Can history survive Silicon Valley?

Stanford University archivists struggle to preserve the past of a place that cares only for the future.


Andrew Leonard
June 10, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

Baffled, two visitors to the Stanford campus stand before a high-tech parking meter. A squat cross between an ATM and an information kiosk, the meter serves as the centralized payment point for a university parking lot. But the two strangers -- one male, one female, both smart-looking and impeccably neat in that classic Stanford style -- just can't seem to figure out how to punch the right button.

The meter's video display screen is designed for dwarves -- the man has to hunch down nearly double to read it, and even then, the instructions are illegible in the bright spring sun. He confers worriedly with the woman. Even after the instructions are deciphered, they don't make much sense.

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"This is a really poor UI," says the man. The woman nods.

At Stanford, you can expect perfect strangers to understand that when you say "UI," you mean "user interface." No doubt there are other campuses which boast disproportionately high technologically literate populations -- MIT and Carnegie-Mellon spring to mind -- but at Stanford the connection runs deeper. Stanford University is a central wellspring of Silicon Valley innovation and inspiration. The current cultural ascendance of techno-capitalism can, in part, be traced directly here, to a university where familiarity with the ways of venture capital begins well before enrollment in Econ 101, and where computer science undergraduates often come to their first class with a business plan already in hand.

The discussion of the parking meter's user interface enthralls me as I wait my turn to pay on a fine May morning. I have come to Stanford to learn about the university's plans to create an archive for the history of Silicon Valley. There's a nicely recursive, snake-eating-its-own-tail aspect to the project. Stanford is attempting to capture the history of an era in which the university itself has been -- and continues to be -- an integral player. It's no accident that random visitors are worrying about high-tech user interfaces: Such concerns are the stuff of life itself here, in the heart of the valley.

As I am soon to discover, Stanford's Silicon Valley archive project is just one part of a larger struggle waged by Stanford librarians to figure out the proper role of a research library in the digital age -- to devise, on a grand scale, a state-of-the-art user interface that will solve not just the problem of exploding information overload, but also the dilemma of how to nail down the history of a place that prides itself on constant change. And as is appropriate for an institution like Stanford, the question isn't merely academic -- any new solutions to the problems of information access are bound to be fertile ground for the next generation of valley start-ups. There is always new history to be made.

The whiteboard in university librarian Michael Keller's office is covered with an intricate diagram detailing a network of computers. Quizzed by an associate, Keller launches into a stream of fluent techno-jargon as he explains that the network is designed to handle high-speed distribution of video output.

"Not your father's library, is it?" I remark, as Keller winds down to a stop.

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"No," says Keller, with the authority and self-possession of a high-ranking military officer. "And it hasn't been for quite some time."

Keller is exhibit A of that quintessential blend of academic and entrepreneurial pursuits that suffuses Stanford life. Keller isn't just Stanford's head librarian; he's also the publisher of Stanford's HighWire Press -- a commercially self-supporting online publishing house for scientific journals. HighWire, Keller informs me, isn't just about providing access to scholarly information -- it's also about encouraging a "market correction" that will alleviate the current crisis in scholarly journal publishing. Too many journals cost too much these days for cash-strapped libraries to be able to acquire more than a tiny portion of what's available. HighWire offers one potential solution to the problem.

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When Keller starts talking about HighWire, he comes off as a dead ringer for a start-up CEO pitching his company to potential investors. I may have come down to Stanford to learn about the Silicon Valley archive project, but I won't be able to leave the campus without hearing plenty about HighWire -- not to mention the ongoing $50 million renovation of Stanford's main library into a high-tech wonderland.

Keller is smooth and engaging -- as eager to talk about medieval monks copying ancient tomes or the mysteries of cellular signal transduction as he is to discuss the role of the Stanford library in the digital era -- but every now and then his patter falls into a slightly formulaic delivery. It's a sure sign of a spiel delivered many times before. And why not? More money always needs to be raised, whether you are a librarian or an entrepreneur. As one of Keller's associates tells me later, the library's renovation hasn't yet been completely paid for: "There are still plenty of naming opportunities available."

Keller takes me to lunch in a plush private room at the Stanford Faculty Club with some of his top lieutenants and Paul Saffo, a director at the Institute for the Future, a technology forecasting think tank. The conversation ranges all over the place -- at one point Saffo and Keller are trading tips on how to get the most from a new-model Nokia cellular phone -- but the flow always returns to the valley's most cherished icon, the start-up entrepreneur.

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As well it should. After all, one can argue that Stanford President David Starr Jordan kicked off the unofficial beginning of Silicon Valley way back in 1909, when he bankrolled (with a mere $500) the invention of the vacuum tube. His impulse has since been followed by countless Stanford alumni. In the 1980s, Sun Microsystems and Silicon Graphics led the charge. More recently, former Stanford students made headlines with Yahoo, Excite and VA Linux. And just one week after my visit to Stanford, the two former Stanford computer science graduate students behind the search engine Google hit it big, scoring $25 million from venture capital superstars Kleiner-Perkins Caufield & Byers and Sequoia Capital.

From $500 in 1909 to $25 million in 1999 -- it's no wonder that, as Henry Lowood, Stanford's curator for the History of Science and Technology Collections notes, "it's a lot easier to get students to take [a course in the history of Silicon Valley] than it is get them interested in early enlightenment Germany."

"For a not-insignificant proportion of the students," adds Alex Pang, project manager for SiliconBase, Stanford's online archive of Silicon Valley history, "the course is a how-to."

