Girard Street

So, we have a tiny street here at UHD, between the Main building and the Student Life Center, called Girard Street. But why is it called that? How did it get its name?

I was posed this question by a staff person here at UHD and so I set out to find the answer.  I knew that in 1837, this area was not surveyed and there were no streets on this side of the Buffalo Bayou.

Houston_1836

See how poor and empty it was all along the north bank of the bayou?

And I also knew that by 1847, the streets had been laid out.

first ward early

You can see Girard named at the very far right of the image, but it was a “broken” street that continued on either side of the bend of White Oak Bayou (this drawing is post 1847, but I am not sure when it was drawn).

So, I knew that at some point between 1837 and 1847, something happened.

Eventually I discovered that the street was named for the man who surveyed the land in 1839. Auguste Girard was the Chief Engineer of the Texas Army during the Texas Revolution, and after Independence he drew up a new map of Houston for the Allen Brothers, which included platting our area around the current UHD campus, and Frost Town, just to the east of Allen’s Landing. Probably accurately predicting that no one else was going to name a street for him so he might as well do it, he named one of the streets after himself and ensured his place in our history.

His 1839 map is accessible from the Rice Digital Scholarship Archives. He was also deeded land by President Anson Jones which would later form part of the Heights area.

Is Social Media, Archival? Sometimes.

This essay was originally published in the Houston Chronicle’s Gray Matters blog on June 16, 2017.

Are a president’s tweets federal records, to be preserved in perpetuity? A bill in Congress says yes, they should be.

The COVFEFE Act takes its name, of course, from a mysterious presidential Twitter typo last month. But as indicated by the strained acronym — Communications Over Various Feeds Electronically for Engagement — the bill introduced by Rep. Mike Quigley (D-IL) would mandate that the National Archives and Records Administration preserve all social-media posts from Donald Trump’s personal accounts.

The flip side of the bill: If the tweets are federal records, deleting them would become illegal.

The bill, like Trump’s tweets, raises loads of tough questions. How could tweets, of all things, be considered federal records? What constitutes a record? And why do we even make these distinctions in 2017, when electronic storage is cheap and plentiful and we can keep everything?

Let’s start with the Federal Records Act. Enacted in 1950, it’s the guide for how the U.S. government keeps its records. In 2014, the Obama administration updated it, modernizing the definitions to include electronic documents. That update also granted the Archivist of the United States (yes, we have one) full discretion to determine what constitutes a federal record.

 

According to those federal guidelines, a “record” is any documentary material, regardless of format, made to transact public business. This seems like a very broad definition, but when masses of documents come into the  federal archives, it actually helps archivists cut away a great deal of extraneous material. For instance, a lunch invitation via email does not constitute “transacting public business.” Nor does a secretary’s reminder to attend a meeting, nor interoffice memos about the copier being broken.

Often this definition is also used to discard drafts of reports, agendas of meetings, and other documents that predict the future but are not valuable in determining what was actually enacted. An agenda is a guideline, but the minutes of the meeting tell you what actually happened. A draft of a report is not the final version that is available to the public, and if it is not finished, it is not yet a record.

 

Thus another portion of the incredible mass of documentation created by the federal government every day is stripped away. It’s presumed that the National Archives keeps fewer than five percent of all the federal documents generated each year. Though that sounds like a very small number, it adds up: According to NARA’s website, the National Archives currently holds 10 billion pages of textual records and 133 terabytes of electronic data, and those numbers are rising exponentially.

So given that the National Archives is very, very busy preserving the national historic record, who cares if Donald Trump deletes tweets from his personal twitter account?

Well, this is where the rubber meets the road.

While not every public official’s Twitter account could be considered to hold records (especially since records are by definition about transacting real business), Trump has used his personal account to make many official statements. He seems to prefer it as a form of communication to, say, a press release or an official letter.

 

This is what prompted the COVFEFE Act, ridiculous name and all.

