07 Feb 19
The famous tech figures of Silicon Valley should meet Henry Lowood, because he can help them clean out their garages. As curator of the Silicon Valley Archives at Stanford University, Lowood is collecting all of the papers that chronicle what makes the region unique when it comes to the history of technology.
He will be doing a lot more of this now that Stanford Libraries has received a $25 million gift from the Harold C. and Marilyn A. Hohbach Foundation to create a vibrant collections-centered research hub and endow the Silicon Valley Archives program.
Under the plan, the first floor of the East Wing of the Cecil H. Green Library will be renovated and renamed Hohbach Hall. Over the next few years, the space will be renovated to include a new Special Collections classroom, as well as spaces for group study, seminars, events, and exhibitions.
Harold Hohbach, who passed away in 2017, was a patent law attorney and real estate developer. A great admirer of Silicon Valley inventors and an innovator himself, Hohbach had long dreamed of creating a space to challenge and inspire the leaders and entrepreneurs of the future. When he learned about the vast collection and research arm of Stanford’s Silicon Valley Archives, Hohbach made a commitment to fund renovation of Hohbach Hall and sustain the program’s efforts to capture the evolving history of the region and its contributors.
The exhibit will feature items from the Silicon Valley Archives, such as design documents and drawings for Douglas Engelbart’s first computer mouse prototype and early audio and video recording technology from the Ampex collection.
I talked with Lowood, who is a strategy game fan in his spare time, about this effort to capture history. It’s not an easy job in a digital age when websites can be shut down and there is often no way to recapture the media. For instance, Lowood has struggled with how to archive places such as Second Life, the virtual world that has been operating since 2003.
The archives first opened in 1983, and the organization has already supported a wide array of projects documenting the history of Silicon Valley.
This endowment will enable Lowood, the curator, and Leslie Berlin, the historian, to capture and preserve the physical and digital forms of documents, photographs, equipment, and ephemera from some of Silicon Valley’s largest companies. Lowood even asked me for my archives, but I’m not quite done with all my media production yet (I keep adding to piles of stuff in my garage).
Renovations for the hall are expected to begin in the fall of 2019. Here’s an edited transcript of my interview with Lowood.
Henry Lowood is curator of the Silicon Valley Archives.
VentureBeat: This sounds like a lot of fun for you.
Henry Lowood: Yeah, it’s going to be a pretty big deal here. It’s the largest gift the library has ever received at Stanford, as far as we know. It’s going to be a big transformation for the library, not just for the Silicon Valley Archives program, but also because the library building is going to be — the whole floor will have to be remodeled, where the Archives is going in. People are going to have to get used to a different look.
VentureBeat: How much is the gift, then? Did it come from a specific person?
Lowood: It comes from the estate of Harold Hohbach. Harold was a patent attorney. He was actually the second patent attorney in Silicon Valley. He was a really active guy in that area. This isn’t a fact — just my vague memory of the history — but I believe he started in the 1940s doing patent law. He was involved with a lot of companies. His partner was a guy named Flehr, I believe. If you’ve ever seen a book about patent law in the Valley, that was his partner, their firm. They also worked on some Stanford projects. I believe they were involved in the gene-splicing patent.
He was really interested in Silicon Valley history and started a project that he called Silicon Valley Luminaries. He’d commissioned a number of paintings, nine of them in all, these large-format paintings of Silicon Valley innovators and leaders from the Hewlett-Packard generation on up. He died last year, last December. I got a chance to meet with his family, and his intentions were already clear, but they were also very supportive of this. The Hohbach family is endowing it, and it’s $25 million. That’s going to have an impact.
Leslie Berlin is the author of multiple Silicon Valley books and historian of the Silicon Valley Archives.
VentureBeat: And you’re working with Leslie Berlin on the different projects here. What are the differences between what you’re both doing?
