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Historical Observations: The George I. Paganelis Interview

October 24, 2021

I recently interviewed George I. Paganelis via Skype asking him a series of questions about the Tsakopoulos Hellenic Collection at California State University, Sacramento (AKA Sacramento State). George was born in Athens, Greece, and came to the United States with his parents as a young child. For a time, his family traveled between the United States and Greece before finally deciding to settle permanently in San Jose, CA.

I am the only scholar so far who has twice used this magnificent collection. My stay in Sacramento is full of wonderful memories of having had access to and using materials for my research on Asia Minor. I told George that I could live, eat, and sleep in the library surrounded by this treasure trove. “Just find me a small corner where I can rest overnight;” I said. I encourage anyone visiting Sacramento to visit and explore this fantastic library. My interview with George follows.

Stavros Stavridis: How did you become the curator of the collection?

George Paganelis: I studied ancient history and classics at the University of California, Davis; received an MA in classics at the University of Colorado, Boulder; and an MS in library and information science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champagne. Then the job at Sacramento State became available; you could say that this was built around my academic and personal background. A tailor-made position for me.

SS: Did you have any previous experience as a curator?

GP: I had no previous experience as a curator, though I had worked as a volunteer in the library of Stanford University and part-time at a public library system in the San Francisco Bay area. My academic training prepared me well for this job. I have been working full-time as Curator of the Tsakopoulos Hellenic Collection since September 2003.

SS: How did Sacramento State acquire this huge collection?

GP: The nucleus of the collection belonged to the late Professor Speros Vryonis Jr., which became the basis of the Speros Basil Vryonis Center for the Study of Hellenism, named after Vryonis’ deceased son. This center was created to address the dearth in the western United States of research institutes with scholarly collections whose particular strengths dealt with post-Classical Hellenism from Byzantium through contemporary Greece.

The Vryonis Center opened in Los Angeles in 1985 and moved to the Sacramento area in 1989 after Vryonis was appointed inaugural director of the Onassis Center at NYU. The Center operated from 1989-2000 in Sacramento where its library grew from about 13,000 volumes to 65,000.

In 2000 it was decided to close the center and place the research collection at an academic institution where its holdings would be better preserved and more broadly accessible, and where an academic program in Hellenic studies could be built around it. It was donated to Sacramento State in part given its proximity to the center and also due to the fact that Angelo Tsakopoulos, who had been its financial benefactor from the beginning, is an alumnus.

The gift agreement provided for the university to create two full-time, tenure-track positions: one for a curator for the collection, which was renamed the Tsakopoulos Hellenic Collection, and the other in the history department to develop the Hellenic Studies Program based around its new collection. I was hired to be the collection curator, and Katerina Lagos, now Professor of History, was hired to become director of the program.

SS: How large is the collection?

GP: Our growing collection has over 75,000 volumes and materials in other formats. Its focus is on Hellenism from antiquity to the present across the social sciences and humanities, with particular strengths in Byzantium, Turkocratia, and Modern Greek studies, including the Hellenic diaspora worldwide. Other strengths of the collection include the Ottoman Empire and Turkey, the Balkans, and, to a lesser extent, the Near and Middle East. The collection holds materials in over 20 languages, which is indicative of the scholarship being conducted in Hellenic studies and the cultural reach of Greek civilization over the centuries.

Ours is the premier Hellenic collection west of the Mississippi and one of the largest of its kind in the country. In the near future I expect to announce some major acquisitions that will enhance our collection even further.

SS: Do students utilize the collection?

GP: Statistically, the collection is mainly used by more undergraduate students than graduate students. Our faculty and library research fellows also make use of the collection, especially materials in Greek.

SS: Tell us about the Library Research Fellowship Program.

GP: Since its inception, this program has enabled scholars at the graduate through senior scholar levels, including independent scholars, from outside the Sacramento region to conduct research in Hellenic studies topics while in residence for stays ranging from two weeks to three months. The program has grown from a single funder to three: the Elios Charitable Foundation; the Tsakopoulos Hellenic Foundation; and most recently the Tarbell Family Foundation. Since 2013, we have hosted 24 fellows, with six fellows scheduled to visit during the 2021-2022 academic year.

SS: What kinds of materials have you digitized?

GP: Most of our oral histories conducted with members of the local Greek community have been digitized, with others now in the pipeline. We also have grant funding to begin digitizing some archival material.

We have an extensive range of Greek-American newspapers on microfilm and paper format from the early 20th century which I would like to digitize with full-text search capability. However, this requires significant funding and is best pursued on a consortial basis. My counterparts at other institutions and I are currently exploring potential funders for this project to digitize journals and newspapers in Modern Greek studies.

SS: What kinds of events do you host?

GP: As part of our community outreach program, over the years Katerina Lagos and I have organized public lectures, film screenings, exhibits, performances, etc. In November 2019, Sacramento State hosted the Modern Greek Studies Association (MGSA) Biennial Symposium, which gave great public exposure to our program and the Tsakopoulos Hellenic Collection. During the conference, I conducted tours showing our visitors highlights from the collection.

SS: What are the major challenges for the Collection?

GP: Adequate ongoing funding for the collection to fulfil its multifaceted mission remains the main challenge. Collection growth, expanding the Library Research Fellowship Program, digitization projects, community outreach – these all require ongoing sources of regular, stable funding. As the collection continues to grow, space to house the materials will become a challenge as well. My ultimate goal is to raise the requisite funding through one or more endowments to provide a permanent base of funding beyond my years as steward of this great collection.

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