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.


Historical Detours

The UHD Archives is mainly an institutional archives, which means it holds both the University business records and other materials (like photographs or students materials) that help to round out the story of the University’s existence. This constitutes well over 90% of our collections.

However, sometimes we acquire materials which are entirely out of our scope, yet are still a piece of cultural history that “belongs” to us, because it comes from a person affiliated with UHD. Such materials can be found within Dr. Garna Christian’s archival collection. It is a collection that he built: oral histories, audio recordings, and written material on Houston’s country music scene in the Depression/WWII era.

The collection consists of over 30 interviews, plus a narrative with musical interludes, and a short book entitled “Stay a Little Longer: the first generation of Houston country music.” This is a slice of history that is not well-known, even within Houston. The event that ties this collection to the University (besides its creation by Dr. Christian), is a concert that was held here at UHD in 1984, entitled 50 Years of Houston Country Music.

All of the material is being prepared for upload into UHD’s digital repository, both to make it available to the public, as well as to help spread the story of some of these lesser-known country artists like Jerry Irby, Bill Mraz, and Floyd Tillman, who played with more famous artists like Bob Wills and Hank Snow, or made names for themselves while playing local dance halls like the Magnolia Gardens or Cook’s.

Part of a University Archives’ mission is usually not only to keep the history of the University as an institution, but also to help keep the work product of its faculty through the years. This small collection will help keep Dr. Christian’s research and study alive for future generations of Houston historians.


The Last Halcyon Days of South Texas Junior College

As an “insider’s look” at the transfer from South Texas Junior College to UHD, a guest post from Dr. Garna Christian on a mysterious and notorious President of STJC, David Reagan:

David Reagan did not assume the presidency of South Texas Junior College in the early1970s as a knight in shining armor, but he did “tool around” in a fast red sports car.

He might have been confused with Sir Lancelot for good reason: bright, young, and personable, Dr. Reagan convinced the anxious college board that he was the man to guide the once prosperous, now faltering, downtown school through an unusually rough patch in its twenty-plus-year history. Created in the optimistic post World War II period, the sister of South Texas College of Law outperformed its expectations. One of only several institutions of higher learning accommodating the general Houston public, STJC outgrew its quarters in the parent YMCA at 1600 Louisiana and moved into the cavernous Merchants and Manufacturers building in 1967. The Vietnam War pushed attendance to the highest of any private two year college in the state. However, the cost of acquiring the building combined with a slack in enrollment as the war wound down placed the school in a precarious financial position. The new Houston Community College system offered a variety of locations at low tuition to prospective students.  President W.I. Dykes, fatigued by years of managing STJC and the fragile health of his wife, was open to retirement.

The college board doubtless picked the most vibrant candidate available. Reagan exuded energy and confidence and the determination to breathe new life into the institution. He clearly perceived the faculty as, at best, lethargic. The new president resolved to reinvigorate his charges. In the first faculty meeting he challenged them to speculate on how many uses one could find for a pencil. He followed this novel beginning by doubling efforts during registration. Two profs returned from a brief lunch to read a note on the door: “I was here! Where were you?” He closed the faculty lounge to misdirected teachers loitering between classes. Reagan and his imported aides pressed the departmental chairs to keep their members in line, dividing the faculty. Conversations became suspect. At a faculty meeting an attendee accused another of plotting with an administration official.  The accused denied the allegation and went to work for the community college. A subsequent meeting found the faculty in open rebellion, laying plans to protest the administration to the board, donors, and to High Heaven. Reportedly, a well placed prof went to one of the college’s most generous benefactors and moved him to carry the message to the board. Reagan was immediately removed from the presidency and, rather as in the reverse of a Hollywood Western, Dr. Dykes rode in from the sunset to temporarily take the reins.

Already seeking a merger and inspired more so by recent events, Dr. Dykes assumed negotiations with the Houston Community College.  The talks reputedly broke down when HCC would not promise to retain the faculty and staff. Ever the caring father, Dykes would not sacrifice individuals for the benefits of the deal. Against such prolonged drama, it seemed perfectly reasonable when a deus ex machina appeared in the form of University of Houston president Dr. Philip Hoffman, a true knight, seeking a downtown campus to replace a lost business school.  In the end, all contributed to the formation of the University of Houston-Downtown, albeit some in a bizarre fashion.


Reminiscences on South Texas

Thanks to the research and publication of materials on South Texas Junior College by archivist Melissa Torres, the shadow that has long hung over UHD’s predecessor is lifting. The results are a pleasant surprise to many, rather like learning that a vaguely known relative was a solid citizen and not the feared drinking uncle.

The founding of what was once the largest private two-year college in Texas represented a bold concept, fashioned in the heady aftermath of World War II. It opened its doors in 1948 in the beautiful ten story Italian Renaissance-styled Young Men’s Christian Association building at a somewhat remote 1600 Louisiana. The newest center of higher education in Houston shared a couple of floors with South Texas College of Law, the remainder of the space housing dormitories and activities of the parent YMCA.  The two schools constituted a planned family, as the YMCA sought to provide the law students with a fuller college agenda.  The times proved propitious for an even brighter future for the new entry. Returning war veterans, bolstered by the G.I. Bill of Education, were pouring into rapidly growing Houston and set enrollment records at the University of Houston. There were few alternatives with no local community college system and no state supported universities bearing low tuition. Students liked the family like atmosphere of South Texas Junior College, some fondly calling it “L.S.U.—Louisiana Street University,”—and attendance increased until it burst its rock walls in 1967, declaring its independence from the Y and moving into the present UHD location of the Merchants and Manufacturers Building.

