In depth: Course Catalogs

In any organization, there are certain publications or regularly-issued documents which form what archivists call “high-information objects.” These are materials that, when looked at over a long period of time, give great insight into the history, growth, and evolution of an organization. In the case of a university, one of the most enriching and enlightening high-information objects is the course catalog.

The course catalog (for any university or college) is a clearinghouse of information. It lists faculty, administrators, policies, office locations, FAQs, and other tidbits of miscellaneous information in addition to the listing of courses. There is also usually an aesthetic element to the course catalog, at least after 1970 or so, when many universities began putting graphics and photographs on the fronts of their course catalogs.

In our case at UHD, we have course catalogs from both the University and its predecessor, South Texas Junior College. These useful books tell us when classes began, what the University was called, who was president and provost and chancellor. These pieces of information, which usually seem like easy questions to answer, are not always so. For instance, while most people with knowledge of the history of UHD know that W.I. Dykes was our first president, it took several hours of work in other publications, course catalogs, and correspondence to find that he retired well before the beginning of UH-Downtown, was replaced by another person, and then came out of retirement because that person had not fulfilled his duties. What seems like a routine research question can turn into an in-depth investigation very quickly, and resources like course catalogs or President’s newsletters are the first line in discovering how things “really” happened.