of materials ranging mainly from the 1940s to the 1980s. Bringing the Archives to the forefront puts a particular spotlight on remembering the period of history that most directly affects the complex factors at play in the region today.

Though I would shy away from suggesting that a particular period of history is worth studying simply because it is the most pragmatically or obviously linked to the present day, I do think that providing a space to rethink the historical narratives that we are so often fed about Silicon Valley (even, perhaps, the one presented by Hohbach himself, who was not a professional historian) is a hopeful prospect.

This leads me to what I believe to be one of the most problematic aspects of the proposed design: the lack of diversity and representation presented in the oil paintings gifted by Hohbach. When I mentioned these concerns, Lowood responded that it would be “hard not to see that as an issue.” However, he also told me: “We take your reaction as kind of a research question. […] We’re not denying that there are issues that seeing the painting brings up. But we’re taking it as a point of departure that the space will invite.”

Karampelas stressed that the work would be a “conversation piece,” as opposed to just art on the wall, and would be put in the context of the other archive materials on display. “Because we’re in a library, we should look at them as scholarly pieces. It’s not our job to answer the question [that you’ve raised]. […] The libraries are uniquely situated to be a nexus from all corners of campus where these conversations can happen.” I doubt that everyone who comes in contact with these paintings will be engaged in thinking about or having conversations about diversity. It would be the bare minimum for curators to indicate the diversity issue within the context of the exhibit itself, drawing attention to it as a point of serious consideration.  

I still balk at some of the symbolism presented by these new renovations to Green. I still wish that a central humanities space could exist without having to justify its presence to the ceaseless innovation of Silicon Valley. But I also believe that perhaps my disappointment only indicates why historical inquiry into this particular topic is so urgently necessary. As Karampelas put it, “Green is humanities-based, but now we have lots of collections that are starting to cross disciplines. This gift is allowing us to create a conversation that is very steeped in history, but also allow us to ask provocative [interdisciplinary] questions. And what the space becomes will depend on the users of the space.”

The humanities can be a powerful tool to reckon with our social responsibility to the area in which we live, and to understand the two-way relationship between Stanford and Silicon Valley. As such, I continue to urge the creation of a student committee, as I suggested in my previous article. This is an idea that both Lowood and Karampelas supported — student voices would provide critical input on the way this project is formulated and presented. I believe that student involvement is especially key given that this project will affect people’s perceptions of Stanford, both from within and outside the community.

And no matter the dire need for an awareness of the particular issues related to life in Silicon Valley, I hope that humanities students at Stanford are still able to feel unbounded in their inspiration and innovation — just as much as their fellow students from every other discipline might be.

Contact Melina Walling at mwalling ‘at’

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