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.

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Growth

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

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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.

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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).

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!

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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.

Save It?

It’s generally accepted in the archival world that CDs and DVDs are not permanent storage solutions. As anyone who bought a Green Day CD in 1994 or pirated a copy of Independence Day via DivX format onto a DVD knows…they are a pretty unstable media and the likelihood that a CD or DVD will just stop working is very high. There are a couple of reasons for this.

First, it comes because of the way discs are constructed and written upon. Commercially made CDs/DVDs use an aluminum substrate with a dye in it. When you “burn” a disc, you are doing just that. The cd-writer heats up the dye within the aluminum to represent a 0 or 1. This doesn’t heat the disc because, as anyone who has used aluminum foil knows, aluminum doesn’t heat up much. Over time though, the dye breaks down even though the aluminum stays stable (this is irregardless of whether it is kept in light or shadow, hot temps or cold temps). Shelf life on burnt media cannot be considered safe over two years. There are now discs available, called M-discs, which were developed by the US Department of Defense. They have special writers which write *directly* onto the metal of the disc. It takes an inordinate amount of time to write a single disc, but the disc is stable for much longer (in fact, about as long as a vinyl record would last, very similar type of media).

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The other reason that CDs don’t last is usually because of the way that the information is constructed. Perhaps the format of the object is old and not supported anymore. Or the self-executing program that launches the CD disintegrates due to too much copying. When archivists talk about the “best” way to keep digital media, we usually advocate for keeping everything on “spinning” hard disks–ie, a hard drive that is hooked up and plugged in. And even then, you still need to go through all your files periodically and open them, make sure they are still in working formats and haven’t suffered any “bit rot” (an unfortunate condition where the very structure of the data disintegrates as the 1s and 0s flip themselves around for no reason at all).

The main issue when we try to preserve digital materials is that we don’t understand it very well yet–digital things are 50 years old AT MOST. We understand paper, and have developed the technology over thousands of years to be stable, portable, and permanent. Digital has a long way to go before it is as trustworthy as paper, which means working harder to preserve it, for now.

 

Processing collections

The vast majority of the work of an archivist is what we call “processing.” It’s the step after we take materials from the donor, and the step before we present it to the user. So, it’s a pretty important step.It involves organizing and preserving the materials that have come in, and once processing is done, the collection should be ready to live out its life in the archives with very little intervention by the archivist.

Processing is one of my favorite things, because it’s non-stop discovery. I’m currently going through and processing, in a very rough way, the files given to the Archives by Dr. Tom Lyttle, of the Theatre department. These files are all the project documents for each theatre production since 1977. It includes programs, correspondence, receipts, reviews of the shows, cast lists, evaluation forms by cast/crew members, and photographs.

One of the hardest things for a college archivist to find are materials that actually show us student life. These files are a wonderful resource for such material, but it takes a lot of processing to find it sometimes. Just by delving into the files for the 1970s and 1980s, I’ve found so much that interests me, historically. A few of the highlights so far:

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File folder for the one-man show “Sam Houston standing in his own blood”, which was performed as part of the Texas Sesquicentennial. It starred Charles Krohn, who is still a professor of English at the University of St. Thomas.
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Excerpt from a student evaluation of “what…you learned by being part of this production”, mid 1980s
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Students rehearsing for the only musical of the whole decade, Scenes from American Life, 1983. I can only assume they are driving a bus together.

An Anniversary

Three years ago this month, in June 2013, the University Archives was established at UHD. Although the Library had been the official repository of archival material since 1980, there had never been an attempt to systematically keep or teach the history of this institution. Since UHD and its predecessor, South Texas Junior College, represent such an important cross-section of the city’s history and population, it was vital that we begin working towards preservation.

In the first months, there were no shelves, no storage, just slowly working towards gathering “things.” Today, with the help of many people here at UHD, the Archives has collected official records and historical materials from nearly every major office in the University and made them available for both internal and external researchers. It’s been very exciting to help uncover the deep and important story of Houston’s downtown university.