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But what exactly do you study? Just what constitutes the history of Silicon Valley? It's a question that vexes computer age historians. One might imagine that chronicling an era as recent as the flowering of Silicon Valley might be relatively easy, but the sad reality is that historians are already losing access to core materials.

Vast amounts of digitally stored information are contained in media formats already unreadable by modern technology. Web sites vanish almost as quickly as they are created. Even worse, the valley is now purposefully destroying itself. Local corporations, spurred by anxious lawyers, are now demanding that corporate e-mail be "scrubbed clean" every few months.

"We run the risk of, 200 years from now, knowing less about this place and this point in history than we know about 15th century Germany, where the printing press was invented," says Pang. "And arguably we are in a time that is seeing the development of technologies that ultimately are going to be as important as movable type. If the basic materials get lost it will be a genuine tragedy."

There's also the problem of what Keller calls the valley's "lack of historical self-consciousness." In an environment in which product cycles are measured in terms of months, no one has time to consider what might be worth saving, or what future generations may find useful. As Saffo jokes, "The difference between the valley and everywhere else is that other people have nostalgia. We have prostalgia -- a sentimental attachment to things that don't yet exist."

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But as the pioneer generation of Silicon Valley begins to retire and reflect upon its past, prostalgia may finally be on the wane. The rise of the Net, combined with the computer's victorious penetration into the fabric of nearly daily life, is encouraging a new interest in the history of computing.

Stanford is well positioned to address this rising interest. As research libraries go, Stanford is still a relative newbie -- Keller notes that serious collection-building only began around 50 years ago. But Stanford has the funding and ambition to plow ahead quickly. On one level, this means going about its business the old-fashioned way -- gathering collections of papers from famous computer scientists and serving as the archive of such knowledge repositories as the Apple Corporate Library. But on a more digitally au courant level, Stanford's librarians are also enthusiastic about online projects like SiliconBase, which attempt to link online access to historically significant documents with communities of interest made possible by the Net.

SiliconBase is a Web-centered combination of archival material, Stanford academic course information, and original content having to do with the history of Silicon Valley. Ideally, the SiliconBase project will organize locally stored material for outside access, as well as encourage outsiders to contribute their own knowledge back to Stanford.

"What we're trying to do is coalesce this body of stuff," says Saffo, "and once it gets to a critical mass its going to start to spin -- hopefully it becomes an intellectual soliton on the Web, this spinning but unmoving object that brings people in, they look at it and they say I never thought of that, gee that's interesting, and then they contribute, so it becomes autocatalytic."

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Archiving in the traditional sense and newfangled autocatalytic Web coalescing aren't the only prongs of Stanford's attempt to unravel new complexities. There's also the physical reality of the library itself. Personally, I am more interested in actually seeing some of the collections that make up the Silicon Valley archive, but it is soon clear that a tour of the newly renovated main library is unavoidable.

Vast sections of Stanford's Green Library have been closed ever since the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. Finally, 10 years later, says Andrew Herkovic, a library staffer responsible for "foundation relations and strategic projects" the library is due for an official reopening in the fall. Herkovic shows me the blueprints for the renovated library -- which is being remodeled for the 21st century by the same architectural firm that created Wired Digital's nouveau high-tech office.

Judging by Herkovic's enthusiastic description, the new library will be equal parts high-tech carnival and sober research institution. The main atrium of the library will include a "media wall" in which video feeds from all over the world will be piped in and "narrowcasted" to library visitors. From a cursory look at the blueprints, it also seems as if there will be nearly as many computers in the library as staid old books.

Indeed, during the tour, the empty library serves all too nicely as a metaphor for the digital age. When I visit there are no books visible at all -- but every desk and reading chair is equipped with a Net connection and power outlet.

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I am assured that the books will soon arrive, but they seem somehow irrelevant -- window dressing on the library of the future. I'd take a high-speed connection to the Net over a card catalog any day, myself. The plans for the library seem yet more proof that Stanford is as much a part of the digital revolution as it is a chronicler of it.

I do, finally, get my hands on some real history -- a selection from the papers of Douglas Engelbart, leader of the team that invented the computer mouse, among many other things. But there's no shortage of irony to be found here, either. Engelbart's Stanford Research Institute laboratory was famous for employing the new user-interface tools it created to invent even newer tools. After creating one of the earliest prototypes for online conferencing, for example, the scientists then hammered out improvements to the online conferencing software while using the software itself.

Luckily for future generations, however, the SRI researchers backed everything up on paper. Because today, says curator Henry Lowood, there may be only two machines in existence that can read the magnetic tapes that Engelbart's lab employed to store their information -- and it's possible the tapes themselves have degraded to the point where they are no longer useful.

As I rifle through the Engelbart papers, enjoying the visceral sensation of dealing with the non-digital domain, Lowood points out a name -- Louis Fein -- on one of the typewritten sheets. Most people have never heard of Louis Fein, says Lowood, but there's good reason to believe that he invented the term "computer science."

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Fein, recalls Lowood, agreed to give all his personal computing-related papers to Stanford. Among these papers were personal notes he kept while writing the paper that introduced the phrase "computer science." To archivists, such data are more valuable than gold. But shortly after Fein's death, when Lowood called to arrange for the transfer of the papers, Fein's son told him that his father's papers had already been thrown away.

Lowood tells the story in a calm voice, but I can feel his archival pain. Forget about those unreadable magnetic tapes, or the evanescence of e-mail. History doesn't have to be digital to disappear. And any attempt to save it is worth applause.


Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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