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Telling the history of Silicon Valley in 10 objects

In a hands-on course taught during fall quarter, students designed their own museum exhibitions using archival materials from Stanford Libraries’ Silicon Valley Archives.

A prototype of the first computer mouse, original blueprints of Atari video game cabinet designs, a 1981 issue of a magazine dedicated to women in microcomputing – these were some of the many iconic and eclectic items from Stanford Libraries’ Silicon Valley Archives that Stanford students picked up and pored over as part of a new course taught in fall quarter, Silicon Valley in 10 Objects.

Go to the web site to view the video.

Video by Kurt Hickman

Stanford students explore the history of Silicon Valley and learn hands-on research skills through the archives.

In January 2022, the Silicon Valley Archives (SVA) opened a physical space on the recently renovated first floor of Green Library’s East Wing for students and scholars to study archival material focused on the history of Silicon Valley.

On their way to class each week, students passed eight glass exhibition cases in the newly named Hohbach Hall, where objects from the archive, each revealing the people and products that are part of Silicon Valley’s history, are on display. For the students’ final assignment, they were asked to imagine how they too might curate their own exhibition.

“This is our way of thinking of history beyond the term paper,” explained Stanford historian Tom Mullaney, who co-taught the hands-on course with SVA curator Henry Lowood and exhibits coordinator Kristen Valenti. “Students need to decouple their understanding of humanistic research as something that ends up in black-and-white, 12-point font with 1-inch margins and think how their work can turn into a graphic novel, dramaturgy, an HBO series, or, here, a proposal of a museum exhibition,” said Mullaney, a professor of history in Stanford’s School of Humanities and Sciences.

Over the 10-week course, some 21 undergraduate and graduate students came together to learn a variety of skills to help them think through a new way of telling history, all culminating in their final assignment: an exhibition design. In their projects, students had to include elements such as the text a visitor would read as they enter the gallery space, 10 items from the archive that would be on display, and how they would be laid out and labeled.

‘No algorithms in the archives’

The Silicon Valley Archives was founded in 1985 as the Stanford and Silicon Valley Project. Over the past four decades, Lowood and his colleagues have been gathering materials that reveal how a region that was once farmland and orchards became a global center of technological and scientific innovation. SVA’s collections are vast: Materials include unpublished letters, diaries and journals, research notes, project files, technical reports, product documentation, organization charts and other corporate records, company brochures, patent applications, blueprints, photographs, transcripts or recordings of speeches and interviews, and more.

While there are finding aids that include basic information (like an inventory of items in a particular box), there is not much else to explain what the materials are and their relevance to Silicon Valley history. With so much to discover, a student – and even an experienced scholar – might feel overwhelmed: Where does one even begin?

Students spent much of the quarter learning the basic elements of archival research, including how sitting with that uncertainty is part of the research process and can even be enjoyable.

“Special Collections materials work really well if you’re trying to build up from not knowing what’s going on to your own coherent interpretation of whatever that is; this is different from learning from finished interpretations that you read in books or articles about a certain historical period,” said Lowood, the Harold C. Hohbach Curator for History of Science & Technology Collections.

For sophomore Viva Durazzo Donohoe, that was the appeal. “We live in a time when there are so many algorithms that show us what we want to see, when we want to see them,” she said. “Everything online is curated for us. But there are no algorithms in the archives. You’re forced to devote attention and time to every single item within a folder.”

Donohoe, who grew up in San Francisco, has always been curious about the contradictions between the 1960s hippie counterculture in the Bay Area and the hypercapitalism that has come to define Silicon Valley today. When she stumbled upon the Whole Earth Catalog – which Apple co-founder Steve Jobs described in his Commencement address to Stanford graduates in 2005 as “Google in paperback form” – she realized how these two seemingly divergent worlds once overlapped.

The catalog was one of the 10 items in her project, as well as the 1967 poem, “All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace” by Richard Brautigan, that envisions a technological utopia.

Asking ‘meaningless’ questions

Even though Lowood was on hand to guide students through the archive and other collections at Stanford Libraries and explain what the role of a curator entails, students might still not know quite what to ask of him.

That’s where Mullaney stepped in.

Mullaney takes a distinct approach to how he teaches research. He believes the process begins by asking what he calls “meaningless” questions. He recently co-authored with Christopher Rea the book Where Research Begins: Choosing a Research Project That Matters to You (and the World) (University of Chicago Press, 2022), which describes this generative process.

