Tom Mullaney & Becky Fischbach: remarks at the 2017 Amy J. Blue Awards ceremony
On May 24, 2017, Stanford Libraries staff member Becky Fischbach was awarded the University's Amy J. Blue Award. Becky and her award were profiled by the University News Service a week earlier ("Elizabeth Fischbach, a ‘storyteller par excellence,’ wins an Amy J. Blue Award"). Below are remarks offered at the awards ceremony by Stanford Professor of History Tom Mullaney, who introduced Becky, and by the laureate herself in accepting the award. Photos of the event are courtesy of Katie Farrey.
Introduction of Becky Fischbach by Professor Tom Mullaney, Department of History, Stanford University
It is an honor and a privilege to be introducing my friend and my colleague Elizabeth Fischbach – Becky – one of this year’s recipients of the Amy J. Blue Award.
Becky’s official title is Exhibits Manager & Designer at Stanford University Libraries, and all of the terms in her title—“designer, “exhibition,” “curator”—are familiar words: when you hear them, you kind of think you know what they mean.
But what are they? What is an exhibition? What is it to be a designer? What is it to be a curator?
I could list all of the exhibitions that Becky has placed her hands upon here, and the list would give you an indication of just how versatile a scholar and a person she is: “The American Enlightenment,” “Environmental History,” “Chinese Typewriters” (a personal favorite), and—just opening this very day—an exhibition on Peter Koch, one of the great book artists and designers….
But let me put it a different way.
At Stanford, and at colleges and institutions all over the United States, all around the world, students and faculty to speak a great deal—metaphorically—about “creating spaces”: intellectual spaces, artistic spaces, cultural spaces.
For me, this is the essence of what Becky does. But in her case, it’s not a metaphor: she literally creates spaces.
While most researchers and storytellers work in two dimensions, the 2-dimensional space of the page, with paper and ink, Becky does all of that—plus working in three, four, n dimensions.
She tells us stories with material objects, rare photographs, centuries-old ephemera, moving pictures, and so much more. She tells us stories with color and with rhythm; with banners that hang from the sky, with the selection of the type that goes into every last piece of these exhibitions.
And while others seal their stories up, whether between the two covers of a book, or in the infinite scroll of a web page, when Becky is finished creating stories, she asks you to come inside, to walk around in them, ask questions inside of them, and then to tell your own stories in the spaces that she has created.
* * *
Now, if this is the first time that you’ve ever heard of Becky, or knew that she was on this Earth, or just met her, please take a moment to realize that no, it’s not. If you have spent any time in our beloved Libraries—I consider Stanford University my employer; I consider our Library my home—if you have spent any time in the Library, then you have been communing all this time with Becky and her work: you have been delighted by her, and challenged by her. And for those of you who are just meeting her for the first time, this is your chance, after having received so many gifts from her, to look her in the eye, and to say “Thank you.”
For those of you who, like myself, have only known Becky for a few short years—please gather together, and put aside time in your schedule to take stock and to learn, at the level of institutional memory—from the world-class exhibitions program that she – although not totally individually, but that she has spearheaded here—so brilliantly and with so much humility. What is her secret? We need to know her secret! Is it the fact that she brings together so much talent from among her colleagues? Is it the fact that she is willing to run “consecutive marathons” with students and faculty who have so much less experience than she does? What is her secret? That is the only way to repay Becky: by learning from her.
Celebrating a beloved colleague is good, but it is not enough. The only way to honor Becky truly is to take her advice. The work she’s done and the way she’s done it. As a community and an institution, we need to take this advice, and commit ourselves to seeing this work through into the future.
Finally, for those who have known and worked with Becky for 20 years—or more!—your homework assignment for today is the steepest: today or sometime this week, please realize (and allow yourself the time and space to realize) how fortunate you are. I’d go so far to say—and I hope you won’t misunderstand me – that I hope you might even feel a little bit embarrassed—cosmically embarrassed—that you, out of everyone on this planet, should have had the privilege to work with such a woman for such a long time.
I am so envious!
I will just close by saying that Becky is everything I look for in a colleague, everything I seek in my students, everything I aspire to be.
She is deep, she is present, she helps, and she is versatile. She is Human, and she gets it done—and then she moves on. She does all of this, brings all of this beauty and challenge into our worlds, without seeking “credit.” Because credit is not her currency.
The University is right to recognize her work today.
Remarks by Becky Fischbach
First, I want to say how honored I am by this award. It’s more than wonderful to be told outright, in public, how much your efforts are appreciated. And it’s humbling, too, because “Why me?” Stanford is filled with staff whose work is worthy of recognition. Having been recognized by an Amy Blue makes me want to acknowledge YOU, for your creativity, dedication, and hard work. So, kudos to all of you.
I was very fortunate; I found the job I’ve been doing for nearly 30 years in a roundabout way, hanging around the university doing less interesting work—work that I wasn’t even especially good at, but in this stimulating environment, around interesting and talented people—until the opportunity presented itself in the form of a need, to fill in for a position that had been recently vacated and not yet posted. When that chance came, I went about making myself as useful as possible.
I came here as a student in 1974—as much for the weather as for the intellectual climate—and in 1979 went from being a Stanford liberal arts undergrad to looking for a job with no specific path in mind. I didn’t have a clue what I wanted to do for work, let alone as a career. In the early 1980s, Palo Alto was a place where as a single person you could live reasonably well on a shoestring. I worked a patchwork of part-time jobs, lived in a co-op, traveled in Indonesia, and took art classes in the community while watching for opportunities to do work that was more suited to my interests; that would give me a chance to learn about typography and graphic design and rare books. And Stanford was—and I think still is—a place where you can see a need or a possibility, say “I can help with that,” and end up shaping your own job, or at least working very hard toward a satisfying, tangible end.
But that’s not the whole picture, at all. So many people opened doors for me along the way. I was nudged into action, coaxed into doing projects I resisted at first, but took on because I was asked to do them by someone I admired. I want to thank Marnie Furbush (’47, AM ’49), a longtime volunteer for the library who’s not able to be here today, for her positivity, generosity and velvet persistence. She’s the Amy Blue behind my Amy Blue. She’s the person who involved me in doing the extras, like putting together a one-day exhibit for a library event that wasn’t technically part of my job, but which opened new friendships and possibilities for learning—in that case, learning how to set type and print at The Yolla Bolly Press in Covelo. Marnie also convinced me to take on design and co-editorship for the library’s semiannual journal called Imprint. This I really didn’t want to do at first: I thought I was too busy already! I agreed to design the template and the first issue; the years went by, and when the publication folded, 15 years later, we’d published nearly 30 issues. From her I learned about chocolate diplomacy. Our three-person editorial team met at her house, and she always provided a chocolate cake—or two—for our meetings, and sent the leftovers home with me.
I also want to acknowledge Margaret Sowers, an antiquarian map expert and longtime volunteer for the libraries who endowed a publications fund for the exhibits program. I’m so grateful for her foresight and belief in us.
When my own enthusiasm flagged—and I have been downhearted at times— I was propelled forward by the enthusiasm of others: faculty, grad students, and colleagues. Time after time, I was pulled toward the oncoming train of opportunity so I had no choice but to jump on.
Stanford is a place that will allow you to work overly hard, especially if you have any self-doubt and very high expectations of yourself, but where the work can become its own reward. I’ve been fortunate to spend my working years in the company of intellectually engaged, creative people in an environment that values learning and not only allows, but encourages, the creative pursuit and expression of ideas. You all are part of that and I’m immensely grateful.