Since the Archivist of the United States has clear power over what is and is not a record, this act will probably die a quick death. But the fight to get and keep the “official” records of the president who communicates important things on a social media platform as fickle as Twitter will probably be long and bitter.

The deeper questions raised aren’t just about Trump. As we move further into the digital age, we’re still figuring out what it is that our country chooses to remember.

 

How do we protect legacy?

When I began here, nearly four years ago, the UHD community was on the edge of a sea-change: its first big generational turnover as UHD (it had its first changeover back in the early 80s when the original South Texas Junior College employees were retiring, which led to Dr. Garna Christian’s pioneering effort to record stories via oral history). The people who built UHD and shepherded it, who started as young people just out of grad school and worked here for 25, 30, or 40 years,  were retiring.

All archivists are deeply aware of these generational turnings; it’s part of our work and it shapes our practice.  There is a professional sense of loss associated with each and every person whose story is only partially shared, or never shared at all. Even though the connection between people at UHD is mainly one of employees to one another, it’s the individuals themselves who make the story of UHD possible. When I arrived, I was tossed immediately into this tumultuous changeover.

Luckily, my first full year was also UHD’s 40th anniversary, so much of my initial work in learning UHD’s story happened in a spotlight created by others, who had more clout within the community. An oral history project was underway, photographs were being actively hunted down, paper and ephemera came to the archives in piles. Within a single year the archives grew from zero to over 50 linear feet of material. People were aware of a historical watershed and it prodded them to contribute their knowledge and experience to the story of UHD.

One thing that I noticed, though, in my first year, was that most people in the UHD community didn’t see much objective value in our story, or in our legacy. Or rather, they didn’t see that UHD *had* a story at all. To me, it felt like the community as a whole was shortchanging itself, especially as it became clear that this university has been underappreciated and underestimated for its entire existence. Knowing that this is the case made it easy to fall in love with the story of our institution, and to keep working to make the story more visible.

Now it is UHD’s 43rd year, and no organization has ever had a gala for their 43rd year. To the casual observer, the history gathering has slowed down. But for an archives, this work cannot stop. People still retire, things still happen. As an archivist, I’m generally accustomed to two responses from people when I approach them about records: they either try to convince me that their materials aren’t important, or they try to convince me that the archive is not the right place to preserve their materials. You might think that these sentiments would hurt my feelings, but all archivists get these reactions so I have a thick skin in this regard. What concerns me more, in these years when there is no institutional push towards collecting, is that we are in danger of losing legacy. History does not keep itself, and it never has. My purpose as the Archivist for this institution is to make sure that history does not fall through the cracks, that everything which should be saved, is saved, and then made safe so that the story can be shared in the future. The assumption “my history is not/should not be important to the archivist” hurts only the person doing the assuming, but it does make my job (and the job of any archivist) very hard. But don’t worry, the archivists (specifically, me) will keep bugging everyone anyway. That’s how legacy gets protected, after all.

commuter students

Growth

In December 2015, the University Archives received new space: a new storage room with specially-designed shelving made just for archival materials.

IMG_20160104_071542.jpg

IMG_20160104_071500.jpg

IMG_20160104_071547.jpg

Now it’s April 2017 and its a good thing we got this space, because it’s starting to look a little crowded! The boxes and binders all along the long wall are from the President’s Office, who has been housing their own archival materials since 1975. Now, we can take them and preserve them. In the end, all the President’s Office files will look like the others, in smaller gray boxes with proper labels. It will also be smaller, as we discard duplicate reports or other materials. Right now it takes up about 30 feet of shelving space.

IMG_20170411_142926.jpg

IMG_20170411_143022.jpg

IMG_20170411_142955.jpg

When there’s space to grow, archives can grow *very quickly*! This also means that there are more primary source materials that are available for studying the history of UHD and its predecessor, South Texas Junior College (hint, hint).

Inscriptions

A slightly less well-known part of the collections here in the University Archives is the Special Collections. Special Collections are a big umbrella that covers faculty publications, theses, some University publications, and any rare or unique books that we have which we don’t want to be checked out or circulated outside our library.

