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Juana Briones Archive

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The Juana Briones exhibit on display at Stanford's Green Library.

Stanford Students Get Hands-on with Local History

Bridging the gap between academia and public service, select students from the Fall 2009 course, "Introduction to Public History and Public Service" became volunteer historians, assembling an archive of unique and local importance. During the course, taught by Department of History Lecturer Dr. Carol McKibben, students applied historical study to public settings such as heritage sites and state parks.

Using a local case study, the students learned first-hand how these elements intertwine by examining the life of an influential nineteenth-century California woman named Juana Briones de Miranda. Their efforts resulted in the Juana Briones exhibit, now on display in Green Library, as well as the Juana Briones archive, now permanently part of the Stanford Library’s Special Collections.

McKibben’s own history research and experience as Director of the Seaside History Project has led her to the conclusion that: “Working on the ground in public history is an essential part of understanding exactly how history can benefit communities.” McKibben wanted her students to experience just how valuable service learning can be, because as she put it, “working in communities can add immeasurably to students' understanding of the importance of history in American life.” Thanks to funding from the Haas Center for Public Service, McKibben was able to incorporate a hands-on public service component into the curriculum of the History 201 course she has been teaching since 2006.

Last year the History 201 class worked with staff from Angel Island Immigration Station as they prepared to revamp their San Francisco exhibit. Students conducted research in a branch of the National Archives in San Bruno on non-Chinese populations who were detained at Angel Island between 1900 and 1940. Their work was incorporated into materials for the newly designed exhibit. McKibben said the students also contributed to a book project on the history of the Angel Island Immigration Station. This year’s project, however, was right in Stanford’s backyard.Pioneering Historical Figure Spurs Collaboration

Juana Briones (1802-1899) was born at Villa de Branciforte (now Santa Cruz), California, where her mother and grandparents were settlers from New Spain (present-day Mexico). Growing up in the Presidio of San Francisco, Juana Briones learned herbal medicine from Native Americans, and later became a reputable acurandera, or healer, and helped fight a smallpox epidemic in the Bay Area in 1834.

After divorcing her abusive husband and raising eight children independently, Juana Briones acquired property in San Francisco, and later bought a 4,400-acre plot, Rancho la Purisima Concepcion, in the foothills of what is today Palo Alto. Briones was quickly becoming one of the most independent and accomplished Mexican women in California. In 1850, after California acquired statehood, Juana Briones won a Supreme Court case in favor of her ownership of her San Francisco property, making her one of the first women to own property in California.

However, it is her adobe house on Arastradero Road in Palo Alto that ultimately inspired the public-service archive and exhibit project. Constructed in a rare style utilizing lathe-like wooden framing, the house has become a living landmark of California history and a symbol of Juana Briones’ accomplishments.

In the Fall of 2006, McKibben's first Introduction to Public History and Public Service class had also focused on Juana Briones de Miranda for its group project, as the Juana Briones Heritage Foundation was particularly active in Palo Alto that year. Threatened with demolition, the house became the focus of a neighborhood campaign, spearheaded by the Juana Briones Heritage Foundation to preserve the property as a historical landmark. The foundation disbanded in 2008, giving McKibben's class "a perfect opportunity to bring the work of preservation that the foundation did into a permanent and safe collection that could be utilized by researchers and interested community members," explained Professor McKibben. 

Glynn Edwards, Principal Manuscripts Processing Librarian for Stanford University Libraries, helped students catalogue, store, and present the archive along with Special Collections Exhibits Manager Elizabeth Fischbach. The material acquired by students is diverse and comprehensive. The archive consists of maps, legal documents, correspondence, historical photographs, and even a few recorded interviews with members of the Juana Briones foundation.

"The foundation itself never had a central location for the 'material,'" Edwards explains. "The task for students in the fall class was to contact members of the foundation and ask if they would deposit relevant material to Stanford as part of a single collection. This project was essential in terms of consolidating the material, bringing it out of the individual members' homes, and into a secure place where it would be accessible to researchers."

Inspired by Juana Briones’ contributions to Northern California history and the efforts made by the Juana Briones Heritage Foundation to preserve her property, four undergraduates, Eugenia Maluff, Robbie Zimbroff, Alfredo Martinez, and Alisha Mitchell, who had taken McKibben’s Fall 2009 class continued working into the winter quarter to complete the archive and curate the exhibit, which made its debut in the lobby of Green Library on March 12, 2010. "The entire project has given their effort a renewed recognition - through press about the project and the exhibit," Edwards said of the students' efforts. "The most important aspect, I think, is that the papers are no longer in danger of being lost and are available to researchers." 

Public History Inspires and Educates 

 The Haas Center for Public Service, the Stanford History Department, as well as History Professor Al Camarillo, and the Special Collections team all worked together to help the students create the archive and prepare the exhibit. Space for the exhibit was generously provided by Library Development Director David Jordan. Jordan plans to leave the Juana Briones archive exhibit on display in Green library through Summer 2010, and hopes both students and library visitors will stop by to see the students' work.

Eugenia Maluf, a junior majoring in History at Stanford, described the project as “a great way to see a real application of what we learn in the History major.” Eugenia felt that the project brought together people with a passion for sharing knowledge and collaborating with others. “I think that many people overlook the value of the history major because it has so few obvious real-world applications, but Introduction to Public History showed me how our interpretation of American history has shaped the way we think and talk about the United States today. For me, history is very much a dynamic and exciting field of study and that was only reinforced by this project.”  

Juana Briones Exhibit Now Accessible Worldwide

Thanks to Stanford University's new partnership with Second Life, the students who developed the Briones archive were able to share the Juana Briones exhibit with visitors far beyond the Stanford campus. Second Life users can "visit" the archive in the virtual version of Stanford's Green Library, located on EduIsland, a virtual island that "contains resources and exhibits for the various Stanford libraries."

Second Life is a free service that allows users to create personal avatars that interact with each other in real time. In this virtual world, actual locations, including parts of Stanford's Green Library, are available digitally. Thus, Second Life avatars can walk through the virtual glass doors of Green Library and see a shockingly realistic representation of the Juana Briones archive project and also check out other Green Library resources.

Stanford's collaboration with the Second Life Builders' team gives students and scholars alike the opportunity to share their work with colleagues, professors, and prospective employers. By creating a Second Life avatar users can now access the Briones exhibit worldwide, allowing even international visitors to visit Stanford and get a glimpse of Juana Briones - her life, her land, and her many contributions to preserving Northern California's rich natural beauty.