History Professor Tom Mullaney works with students in the Silicon Valley in 10 Objects course. (Image credit: Kurt Hickman)

“‘Meaningless’ in this framework simply means a question that has no arrogance,” Mullaney explained. “These are questions that on the face of it seem naive, obvious, almost childish – and yet are the keys to unlocking the next level of subtlety of a question.”

The idea is to let go of any expectations or pressures that could block the creative process, like feeling a need to sound smart or articulate in front of peers and teachers, for example. When those barriers are removed, students are free to let their mind wander and be guided by their own curiosity instead. The exercise also helps scholars notice qualities they might not have picked up otherwise. Sometimes it’s more than just paying attention to the content of an item; it’s appreciating peripheral details that are revealing of a particular period, like the size of the paper, the weight of it, the fonts used, the scribbles in the margins.

In the first week of class, students were asked to come up with 50 meaningless questions about a primary source. A few weeks later, they were then asked to turn those questions into five potential research topics.

For John Ruiz, a senior majoring in Science, Technology and Society, asking meaningless questions led him to his final project: “Is Apple more than just a company?”

As he examined company ephemera from the 1980s and early ’90s – materials under the ambiguous label “M1007 box 11, folder 18” – some of the questions Ruiz asked about the unfamiliar names and initiatives related to Apple he encountered included: Who is Bob Atchison? What is the Apple Library of Tomorrow? Why did Bob Atchison need $500K for his project? How did this museum relate to Apple’s vision as a company?

“Writing meaningless questions like these helped me increase my curiosity and helped me notice things that I may have overlooked,” Ruiz said. “By not trying to come up with impressive questions, I felt that I was better prepared to let the research process happen organically.”

As Ruiz came to learn, Atchison wanted to help art institutions and museums display their collections digitally to the public and for free. The project never came to fruition, but its mission showed Ruiz some of Apple’s values as well as early encounters with problems that persist today, such as different modes of distributing intellectual property online, digital rights management, public versus private ownership, and content creation.

Some of the items in Ruiz’s exhibition also included the 1992 email in which Atchison articulated his vision to help put museums online, as well as a recording of Steve Jobs unveiling the first iPhone in 2007. Ruiz also imagined an interactive component to his exhibition – he proposed inviting visitors to play with GarageBand, the fully equipped music creation studio installed on every Mac computer.

New format for storytelling

Throughout the course, students also learned how to expand their storytelling skills.

“You really have to distill what you’re looking at into a small set of objects that tell the story you want to tell,” said Lowood. “I think that’s an important takeaway for this course: Any exhibition distills a big idea down into something that’s relatively simple, and by restricting the number of objects that students can use in their proposal, we’re encouraging them to develop techniques for distilling their thoughts.”

Yeseul Byeon, a PhD student in history, has learned new ways to present research and express thoughts and ideas. Her exhibition proposal centered around the role of information technology as it relates to family tracing and reunification in humanitarian crises. “An exhibit challenges me to economize with my language and come up with ways to show, rather than explicitly spell out, the arguments and narratives that I see as underlying the research topic,” she said.

Her exhibition included items from Stanford’s Hoover Institution Library & Archives, like the International Refugee Organization’s registration records for unaccompanied minors, as well as objects from overseas and community archives, such as the National Archives of Korea and the Colibrí Center for Human Rights.

Byeon said she also enjoyed being in the archive with other students and scholars – normally she does this type of work solo.

“To have other students hover over the same object and discuss their features helped me notice things that I would never notice otherwise,” Byeon said. Overall, she said, the course has changed how she approaches archival documents and objects, and she will apply those lessons to her own teaching and research.

The course format and its content, from working with 10 objects and continual exercises in asking questions, lends itself to many other areas of historical research and scholarly inquiry – and even other courses, said Mullaney. He is currently working with his colleagues at the East Asia Library to develop a similar-style course with historic material from their collections.

Henry Lowood is also the curator for Film & Media Collections in the Stanford University Libraries.

In 2022, SVA opened a new space on the first floor of Green Library that includes a classroom where small groups and classes can gather to hold, touch, and examine objects from the archive and other items from Stanford Libraries’ Special Collections. The classroom is among a handful of rooms on campus with this special designation.