Lowood: We both work on everything, but my slant is I’m the curator of the project, the Silicon Valley Archives, and Leslie is the historian. I would put it, she’s 75 percent historian and 25 percent curator. I’m 25 percent historian and 75 percent curator. But we tag-team a whole lot of things. She works on collections as well as outreach and her writing.
VentureBeat: I remember back a ways when you were talking about the problem of how these companies come and go. Their websites shut down and we lose everything that was ever on them. Is that some of what this is about?
Lowood: That’s part of what we’ll continue to work on. The broad scope — there’s our collecting program and preservation program, which deal with physical and digital materials. Of course the digital side of that is growing. We now have a robust web archiving service in the library, to speak specifically to that area. We’ve developed software in the libraries here for handling email. It’s called EPAT. That project’s been really successful. It’s been adopted in other places. We’re making strides. We have a digital repository now, a streaming server, all kinds of things to deal with different kinds of media files and all sorts of things we get.
We’ll continue to do that. We’ll have additional staffing in the Silicon Valley Archives to handle both the physical collections and the digital collections. Then, the expanding part is that we’ll have a dedicated exhibit space. Right now we’re at zero exhibit space as far as the Silicon Valley Archives is concerned. We’ll have pop-up exhibits, curated exhibits, occasional exhibits for anniversaries of companies or inventions or social and lifestyle issues in the Valley. All sorts of things.
There will also be an event space across the hall from where our offices will be. We hope to have more events, things ranging from author talks to thematic lecture series. That’s also going to be something that represents a real expansion for us, something we haven’t been able to do as much so far.
VentureBeat: Are you scraping the whole web, or are you being very selective about Silicon Valley subjects when you’re capturing data?
Lowood: What I do is selective. I have actually been using the tool that was developed at the Internet Archive through a service they call Archive-It. We use that software. I’ve probably been using that for seven or eight years now, maybe a decade. But most of that time it’s been focused on game-related collections. The way it’s organized, you can set up little clusters of seeds you use for crawling the web. There’s one there that was focused for a few years on our Preserving Virtual Worlds project, including websites, but also sites where players were gathering or files were being distributed, that kind of thing.
Lately, in the last few years, I’ve also been looking at sports game sites. I’m working on a project with some colleagues around the history of the FIFA series. I’ve been tracking websites devoted to sports games and related topics. It’s kind of pick and choose. Also, certain collections — when we have people’s papers, some of the people we’ve gotten papers from really live on the web. Somebody like Howard Rheingold, for example. When we got his papers, the physical papers were maybe a box or two, not very much. But he had a ton of stuff online. We used our web crawling for that.
Bing Crosby and Jack Mullins, c. 1950, at Ampex.
VentureBeat: For the curation, how are you deciding what’s either worth more of your time or more of the public’s time?
Lowood: The change that’s probably going to happen, what we’ve been thinking about a lot in the direction of our curation activities, is we feel like we’ve covered the early history of the Valley really well with the collections we have. We have great collections in the [Fred] Terman era, Varian Associates. We have the William Hewlett papers to cover that area. A lot on the early Electronics Valley through Fairchild, Intel, the semiconductor industry stuff. The Apple collection gets us into the ’90s.
What we’re thinking about today is we’ve not done as good a job tracking the way the Valley has changed in the last 20 years. That means the new technologies, the new business models, the people, the way the Valley looks, how all that has changed. Immigration, the different groups that have participated in the Valley. One of our big areas for curation that we think will be valuable to researchers, but also something of a service to the Valley as well, will be to focus more on the way the Valley has changed in the last 20 years, dealing with more contemporary collections, preserving what is there, and making sure that’s saved.
That will also mean we’ll be focusing much more on digital collections, because even the non-technical stuff — if you think about social media, if you think about mobile, if you think about VR or the different entrepreneurship and disruption models and all that — even the non-technical stuff, tracking the impact of things like journalists covering it, everything is pretty much digital now. We’re going to spend much more time tracking the more recent history of the web. This gift, of course, will give us the resources to do that.
VentureBeat: When it comes to exhibiting things, how are you doing that now, and how do you think that’s going to change when you have more space?