Statistics

Current holdings (all acquired since June 2013):

7.3 GB of digital holdings (approximately 6,200 individual files)

~120 linear feet of physical holdings (approximately 150,000 pages of paper and photographic material), with another 150 linear feet currently in queue for acquisition

370 hours of oral histories concerning both the history of UHD and education in Houston

 

Major activities:

Added over 550 linear feet of archival storage to two storage areas since June 2013

Created 6 physical exhibits and 2 virtual exhibits on UHD history

Created a dedicated website and digital archives for direct online access to the University’s historical materials

Started the UHD history blog, Confluence, which has welcomed nearly 800 unique visitors to the site since February 2015

Recipient of a High Impact Practices grant to teach a two-day workshop on digital archives and literacy

Hosted three students as archival volunteers to learn the work of archives

 

 

what is metadata, anyway?

What is metadata?

Metadata is just information about something.

Me: Hey, is that an apple?

You: Yeah, it’s red and round and crunchy.

Congratulations, you’ve created metadata!

In a place like a library or an archive, we create metadata about the things we own. This can get confusing for some people because a lot of what we own are just WORDS, wrapped up in a book jacket.

You: Wait, you are going to create words to describe these other words?

Me: …Yes.

You: Like….you are going to create information about other pieces of information?

Me:…Yes. Sorry.

Librarians avoid getting themselves confused by thinking of the materials in a library as OBJECTS, much like an apple. Except that it’s a book (or a CD, or an e-book, or a magazine). So, if *you* think of a book as an object, there is actually a lot you can say about it! You can describe its name (the title), who made it (the author), who made it into a physical thing and where that happened (the publisher and the city of publication), how big it is (page number and dimensions), what are some of its features (illustrations, the subject of it). All of this is metadata.

You (smugly): But what if the “object” isn’t an object? What if it’s a song in my phone?

Me: You can’t trip me up that easily.

Even electronic objects are still objects—you can think of them like virtual balls, round and whole and bouncing around the digital world as people upload and download and share. So the metadata for a digital object is pretty much the same as for a “physical” object, but the terms are a little different. You can describe its name (title), who made it (author/songwriter), who made it into something for others to use (recording company/hosting website), how big it is (file size), what are some of its features (file format, bit rate, playing speed).

Metadata is not *too* scary, because you create metadata all the time (tell me what that thing is you are holding, tell me about your car, tell me about your day). And the best part about creating metadata for things is that when you get a lot of things together in one place (like a library! Where you might have thousands of things in one small place!), you can take all the metadata and put *it* in one place too (like a library catalog), so that anyone who wants to find an object doesn’t need to look at everything to find what they need—they can look in the catalog and be directed to wherever they need to go to find the object they are looking for. And this is why metadata is so important.

Making Books, Making Ourselves

As part of a concerted effort to bring more and better interactions with books and primary sources to the students at UHD, last week the University Archives partnered with the English department to offer a workshop on book production, both its history and how it relates to digital forms of communication today. With the help of a High Impact Practices grant, we were able to take a small number of students to the The Print Museum to learn how to make books by hand.

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Using hand stitching and traditional methods of pressing, everyone made their own hardbound books, which they then brought with them the next day, to the library. There, we discussed the history of manuscripts and books, how they were made, what they meant to people in the medieval period, and how literate people crafted and re-crafted their own books to reflect their lives and the world around them. This included looking at and interacting with digitized medieval books online.

We then challenged the students to fill their own books with a record of their lives over the previous 24 hours, gleaning it from their online presences (since so much of our lives are now lived in the digital realm). Texts, status updates, instagram posts, recipes, songs, news articles…anything.

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The students had two hours to use the materials at hand (wheat paste, rag paper, oil pastels, needle and thread, ink, pencils) to create.

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At the end of the time, we asked them to write a reflection on what they made: the choices they made, their initial expectations, and how they felt about the outcome. It was a wonderful chance for us, as people who have dedicated our work to teaching and learning about the written word and its preservation, to pass some of that passion on to UHD students.

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Building Trust in Archives

In my last post, I went on and on about the problems archivists have in documenting the diverse viewpoints of the world. But what’s the fix? Specifically, how do I fix this problem here at UHD?