Many of our special collections books are rare because there weren’t many printed. But some are rare because they are signed by the author. One of our books was signed both by the author and the author’s husband: Lady Bird Johnson and President Lyndon B. Johnson.

The book, A White House Diary, was published in 1970, just after LBJ left office. It’s a published journal of Lady Bird’s own affairs while First Lady. In this first edition, I wasn’t terribly surprised to see her signature, and an inscription to a member of the Briscoe family (Dolph Briscoe was the 41st governor of Texas). However, once I looked more closely, and remembered that Lady Bird and Lyndon shared initials, I realized that it’s both *his* signature and *her signature* on top of one another. I don’t know how it came to our collections, but I have since found out that Honey Briscoe passed away in 1980, and its possible her books were simply gifted to the library as a donation after her death, without her heirs ever realizing what was tucked inside this particular book.

img_20170228_110702
“To Honey Briscoe with the best wishes of her friends through the years–L.B.J. Lady Bird Johnson”

What is that?

Perhaps, as you are walking up the Main Street Viaduct, you have noticed this weird metal door halfway up the bank between Buffalo Bayou and the One Main Building. Perhaps you have wondered what, exactly, that weird thing is. Fear not, gentle readers, for the University Archives is here to help.

IMG_20170202_124700.jpg
The weird thing in question

 

 

It is in fact a cargo entrance.

When the M&M building (what we now call the One Main building) was built in 1929, it was built in exactly this spot for a specific reason: it sat at the confluence of two railroads and two bayous. It was meant to take advantage of both railroads *and* waterways. Originally, that door was the cargo entrance for anything that came into the building via river barge. In fact, if you look on the left side of this photograph, you can still see the pilings for the old loading dock.

Now, you may be asking, how did they get cargo all the way from the bayou to the first floor of the building, up that slope? Well, the short answer is that they didn’t. Behind that metal door is a tunnel which leads directly up a gentle slope to the lower basement of our building (yes, we have a basement. In fact, we have a basement and a sub-basement, which is where the door’s tunnel came into). Once inside the building through the sub-basement’s tunnel, there was a big freight elevator that would take goods up to the basement or up to the first floor, where they could be offloaded for transport by train, or by truck through the Girard Street entrance.

But they didn’t carry stuff through the tunnel; that would have been a job for two or more men, or even impossible in some cases. Instead they used carts, like these, which are currently stacked on top of each other in the basement.

IMG_20170203_080209.jpg
These handcarts are waiting to find a good permanent home, perhaps on display

It had to be slow work, but there was really no other efficient way of offloading cargo up such a steep slope. There is also a theory that the sub-basement and tunnel are actually remnants of the original warehouse which stood here since the 1850s, and which was used as a holding area for Union POWs for a time during the Civil War, after the Battle of Galveston Bay. The current door is clearly not that old, but was probably added once shipping was fully routed to the Ship Channel and upstream commercial traffic stopped.

Looking Up

Since the One Main Building is a rather old gentleman of a building, it has many strange features and nooks and crannies that are often left unexplored. One thing I have noticed generally is that people rarely look up. But you can read the story of our nearly-90 year history of renovations to this building if you go into one of One Main’s many stairwells and just…look up.

IMG_20170106_135751.jpg

The ceiling is concrete, even though it looks like wood joists covered by planks.

IMG_20170106_134731.jpg

Nearly every staircase has a gate that prevents you from going up to the roof. Which is probably for the best.

IMG_20170106_134640.jpg

Lots of piping, still-existent access points in the masonry for long-lost beams or pipes that have since been removed.

IMG_20170106_135547.jpg

Found a brick, too. A successful Friday excursion!

Found Buried in the Archives!

Every so often, a news article will catch my eye that exclaims “Rare [X] Found Buried in the Archives!”

This headline is misleading for two reasons.

  1. Archives are not like mines, where things sort of magically come up out of the earth, or scholars must literally “dig” for them.
  2. The [X] wasn’t found or discovered. It was already found several years before by archivists, where it was preserved and placed in carefully stable conditions so that it may never be destroyed.