Lowood: Right now we have one special collections exhibit space, which has about three exhibits a year for all the areas of the library. It also tends to be planned out. The queue that’s generated by having one space for so many areas — you tend to need to get in line two years in advance to get an exhibit there. We’ve been part of several exhibits. Right now there’s an exhibit that partly represents my area, the history of science and technology generally with a few Silicon Valley items. But it’s not been a dedicated space where you could see much of the Silicon Valley collections.
Besides that, we’ve been able to exhibit a couple of the most prominent artifacts from the Ampex collection in what we call the information center, basically the reference department. The Model 200A, the first audio recording machine from Ampex, and the VRX-1000, which was the video recording machine, the thing that Ampex developed in the mid-’50s. We have those restored and exhibited very nicely. Those are two Silicon Valley artifacts, but it’s just two artifacts.
What we’ll have now is a lot more space, and it will be dedicated broadly to Silicon Valley. It’ll be enough space, and it’ll be designed so we can be very flexible about the exhibits. We could have, in this new model, pop-up exhibits. We’d have space where somebody could come to us and two or three months later we’d have something up there. I expect to have some interest in working with Stanford courses and having students who work in a course, work with archival material in that course, and develop ideas that carry through for exhibits. Students could curate exhibits in that space.
Basically, we’ll have infinitely more flexibility than we had before for that kind of thing, and a lot more space to be able to have several small to medium-sized exhibits out there at the same time.
Stanford University Green Library against a cloudy sky with Shumway Fountain in the foreground and Hoover Tower in the background.
VentureBeat: How do you think it’s going to be different from things like the Computer History Museum?
Lowood: We’ll never be a museum in that sense, where we have this destination and permanent exhibit that people come to see with artifacts from the entire history of computing. Our main mission is providing access to research materials. It’s not exhibition. We like to do exhibits and that’s great. It helps people understand more about what we have, and we express things through the exhibits. But it’s not our primary mission like it would be for the Computer History Museum.
The other thing is, the Computer History Museum — we intersect, but the big picture for the Computer History Museum is a different big picture than ours. For them it’s the history of computing, which could be anywhere in the world. For us it’s Silicon Valley, which includes computing, but also includes anything that happened in Silicon Valley. Biomedicine, the history of venture capital, land use in the Valley, pollution in the Valley. Where we intersect is the history of computing that occurs here. There’s so much of that history that there’s plenty of room for both the Computer History Museum and us to be fully occupied with all of our staff in preserving collections.
We work with them on different things. We’ve collaborated in the past on specific projects. Often their staff are here when we have activities around digital preservation, things like that. We’re really aware of what the Computer History Museum does and the value of it. But I see us more as intersecting and collaborating, not really as competing.
VentureBeat: How many people have full-time jobs on this?
Lowood: When we get fully up and running, which should be fall of 2020, we’ll have the two curators, Leslie and me, curator and historian. It looks now like we’ll probably have two additional staff positions. We haven’t figured out exactly how we’re going to arrange that. The beauty of an endowment is that it grows over time. In 20 years, there may be more positions. There may be others who want to further support what we’re doing.
But with two additional positions — these are positions we don’t have now. We have a curator and historian, but we don’t have those support positions. That’s going to have a huge impact on our ability to process the collections we have here, to curate exhibits, to do digital exhibits and things on the web that highlight collections or give access to our collections over the web. With two additional people we’ll be able to do an awful lot.
VentureBeat: Who are some of the interesting figures that have been giving you their papers or records? Who do you already have?
Lowood: You can look up the Silicon Valley Archives on the web to see all we have. We have now about 400 collections. More recent ones we’ve received — we just received the papers of John Perry Barlow, who was the founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. People who know about him will know he was also one of the songwriters for the Grateful Dead before that. That’s one area we’re interested in, the discourse around digital, around the legal issues of intellectual property, all those things the EFF has been involved with.
