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Happenings at Hunt Library: The Black Mountain College Story

Combining “happenings” with lectures, NCSU Libraries Visiting Scholar David Silver has used the visualization spaces in the James B. Hunt Jr. Library over the past two years to tell one of the most fascinating stories in the history of higher education. Through the lens of its working farm, Silver has chronicled the rise and fall of Black Mountain College in western North Carolina by using Hunt’s diverse spaces as a scholarly communication platform that perfectly fits his subject.

Can you tell the story of an educational experiment in an experimental way? Visiting Scholar David Silver, an authority on North Carolina’s legendary, interdisciplinary Black Mountain College, brought that question to the visualization spaces at the James B. Hunt Jr. Library. His answer has taken the form of two engaging presentations that described—and embodied—the innovative practices at Black Mountain.

Studies Building at the Black Mountain College Lake Eden campus.Studies Building at the Black Mountain College Lake Eden campus.

From its founding in 1933 to its closing in 1957, Black Mountain College created a legacy that still informs liberal arts education and inspires artists, architects, designers, and educators. Its faculty and students stand among the giants of Modernist thought and practice. Artists Josef and Anni Albers, poets Robert Creeley and Charles Olson, visionary architect Buckminster Fuller (who lectured at NC State in 1949), choreographer and dancer Merce Cunningham, and composer John Cage all set the stage for major transformations in educational practices.

All instruction and activity at Black Mountain drew upon the arts. The faculty owned the school and, with the students, operated its every aspect, including farming, cooking, and construction projects. The cooperative integration of working, living, and learning attracted world-class talent and helped launch innovations such as the “happening” multi-arts event and the geodesic dome design.

Doing the history justice

Inspired by Black Mountain’s legacy, Silver, an associate professor at the University of San Francisco, aspired to the transmission of the school’s unique creative spirit through the telling of its history. He wanted to leave his students wishing they could go back in time and enroll. But his lectures just weren’t lighting the light bulbs over the heads of his students like he wanted them to.

The 2014 happening starts in the iPearl Immersion Theater.The 2014 happening starts in the iPearl Immersion Theater.

Silver zeroed in on the lecture form. Traditional lectures put the audience in a fundamentally passive relationship with the information, but this information was about as active as it comes. “Instead of just giving a talk, is there a way to create an engaging, immersive environment within which the talk would exist?” Silver remembers wondering.

He found the solution in summer 2014 during his first residency at the NCSU Libraries as a Visiting Scholar. Invited by Vice Provost and Director of the NCSU Libraries Susan K. Nutter after they had met at the Information Professional 2050 Conference two years earlier, Silver spent three weeks in intensive collaboration and planning with Libraries staff. The visit culminated with his first multimedia experience, “Black Mountain College: A Hunt Library Happening,” on August 4, 2014.

“When I first saw the Hunt Library and talked to [Director of Visualization Services] Mike Nutt, we started figuring this out,” Silver says. “Usually, at the top of a normal talk or lecture, I’d give an outline or bullet points. Instead of this, we created multiple immersive spaces throughout the building. It was fundamentally different and completely unique.”

The 2014 happening starts in the iPearl Immersion Theater.Silver uses the Visualization Wall to introduce some of the first Black Mountain College students.

Silver talked in front of multimedia content on screens, and then walked the audience to the next display space, allowing for conversations to happen en route.

“Instead of the traditional model of one lecture to a mass, the immersive spaces make everyone participants as they engage in the space and screens individually and collectively,” he said.

“It’s hard to ignore that when you’re in these spaces you’re surrounded by history and evidence. In the Teaching and Visualization Lab, with images and information spread around 270 degrees, when I said ‘As we remember from earlier…’ to the audience, I saw everyone swivel their chairs to see the area of the screen that I was talking about. That’s engagement.”

The founding of the farm

Silver returned for another residency in June 2015, again working with library staff to craft an immersive, embodied experience with rich photographs and historical artifacts presented in visualization spaces throughout the Hunt Library. His presentation focused again on the farm at Black Mountain. The farm was a remarkable achievement. Student-initiated and largely student-led, the farm was conceived in fall 1933, debated throughout winter, and launched in spring 1934.

In his first residency in 2014, Silver introduced the origins of the farm at Black Mountain College, leading attendees on a progressive presentation in four locations within the Hunt Library. After an introduction in the iPearl Immersion Theater, he walked the audience to the Visualization Wall—a 25-foot-wide canvas comprised of seven separate columns of pixel space integrated into the architecture of the library. The Teaching and Visualization Lab was next before ending at the Monumental Stairs and the Commons Wall display. 

For his second residency in 2015, Silver used recent research to dispel some often-held misconceptions about both the farm and the College itself. Frequently thought of as isolated and ostracized, Silver carefully laid out the argument that the College was in fact highly networked with others in the surrounding community and throughout the state. In the form of an interactive map, Silver even presented evidence from the NCSU Libraries Special Collections Research Center that the College had been in contact with some of NC State’s premier agricultural faculty, including David Weaver, Roy Dearstyne, Bertram Wells, and Garnet Foster. 

Silver and librarians Groth and Nutt discuss plans in the Teaching and Visualization Lab.Silver and librarians Evans Groth and Nutt discuss plans in the Teaching and Visualization Lab.

“I learned that anytime [Technology Support Analyst] Brent Brafford is deep in thought, he’s coming up with something good,” Silver laughs. “Brent made a simple, brilliant suggestion: ‘Why are we looking at a Google map from today? We should have a 1933 map of North Carolina.’ A half-hour later, Brent had three different maps he was working on, with pins for all the locations I was discussing.”

A notable addition to Silver’s second visit to the Libraries was the involvement of NC State digital humanities scholars in the planning process. The week before Silver’s talk, professors and students were invited to witness his “first draft” of the lecture and participate in a discussion and critique. This resulted in several substantial improvements to the talk and provided an opportunity for interinstitutional dialogue about new methods for historical scholarly communication.

Silver's 2015 talk begins on the Monumental Stair.Silver's 2015 talk begins on the Monumental Stair.

Silver has grown a bit of a following in the Triangle for his brand of engaging scholarship. As with his 2014 visit, the Libraries hosted two free, public “performances” of Silver’s talk in the morning and evening of June 30 followed by lively receptions for the discussions to continue. Over 250 people attended Silver’s performances, including a large faculty contingent. At least 20 professors attended, representing several different disciplines, from UNC-Chapel Hill, Elon University, and NC State.

Silver is excited by the interest of his peers, but he’s more inclined to talk about the potential of the Hunt Library platform for current and future students here. “I was brought up on Microsoft Word and Powerpoint and had the advantage of getting into the World Wide Web early on,” he says. “But what kind of scholarship will these digital natives produce when not hampered with ‘This is the way we’ve always done it?’ What happens when they start working on those video walls?”

“Unlike a paper assignment, for which you always get a similar paper, I have a feeling that if you have students working in immersive spaces, they’ll tell widely different and more engaging stories. Knowledge is not passive. When it’s triggered, it’s really active.”