As my friend David Zeidberg prepares to retire as the Avery Director of the Library, I find myself reflecting on the times we have shared. I arrived about four years before David came in 1996 and served as The Huntington’s vice president for operations until 2016. In many ways, we experienced his tenure together—and what a joy it has been.
In a recent Founder’s Day lecture, David recounted something he shared with me numerous times: the most important function of the Library is perhaps the least seen—providing resources to research scholars. David is typecast to lead an important research library—he’s low-key, not shouting for attention—as he provides quiet leadership, calm insights, and firm guidance.
He’s also the hero of the unseen. This is a man who championed basements, for heaven’s sake! Those completely essential underground storage places are where The Huntington safeguards precious books, manuscripts, and other original materials. He advocated for the importance of building enough storage space to make room for future collections. And boy, did they come! These spaces have been vigorously filled with a range of voices—from Civil War telegrams to authors Charles Bukowski, Octavia E. Butler, and Langston Hughes.
When asked about the characteristics that make him a strong leader of this remarkable Library, David has said, with customary modesty, “I’m good at pointing!” By that, he means that he has the ability to recognize a good idea from his staff and then let them run with it, giving them a means to succeed. He had my back in this way multiple times.
David and I worked together on two major construction projects—the Munger Research Center (opened in 2004) and the Steven S. Koblik Education and Visitor Center (opened in 2015). (Both feature plenty of the aforementioned basements!) David made sure to meet the projects’ programmatic and functional needs, and I helped to ensure that the buildings were constructed according to plans, with refinement and quality, and on time and budget. These were big projects with large budgets, important donors, and high visibility—right at the front door of the institution. David always provided support to me and to the architectural and construction teams. He was never critical, always solution-oriented. He let us run with it and helped us to succeed.
Before we started construction on the Steven S. Koblik Education and Visitor Center, we met with key team members from The Huntington, the contractor, the architect, and the landscape architect, and we asked ourselves, “when we have completed construction, how will we know whether the project has been successful or not?” Our answers included predictable ones, like meeting the schedule, producing clear and thorough construction documents, and making sure the governing boards were relaxed and confident throughout the process. But we focused even more on the softer aspects—keeping relationships intact, ensuring team members had no regrets, having communication remain transparent and respectful, and having fun! In no small part, we met all those goals, again, thanks to David’s calm and steady hand.
Much has been written about David’s deep and broad intellectual range—from the history of printing and books to the technical aspects of cars and motorcycles! This is a guy who speaks with authority about Bilstein shocks and steel brake lines; who frequents events by Cars & Coffee (a global community of automobile enthusiasts); who adores his grandkids (who call him Popop); and who’s looking forward to putting a brush to canvas again in the coming years. He loves the slow artistry of a hand-bound book as well as the speed of a well-tuned sports car. He cherishes the quiet basement storage spaces and the institution’s gorgeous uplifting views of the mountains (especially from his office!). He’s a bit of a Renaissance man in that way, and my life has been enriched professionally and personally by having worked beside him for many wonderful years.
I wish you all the best, my friend, on the next stage of your journey.
Laurie Sowd is senior vice president and chief operations officer at the California Science Center and former vice president of operations at The Huntington.