We recently received the papers of somebody I bet you know, Evelyn Richards. That’s really interesting because of the work she did tracking technology in the Valley, particularly Apple. It connects with the Apple collections. We have quite a few papers of journalists here who have covered technology specifically.
Another one we got recently, in the last year or two, the papers of Kathleen Hennessey, who was a Stanford student. She worked at Ampex in the ’50s and had one of the most interesting careers I know of in the technical areas of the semiconductor industry, manufacturing, industrial engineering, and the application of information technology. She was a professor at Texas Tech. She’s retired now. It’s a really interesting career of a woman in these industries and all the work she did. We want to start broadening our perspective on who worked in Silicon Valley, who contributed to it. From that point of view, this was a very important collection.
It’s voluminous. She kept everything. We love people who do that. She worked on all kinds of projects, research to commercial projects, even some military projects. We have all that documentation. But that’s just a couple of recent things that give you a sense of what we’re interested in, some of the diversity.
VentureBeat: People should start thinking about how to preserve their papers.
Lowood: And companies too. VentureBeat is something of the Valley, right? It doesn’t mean we have to make things public right away, but there’s a history to VentureBeat, a history to the evolution of reporting around technology and entrepreneurship and all of that which we’re very interested in tracking. That’ll be a conversation we can have down the road. [laughs]
The Harold Hohbach and Marilyn Hohbach Foundation donated $25 million to the Stanford Libraries.
VentureBeat: There’s so much minutiae out there to wade through to find some of the gems. I wonder what you consider to be more valuable?
Lowood: Leslie wrote a small article about the one I’m about to mention. We’ve gotten giant collections and small collections. We got the Apple collection in 1997. We got a lot of publicity around that. People contacted us who had kept things. After we got the big collection from Apple, we got smaller collections from people who’d been associated with them. The smallest collection we got — it fits in one folder — consists entirely of the Apple I manual and two small four-by-six tear-off sheets with notes on them. The notes were from the owners of this business.
What had happened was, Steve Jobs knew that he needed to print a manual and do some other things around the Apple I. It was some advertising, the one-sheets and things like that. He talked to Regis McKenna, and Regis said, “I know a guy who can help you print those things up. Send them to this business.” In walks Steve Jobs, who’s around 20 years at this time — barefoot, not the best hygiene probably, all of that — and he tells the guy he wants him to do this printing job. “We’re building computers in my parents’ garage.”
The guy behind the desk there is probably wondering what’s going on here. He writes a couple of pages of notes for his partner to describe this meeting. Things like, “These guys seem flaky. Look out.” It’s a really great document. It takes just two minutes to read it, this guy’s scrawled notes about the meeting. The beauty of it is he kept stuff. Talking about minutiae, how often does a business transaction like that, the notes from it, result in something that would be interesting to historians decades later? Fortunately, for some reason, he kept them.
When we got the Apple collection he gave us these materials, this one folder. It’s wonderful, because this is probably the most frequently paged thing for classes on Silicon Valley or the history of information technology. We always bring it out whenever students come into special collections to look at the archival resources. It just epitomizes how a historical document becomes a kind of time machine. You have your insight into Steve Jobs before he became Steve Jobs, from someone who had no clue who this guy was. It’s minutiae, but it’s transformed by — those people in the room at the time had no idea what was going to happen. Now we can enjoy it and use it.
It’s tricky. It’s hard to know. Experience helps you a lot. Doing historical work helps you a lot in figuring out what kinds of things are useful. You know this from your books. You’ve probably looked at things that, at the time they were produced, were probably — nobody had any idea a writer would be using them later to write about the Xbox or something like that. But people do keep that stuff. We exist to preserve it, so that writers and historians others can use it.
VentureBeat: How do you handle things like — I don’t know what you’d call them, but sensitive documents, things that people at some point considered private, but maybe historically now are very interesting? Some people might give you the whole pile and not realize there’s some private stuff in there.