Archivists usually get bent out of shape about these headlines, but I feel like it may be time for a deep dive into why we feel so strongly. As an archivist who uses her own archives for research, I will try to explain.

One reason this pulls so negatively on archivists’ emotions is because though many of us have training in historical research, we are often discouraged from doing any research in our own collections beyond what is strictly necessary to help a future user navigate the collections. And so, we tend to fall into the background, listed as “the staff.” To use yesterday’s example of the “long unseen H.G. Wells ghost story”,  the librarian was, as far as I know, never interviewed for the story. This happens a lot–it happens nearly 100% of the time these stories are published, actually. The man who “discovered” the manuscript, however, said “It’s one thing to publish something where 15 people on Earth know about it, but it’s another thing to publish something where it’s just me and the librarian and H.G. Wells.”  He mentions the librarian, but the journalist never interviews them. There is an implied recrimination: why bother interviewing the person who *missed* this vital piece of material for so many years? That person couldn’t even be bothered to know about it! (whether or not journalists really think this way is almost irrelevant; this is what archivists and librarians think when something like this happens)

But that’s the crux of the issue: archival practice lies in organization, description, and providing access. We do not have time to also be the subject expert on every collection we preserve. In a case like the University of Illinois, this is especially true, because they have thousands of manuscript collections, and many, many famous authors and politicians and thinkers are represented. Can one person know everything about all of those people? No, of course not.

Scholars are supposed to come in and do research on collections. That’s how the system works–archivists save things, and the scholars come later to try to pick out the juicy bits or to glean some new insight from the materials at hand, and then tell the world. We welcome scholars, and scholars are usually very lovely towards their archivists, because inevitably, the archivist shows them a new treasure that they never would have seen without the archivist’s help. I imagine that is what happened at Illinois: the scholar came in, wanted to look through Wells’ archives for something (who knows what it could have been, perhaps an unedited manuscript), and the librarian says “oh, you know what? You should check out these boxes of draft manuscripts, I think there are some early ones in there.” And voile, the scholar has “discovered” a manuscript that was never published. But the people who preserved it for all that time don’t seem to warrant a mention in the journalist’s story, probably because “well-preserved draft manuscript given to publisher” is a really uninteresting headline. This kind of thing leads to frustration in archival circles, because it demeans our work, at best conveying us as secretaries and at worst conveying us as absentee landlords who don’t care about our own collections.

Here at University of Houston-Downtown, I’m lucky, because no one does any historical research on our university (yet! I think we have a lot of interesting stories that inform a much greater narrative of “higher-education-for-all” that blossomed throughout the 70s,80s, and 90s. Eventually we’ll see more interest in our story). So I get to do all the research to frame the story, to generate interest in our institution and its accomplishments. Which gives me more ability to advocate for my own worth, as well. But most archivists are not in that role–their job is explicitly *not* to do research, because that is someone else’s job, for better or worse. Does that mean that they don’t know of the existence of interesting collections or artifacts? No.They know very well what they have. But they don’t write books about it, they preserve and create access, for the right person to come along and show interest. That doesn’t mean things are lost. In fact, if they are “found” in an archives, they were never lost at all. We should feel grateful for that.

On this site…

Dr. Nicholson has been teaching a course this semester on Houston history, and I was lucky enough to get to teach her class how we do primary source research in physical archives, as well as what materials are available online. One of the resources that are especially useful to anyone studying Houston are the Sanborn Insurance Company’s maps of Houston. They were done over several years, document nearly every commercial property in Houston, and usually have interesting information on whether the place kept a security guard, or what the building was constructed of, as these would affect insurance rates.

I can use maps like this to find out more about what sat on our location at One Main Street, before the Merchants and Manufacturer’s Building was built in 1930. We know that originally, it was the site of a warehouse owned by two founding fathers of the city of Houston, Louis Pless and Samuel L. Allen, and served a role in the Battle of Galveston Bay during the Civil War.

