By destiny and design: an interview with Becky Fischbach

June 24, 2019
David A Jordan

Becky Fischbach has designed publications and exhibitions for Stanford Libraries’ Special Collections for nearly 30 years. In 2017, she received an Amy J. Blue Award, which honors Stanford staff members who are exceptionally dedicated, supportive of colleagues and passionate about their work. In this interview conducted during the Green Library Centennial and on the eve of her retirement, she maps the course of the exhibition program from a fateful day in 1989 to 2019 and beyond.

What pathway led you to Stanford Libraries?

I came to Stanford as a student in 1974. I studied in Meyer, known as UgLy for Undergraduate Library, but the Main (now Green) Library stacks were my refuge. They smelled wonderfully of books, and the tucked-away carrels were a good place to write papers and daydream. After graduating with a liberal arts degree, I looked for work without a clear idea of how I wanted to make a living, let alone a career. At that time it was possible to live reasonably well on a shoestring in Palo Alto. In 1980 my room rent was $125 a month! I worked a patchwork of part-time jobs on and off-campus, lived in a co-op, traveled in Indonesia, and took art classes while watching for opportunities to do work that was more engaging and challenging.

Hourly transcribing work for the Stanford Oral History Project brought me to the library. When funds dried up, I tried to make myself as useful as possible, and was hired half time—my first real job with benefits—to process materials for the University Archives.

Becky transcribing an oral history interview in 1983     Becky on steps of Hawthorne House Co-Op in Palo Alto circa 1979

What training prepared you to move from archives processing to exhibit design?

I developed my interest in typography and graphic design while working in the offices of the Student Center for Innovation in Research and Education (SCIRE) and the Stanford Workshops on Political and Social Issues (SWOPSI) in the late 1970s. Both programs published quarterly catalogs of their offerings. Production processes were mostly mechanical: our tools were exacto knives, rapidograph pens, non-photo blue pencils, and pica rules. Typesetting involved late night sessions typing in code at Forsythe Hall. In the morning, Grace Evans at Word Graphics (then affiliated with the Stanford Press) would generate phototypeset copy on a long strip of paper to be cut apart and pasted up on flats. Later, when I worked with the newspaper production team at Stanford News Service, we shifted gradually from light tables to computer monitors. I learned desktop publishing design and production skills there, and through the UC Extension Program in Graphic Design and Visual Communication. Eventually, the half-time exhibits coordinater job in the library opened up and I was hired for it in 1989.

My editorial skills developed in the same way, somewhat by osmosis, around the news room. Later on I learned a lot about editorial practice, style, and the etiquette of working with writers from Marnie Furbush, longtime editor of Imprint, the Library Associates’ semiannual journal.

What was your first exhibit in Green Library?

The first exhibit I installed in the Green Library rotunda—Gilbert White and the Natural History of Selborne—was up ever so briefly. Rare Book Librarian Mark Dimunation and I worked all day Saturday finishing the installation for the Sunday afternoon opening on October 15, 1989. Two days later the Loma Prieta earthquake struck!  Throughout the ten-year closure and restoration of the building’s west wing, the exhibits program continued on a smaller scale. We configured a series of cases in the Green East lobby, and for large shows we made use of borrowed spaces such as Hoover Institution’s exhibit pavilion and the Thomas Welton Stanford Art Gallery.

In 1990, Hoover hosted W.B. Yeats & The Irish Renaissance. I designed the catalog—my first—using Aldus PageMaker and Adobe Garamond type on a Mac SE. The late graphic designer, fine printer, and book collector Albert Sperisen reviewed it for the Book Club of California Quarterly. His review was a kind lament: “I have lived too long! This book tolls the death knell of hot metal.”

Jumping ahead to the present and the Green Library Centennial, what are the building’s exhibition settings and how do you design for them?

The primary venue for Special Collections is the Peterson Gallery and adjacent Munger Rotunda, restored to its original Beaux Arts elegance post-Loma Prieta and reopened in 1999. Helmut Guenschel, Inc. of Baltimore designed the built-in display cases. The David Rumsey Map Center has built-in cases for cartographical materials; and the planned Hohbach Hall and Silicon Valley Archives spaces in the East Wing will include a new dedicated exhibition area as well.