Lowood: That’s always been a concern, but it’s become a bigger problem with the shift to digital. When we used to get boxes of documents, exclusively boxes of documents, you could go through them and review them pretty quickly. A folder might make you curious if it said “Trust documents” or something like that. Or something about somebody’s behavior issue. You’d immediately think it might be something personal. In our agreements with people, we have terms in there to raise this issue, make sure that people have reviewed what they give us; we also reserve the right to review a collection for private materials and then come back to them.
The problem with digital is, if you think about what’s on your computers and in your email and all of that, it would take you forever to go through everything. More than likely, and this is what generally happens, people just give us everything, without the review that we would have expected with paper materials.
I mentioned that email program we developed here. The main driver for that initially was to be able to find personal information in documents. We were spinning off another project we’d done here where we incorporated forensic technology into the library, which does things like that. It tells you where there are credit card numbers, social security numbers. It uses keywords to find potentially personal information. We applied that in the way that we initially designed this email program and how we provide access to researchers to people’s email without showing them everything initially. Just showing them things like headers and entities we’ve extracted, like companies and universities. That filters access to those collections a bit.
It’s one of our biggest concerns with digital materials, not exposing identity information or personal information because people haven’t had the time to review what they give us. I’d say we’re not 100 percent where we want to be in terms of our solution, but it’s something we’re very attentive to. We’re actively developing better approaches to being able to identify personal information in collections.
VentureBeat: It looks like you might need some AI to help you out here.
Lowood: We have an AI position in the library. It’s for things like that, of course, but also — the same problem comes up when, say, we get a collection of 100,000 digital photographs. Just what’s on somebody’s hard drive. We’re also looking at AI to help us with description of images, and other things too. Our AI researcher isn’t in the CS department, but they’re here working in the library. In fact, there’s a series of talks running right now around AI that’s sponsored by the library.
VentureBeat: If somebody wanted to archive something like — here’s my home in Second Life, say. Is that possible? Is that somehow capturable?
Lowood: On the Preserving Virtual Worlds project, we spent a couple of years investigating that one. Generally, there are things we could do. Second Life was a particularly difficult problem, and the reason was — Second Life caused problems because of a good thing they did. If you recall, in Second Life you have IP rights over the things you create. The problem with that is it means Linden Labs couldn’t give us permission to copy things. We had to develop a methodology, which we did, for capturing everything on an island, so we could show where people lived in Second Life.
The thing is, when you do that, even on our own island, the Stanford libraries island, a huge percentage of the stuff is sort of primitives that were developed by somebody else. If you want a table, you get a table that somebody else has created, or that they’re even selling in Second Life for a small amount. It turns out that so many of the objects on your island aren’t owned by you. That’s in the metadata for those objects. Now you have the issue of needing to get permission to extract those things. In a virtual world that’s based on Second Life’s anonymity, how do we get in touch with a real person?
We developed a method of contacting the account listed in the metadata and directing them to a form on the web that we created. We got about a 10 or 15 percent response rate. Many accounts were dormant. People thought we were hackers and we wanted to copy their stuff. This is all written up. The report is online, from about eight or 10 years ago now, about what we did. We had full cooperation from Linden Labs, but there just wasn’t any easy way around the fact that the creators of these objects in Second Life were the IP owners. We weren’t ready to grab things without permission.
VentureBeat: I guess you have to prepare for the arrival of the Matrix. The metaverse is coming at some point. How are you going to archive that?
Lowood: What we’ve done — there’s a collection at the Internet Archive that has some of this stuff. Video, video recordings. We’ve done that with Second Life. It’s funny that you mention the Matrix, because The Matrix Online, the virtual world that they made, when they went under, we got videos and photos of that particular world in its last phases. We’ve done that with a couple of games. The Sims Online, which became EA-Land, we did that with that world as well. We did a video capture of the last hour of EA-Land, which is actually become a really popular document for people to look at.
Video is my answer, then, just like in the real world. Screenshots, video captures, tours, things like that. It’s a very difficult thing to document a world in its entirety, and the same is true of virtual worlds as well.