One of the hardest issues to hurdle is that in the United States (and most Western cultures), archives are built on two suppositions: 1) written documentation is paramount, and 2) all “valuable” materials are physically housed within the archives itself, under the management of the archivist.

This model actually presents a lot of problems when we start thinking about the issue of trustworthiness. Archival principles are built on hundreds (if not thousands) of years of assumptions that the archive is the safest, most desirable place to store “important” documents. Obviously with those kinds of assumptions in tow, it was only a matter of time before archives became untrustworthy to non-privileged groups. Since it takes money and space to create a dedicated place, that means that people with money and space will do the building and saving. This is true from the very first archives in the king’s palace in ancient Sumeria to the National Archives today.

But most cultures use oral traditions to pass down knowledge rather than books. Or they may be groups who depend on what we call “distributed” custodianship (each family keeps their own history) to manage historical materials because there is no space/money for a dedicated space like a museum or an archives (again, this is most human beings). So, given these cultural norms among so many people in this world, here at UHD I feel that we can give more thought to these practices and more space for them to flourish. I currently have three strategies in mind:

1) Using more oral transmission of information (in-person or narrative interviews during the donation process, or just doing more oral histories with the community generally)

2) Conducting more community meetings with office groups or departments that include everyone, and encouraging the group to discuss collecting based around topics which the colleges, departments, or offices decide is important, and the archive takes that material in,
3) More “shared custodianship” for on-campus groups–basically, the group keeps their own material and allows for an advisory role for the archivist to act as a guide in matters of preservation and access, keeping a list for the archives of what is housed, but not taking the materials physically into the archives itself.
Hopefully doing these things helps to build an atmosphere of trust within the archives, and allows more people and more groups to see the archives as a resource rather than a  vault.  And I’m looking for more strategies, too. I hope to get lots of advice on this in the days and weeks to come.

 

Privilege in the Archives

About a week ago, I had a conversation with a faculty person about why most archives (our own included) have so many materials by white creators, and so little from everyone else. It’s probably the thorniest and most persistent problem in the archival world.

Even here at the University of Houston-Downtown, where we have more minorities in positions to create historical record, it is difficult to find or get materials. The person to blame for this, by the way, is probably the archivist herself (that would be me of course). But tangled up in laying blame at my door is that, when I arrived, I was regularly told to seek out the “hubs” of information here, the people who “made” UHD, who contributed to its success. And most of those “hubs” happened to be white.

There is a deeper issue here, one that is hard to recognize and harder to eliminate. It’s related to the issue of privilege, which is something that some people have and everyone else lacks, and privilege extends into so many aspects of everyday life that it’s pretty depressing to see it even in a place that is supposedly “neutral” like a University archives, where the materials are all just supposed to be institutional records.

But why is it, exactly, that the archives would find itself with many materials from white men and so little from everyone else? Doesn’t everyone create the same amount of records, and wouldn’t it stand to reason that if the archivist (again, me!) would just think to ASK people, the archives could then have lots and lots of material from underrepresented groups?

Well, no, it turns out. Part of the insidious nature of privilege is that it runs both ways, and it runs into nearly every facet of our own self-image. The privileged grow up seeing themselves represented in television, radio, visual media, and yes, archives. They see their grandfather’s records go to the historical society, they see the papers of brilliant privileged people of history going into national archives, and they internalize the idea that *someone like them* is important. Therefore, they also can be important and its important to save your materials when you have the potential to be important.

The flip side of this is easy to see now. When non-privileged children grow up seeing heirlooms set aside in closets, kept safe by the family but no one ever comes calling to take them into an archives or museum, when no one who looks like the child or comes from their neighborhood or school ever gets their materials into the national archives, it sends a message just as powerfully as the opposite message is delivered to the privileged.

So while we have a great growth of minority groups being represented on university campuses, and at UHD particularly, it is still hard to find materials, to get materials, that come from minority groups. This is in large part my fault, I freely admit it, because I am clearly not yet convincing these groups that their materials are valuable. And in many ways, I am very late. But I still have time, and I will keep trying.