It was [longtime and now emeritus curator] John Rawlings’ stroke of genius to put banners in the recessed window reveals in the Peterson Gallery for his exhibit about the history of the Stanford Alpine Club (No Guts, No Glory, 2000). The space was well suited to large-format photos of climbers hanging from mountainsides and rappelling from upper story dorm windows.  (John also wanted to install a dummy climber rappelling from the rotunda dome, but liability concerns thwarted the ascent.)  The strong verticals helped visually integrate the gallery, and banners have been an element of every exhibit since. I gradually experimented with adding content beyond the confines of the cases, discovering the potential in adjacent spaces. High-resolution digital images and a large-format printer are great resources for bringing content outside the cases in other ways: wrapping the columns; hanging large-format prints on the walls; installing double-sided banners between columns; and for some shows, suspending a huge banner in the center of the rotunda. The first one, for The Great Art of Knowing: The Baroque Imaginary of Athanasius Kircher (2001), featured an illustration of Bernini’s elephant obelisk reproduced twenty-five feet tall on translucent fabric. Linda Cicero photographed the installation for Stanford News and got some great shots of the banner unfurling from the rotunda dome.

Becky removing a pillar wrap from the Terraforming exhibit in 2017

What is the origin of the tradition of brightening every exhibition with fresh-cut flowers?

The table that Ed Clay designed and constructed for the rotunda using heritage oak wood salvaged from the Stanford arboretum inspired the flowers. Sometime in the early 2000s I began arranging flowers for the table every week as an extension of the exhibit space. Students and staff responded so warmly that I kept it up, bringing in whatever was in season at the Sunday Menlo Park farmer’s market, sometimes supplemented with cuttings from home. One time a student left a note on the table. It said, “Dear flower lady or flower man, Thank you for doing the flowers. They are my favorite part of the library.” I kept it, of course. Selecting and arranging the flowers has been a joyful part of my work.

I’ve become friends with market vendors Mike Astone, who grows an amazing variety of protea in the Santa Cruz Mountains; Dirk Ooijkass, who sells orchids; the staff of McGinnis Ranch, source of phenomenal sunflowers and parrot tulips; and Tom Von Tersch, who keeps bees on the Peninsula and sells his honey at the market. Tom used to bring me tall curly willow prunings in the early spring. In a clear vase, they would sprout leaves and vermicelli-like roots over a few weeks and make the rotunda smell sweet like the woods.

What are some of your favorites among the more than a hundred exhibits that you designed and installed?

That’s tough to say! Each exhibit involves a collaboration with at least one other person, often a team of people, and I’ve worked closely with historians, archivists, typographers, book designers, artists, faculty, and donors in creating many of them. There’s the collaborative process to enjoy in addition to the end result.

I appreciate them for different reasons. Some exhibits have academic content tied to significant historical events, like The American Enlightenment (2011) and Leonardo’s Library: The World of a Renaissance Reader, our current show. I appreciate them for their substance above all, and for their use of the teaching collections. But I loved just as much the summer exhibit called After Hours: Creative Pursuits of Stanford Libraries Staff (2014) for how it brought to light the expressive work of colleagues. It was a morale booster for many of us. Also dear to my heart is a show I both curated and designed, California Printers in the Fine Press Tradition 1975–2006: Selections from Stanford’s Special Collections.

For sheer beauty, one of my favorites was Zuancho in Kyoto: Textile Design Books for the Kimono Trade (2008). Similarly, Things That Dream: Calligraphic Artists Books (2012), featuring calligraphy by Thomas Ingmire, art by Manuel Neri, and poetry by Pablo Neruda Federico Garcia Lorca; Scripting the Sacred: Medieval Latin Manuscripts (2013); and Joseph Goldyne: Books, Prints, and Proofs (2015), were visual feasts.

As a celebration of the library’s core rare book collections, the two-phase Monuments of Printing: from Gutenberg to the Book Arts Revival (2011 and 2012) with [now emeritus] Rare Book Curator John Mustain, which covered 500 years of printing and book production in the West, was literally monumental. The library published catalogs of many of these exhibits, including John’s. Some of them I designed; others were outsourced to talented book designers like Peter Koch and John Hubbard.

For impact and relevance, Movements for Change, the 2014 show of Bob Fitch’s photographs of the civil rights, anti-war, and farmworker rights movements, was an unforgettable privilege to produce.

I have affection for the outliers, like the guest-curated The Rise and Fall of the Slide Rule: 350 Years of Mathematical Calculators (2005). Who would’ve thought that twenty cases of slide rules and books about them would make for an interesting show? I was worried at first, but it was surprisingly popular among both younger colleagues who’d never heard of a slide rule and older viewers, who responded with nostalgia about their trusty slide rule days.

Another popular favorite was Notable Campus Canines (with a nod to cats): Stories from the Stanford University Archives (2009), with now-retired archives specialist Pat White. She tried to track down the skeleton of David Starr Jordan’s English sheepdog, Jock, which he had preserved as a teaching model for the anatomy lab and was subsequently transferred to the California Academy of Sciences, but it had vanished to the place where good dogs go. We baked dog biscuits to give away at the opening reception.

What guidance do you provide to selectors and content providers who curate exhibitions infrequently?