I can use the original land use research from the 1920s to reconstruct other owners of the land, although it went back and forth between family, into probates, and out again until the early 1900s.  The Sanborn maps become especially useful when trying to piece together legal narratives into physical property lines:

www.lib.utexas.edu_maps_sanborn_g-i_txu-sanborn-houston-1907-vol2-05.jpg

From this map, I was able to learn one very important fact that I spread to anyone who would listen to me: there used to be an ice cream factory located right where the south deck is now (I am open to starting a petition drive to revive it). It’s also possible to see where the American Brewing Association was located, at the corner of 2nd and Girard. Another interesting thing you can see from this map is that there was no “Main Street”, it was First Street and it was “not paved.”

Unfortunately, by 1924 the ice cream factory is no more, and most of the land has been taken by a descendent of the Brewing Association, the American Ice and Storage Company. Main Street, and its viaduct, are now built and the MKT railroad has its first passenger depot (which predated the one we have photographs for):

txu-sanborn-houston-1924-vol02-220.jpg

 

Just five years later, the M&M was under construction, and has dominated the skyline on the north side of the bayou ever since.

mmbuilding

 

How (and why) of Finding Aids

The Archives has been hosting its first-ever intern for the past several weeks, Bryant Binyon, and by way of punishment  education, I had him write a guest post about his process for creating finding aids. Partially this is because I have never written about creating finding aids on this blog, and partially this is because one of the main things any archivist needs to be able to do is to teach others about their work. And as the saying goes, practice makes perfect!

==================

Finding aids are used by researchers to determine whether information they are looking for can be found in a specific archival collection. Finding aids usually have a number of elements, including

(1) some overview information like extent (measured in linear feet to give an idea of the shelf space the collection occupies), date range, title, creator, etc.,

(2) a biographical or historical note, which tells the user some notable information about the person or persons responsible for creating the collection, and

(3) a scope and content note, which explains exactly what formats are included in the collection.

The process of writing the Faculty Senate Collection finding aid really began when I was appraising and processing the collection. The collection consisted of a bunch of files (8 banker boxes total, which is about 7 feet of shelf space) from a variety of sources. So the first thing I had to do was go through it all, throwing out duplicates and other things that were either being held in other collections, or not “archival.” As I went through this process, the materials kind of naturally started to fall into a few distinct categories, which later became what archivists call series. Those series are – (1) General, (2) Committees, (3) Agendas, Minutes, and Rolls, (4) Correspondence, and (5) Faculty Assembly. Within the series documents then fell into even smaller categories (mostly related to subject and time period) that could be put together into folders. Attempting to describe the materials at the level of each document would be absurdly time consuming (there are roughly 7200 pages of material in this collection), so I stopped at the folder level. Once the documents were in their folders and those folders were placed in their series I made a container list, which is a “nested” list of the materials contained in the collection, sorted hierarchically into folders, boxes, and series. The container list is included in the finding aid.

Creating the overview information and the scope and content note was a fairly simple process. Writing the scope and content note consisted of writing down the type of media and the date range of the documents in each series and figuring out the series’ physical extent by multiplying the number of boxes in the series by 5 linear inches, which is the amount of space each box takes up on the shelf. For the overview information I knew the creator for the collection was the Faculty Senate and the inclusive dates were determined by looking at the box list and finding the earliest and latest document contained therein. The bulk dates, I sort of came up with based on my experience processing the collection: I noticed that the majority of the documents in the collection were from between 1978 and 1986.

Writing the organizational history note was a bit more involved. I had already gotten a feel for how the Senate was created during the appraisal and description phases of the archiving process, but I had to confirm dates, the people involved, and other specifics by reading through some of the foundational documents (like the constitution and related correspondence). I was then able to put that information together into a brief description of the Faculty Senate that can be used by researchers to get an idea of what the Senate is and how its activities might relate to their research.

Here’s the final version of the finding aid, so you can see what all that work amounted to.