The Silicon Valley Voice

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A Passion for the “Story” in History

Mary Hanel, the former history librarian at the Santa Clara City Library retired three years ago this month, but she’s as busy as ever. She attends lectures and programs at Santa Clara University through the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute. And, as a board member and docent volunteer at the Harris-Lass House Museum, she’s helping organize their “Art on the Lawn” exhibit in August.

The recent afternoon I met up with her at the Central Park Library, she’d just returned from visiting her mom at a local senior living facility and had, in her purse, a paperback copy of Hidden Figures, the biography of black female mathematicians who worked at NASA, which she’s reading for a book club.

“You miss certain things,” Hanel said, referring to her retirement. “You miss the people and the fun things about your job. But there’s so much to do when you join a few organizations.”

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Hanel served as the City’s history librarian for 23 years, and her love for libraries and the subject of history goes back to when she was a child. Born in San Francisco and raised in nearby Belmont, by high school she was already working as a library page at the Belmont Public Library.

But she credits teachers for her passion for history. In Belmont, as a 7th grade student at Immaculate Heart of Mary School, Hanel recalled Sister Susan Olsen who used to dress up as characters out of the past. “She turned history into a story. She wanted us to understand that history was people’s lives and stories. It was real people experiencing life.”

When Hanel attended the College of San Mateo as an undergraduate, she credited one of her professors with the same gift. “You have to get the right teacher,” she said. “History can just be dates and dry facts and who cares?”

Hanel obtained her undergraduate degree in history at U.C. Davis in 1978. She then earned a master’s degree in library science at U.C. Berkeley in a 12-month accelerated program.

Degrees in hand, she took on a variety of positions over her career. She worked as a children’s librarian in the Kern County library system. And she worked at the transportation library at the California Department of Transportation in Sacramento, where she researched photos and prepared background histories on highway standards, and she conducted oral histories with project engineers and planners.

While working as the history librarian in Santa Clara, Hanel said, “What I found, talking with some of the genealogists who came in there; a lot of them hated history when they were kids.” She recalled their youthful resistance to talking to old relatives; even grandma. “‘How many times is she gonna tell me that story,’” she recalled them saying. “But then she’s gone and one day they realize ‘Oh, grandma was part of this event in history.’ And all of a sudden they appreciate history because it means something to their family. And that’s why I think local history is so important. It’s your family’s story. It’s your life. And it’s a part of history.”

For those looking for an introduction to local Santa Clara history, Hanel recommends the following books: A Place of Promise, co-authored by Santa Clara historian Lorie Garcia, and Harvest of Change by Stephen M. Payne.

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