Developing an exhibit takes time. Start planning early. Be selective, and write short label text. My role is to midwife ideas and materials into the world of the gallery in as creative, revealing, and accessible a way possible. The collaboration requires defining a strong concept, clear communication, and diplomacy above all. It seems to be human nature to procrastinate, and the impulse to include just a few more items into each case is hard to resist. The art of brevity in writing exhibit labels is a hard one for people to master. It’s natural to want to tell stories, to write long, but exhibit text needs to be short, in large legible type, and not crowd out the objects it’s meant to explain.

How does the exhibition program align with teaching and research at Stanford?

Faculty- and student-curated exhibits have been part of the library’s exhibit program all along, but exhibits involving a lot of students—the current Leonardo’s Library show being a prime example—are a natural outcome of a concerted effort by faculty and librarians in the past few years to bring more undergraduates into Special Collections to work hands-on with original sources. The Cantor Arts Center is also offering museum-studies type classes that involve students in creating exhibitions. Exhibits that involve numerous contributors are more complicated to manage, but with an upside of increased participation.

The principle of “show, don’t tell” is hard to observe when books and manuscripts are locked inside display cases. The ideal way to experience a book is of course to hold it in your hands and turn the pages. So as a research library, our ultimate aim with exhibits is to draw students and scholars back to the Special Collections reading room to work hands-on with materials.

Becky and John Mustain at opening of Leonardo exhibit in May 2019

What is the relationship of digital content to physical exhibits?

The digital library is something I couldn’t even have imagined when I started producing exhibits. Now it’s an essential element, and I can’t imagine doing a show without digital content. It’s possible to go layers deep with online exhibits, and there’s a plasticity to the experience of being able to look very closely at very high-resolution images. Add to that the amazing capabilities of linked texts, searchable content, pages that “turn,” and embedded video.

The design process is different for a physical exhibit, and one doesn’t readily translate into the other. You can’t simply take a physical exhibit narrative and plunk it into a webpage. Ideally, digital and analog design should be part of the workflow from the initial planning stage. Making an exhibit virtual can preserve content well beyond the physical life of the exhibit and potentially give access to a much wider audience.

Stanford Libraries is doing a lot of this to good effect on the Spotlight platform developed in-house. But there’s something compelling about an exhibit of physical materials. The case-by-case flow of narrative and the juxtaposition and relative sizes of objects help to tell a story. Rare books and manuscripts have an almost psychometric presence; they breathe.

When the Bing Wing galleries were designed twenty years ago, embedded digital content wasn’t part of the vision. In recent years, we’ve variously incorporated looped video on a monitor set up in the rotunda, added iPod sound (elevator music!), used QR codes to lead visitors to supplementary text and images, and experimented with iPads that people could check out from the reading room to see a page-by-page view of the books on display. As far as digital content goes, my successor will take the exhibition program into a new era. I’ll always be analog at heart.

Speaking of analog and traditional book arts, how have you participated in the modern fine press and artists’ book communities?

I think Albert Sperisen would be heartened by the renaissance of fine printing and craft in the book arts in the era of digital typography. I’ve been fortunate to participate in various ways connected to my work for the libraries, including learning hand typesetting and letterpress printing at The Yolla Bolly Press in Covelo, and as an informal student of Peter Koch and Richard Seibert in Berkeley and Jack Stauffacher in San Francisco. And I’ve been involved in the work of the CODEX Foundation, of which Stanford Libraries is a partner, since its beginning. The Codex International Book Faire and Symposium has nurtured a remarkable international community of designers, artists, writers, printers, typographers, calligraphers, and binders who come together in the Bay Area every two years to show and sell their work and share ideas.

Special Collections has significant holdings in contemporary book arts, both finished works and archives. Many have been featured in exhibits, among them (and not mentioned above) Making Books in the Woods: The Yolla Bolly Press (2002); The Vico Collaborations of Jack Stauffacher and Dennis Letbetter (2007); Experiments in Navigation: The Art of Charles Hobson (2008); The Art of the Book In California; Five Contemporary Presses (2011—, Cantor Arts Center, multiple venues in Mexico, and Washington DC); Peter Koch Printer: A Forty-year Retrospective (2017); and New on the Shelf: Rare Books and Artists’ Books (2018). There’s a phenomenal collection here for use by scholars and students of the art of the book.

How does one retire from a lifetime career of creativity and community?

It’s a lot to walk away from. I’ll miss the creative challenges and the day-to-day interactions with coworkers, but I’m ready for a different pace of life and to make space for new work. There was a time when I thought I might go to art school—or clown school—why not? I don’t know yet. I have a million ideas that defy the reality that life is finite. With the encouragement of a widening circle of retired friends and colleagues, I’m thinking of the immediate future as a time of revitalization and creative renewal.

Becky clowning, right, with sister Katie, center, and neighbor Gail, left, circa 1961