When I arrived at the college in 1962, a number of the industrious first responders remained, W.I. Dykes, “Doc” Shannon, Harry O’Kane, names which still resonate at UHD. Dr. Dykes, whose quiet humor and speaking style echoed Will Rogers, was president and his philosophy was that the administration administered and the teachers taught. And they taught well. Dean Ross Toole emphasized at my hiring that South Texas considered itself the first two years of university, not “grades thirteen and fourteen.”  The college prided itself on its successful basketball and rodeo teams, the latter sponsored by a wonderful fellow named Joe Norwood, who with his brother had wrestled in the area as the masked Demon Brothers before managing the college bookstore and later becoming UHD police chief.

Under reported, South Texas set an example in racial integration in the racially charged 1960s. Segregated by law from the time of its founding, the college opened its doors to African Americans without fanfare while local school districts were funding budgets to block desegregation. One day registrar Helen Hutchens received a telephone call from a young man stating that he and a group of friends were en route to the college and expected to be admitted.  Not pausing, Mrs. Hutchens told them to hurry and welcomed them at the entrance. South Texas Junior College conducted integrated classes the following semester without incident.

Garna Christian

The Miscellaneous File

As a young archives student in graduate school, I was always taught never to use “miscellaneous” as a folder title, because it encourages lazy thinking about organization. If you just dump things into a miscellaneous section, you probably aren’t trying very hard to find a home for those objects and they are basically unfindable in the future.

As a professional archivist, however, I find the “miscellaneous” folder to be the best part of any archiving project. People use miscellaneous files a lot in their personal archiving, because people are not archivists and it’s a very practical solution to keeping random, seemingly unrelated documents somewhere safe. What this means to me, then, is that the Miscellaneous file is usually full of interesting tidbits, handwritten memos, drafts of documents that are no longer in our collection at all. Usually the Miscellaneous files are the ones that show you the personality of a creator: the humorous side, the human side.

Today while going through the Miscellaneous file of the Faculty Senate, circa 1978, I found these wonderful (and anonymous) memos, which show a great deal of information about the interpersonal relationships at the College at that time. Miscellaneous files can be full of treasures.

Memo, late 1970s to David Fairbanks, sender unknown
Handwritten note to David Fairbanks regarding Library Committee, sender unknown, date unknown
Notes from an Executive Committee Meeting. Probably from around Christmas based on the doodling.
Notes from an Executive Committee Meeting. Probably from around Christmas based on the doodling.

Poetry and Poets at UHD

In May 2015, Dr. Robin Davidson, a faculty member at the University, was named Houston’s second Poet Laureate. But she is just the latest example in a long line of people dedicated to sharing poetry here at UHD.

Lorenzo Thomas is obviously one of the best known poets who made UHD his home. He helped to found the Bayou Review literary journal, and published several works of poetry in his lifetime. Other current English faculty members who are also published poets are Drs. Katharine Jager, Jane Creighton, and Merrilee Cunningham.

A member of the faculty that is perhaps less well known as a poet to our community is Dr. Andre de Korvin, a professor of mathematics and computer science whose poetry has been published several times (listen to an interview with de Korvin here).

Historically, too, UHD has been a focal point for poetry. The Houston Poetry Festival was hosted and sponsored by the University’s Cultural Enrichment Center and the English Department for many years in the early 2000s. The Cultural Enrichment Center also brought other poets to the city, such as Maya Angelou and Junot Diaz, and has acted as a catalyst for enriching the cultural and intellectual life of our academic community.

In depth: Newsletters

University Archives are required by law to save the “boring” things about a University’s history: budgets, course catalogs, reporting statistics. Everything else that is preserved is done so at the Archivist’s discretion based on space constraints in the archives and how much information can be gleaned from whatever material we keep.

However, that discretionary component to the Archives’ work allows us to also save some really interesting historical materials that bridge the gap between institutional business history and the cultural history of the institution. One type of material is the newsletter. UHD has had many, many newsletters printed over the years. The most recent format of that is probably the Skyline, which is online but is effectively a newsletter at its core, coming out regularly and posting the happenings of the University generally.

In the past, before we had things like websites, the newsletters were created on typewriters or word processors and then copied and distributed. One of the first newsletters at UHD was The Claw, an all-faculty newsletter that began in the early 1970s when we were still the South Texas Junior College (our mascot then was the Seahawk and the student newspaper was The Talon, so you can see the joke). It had business items, as well as personal information about who was going on sabbatical or who had just published a paper. It even had ads — one intrepid member of the faculty sold their curtains through The Claw.

The division of social sciences had their own newsletter after The Claw ended, called “Notes from Many and Divers Sources for the Illumination of Our Times” (which was later shortened to “notes from many and divers sources” probably for brevity’s sake). It was mostly official information distributed so that the faculty could have less meetings, but also included things like “if you have borrowed Conney Sham’s per diem worksheet, please return it” (from the March 8, 1978 newsletter).

The President’s Office, soon after UHD was established, also started a newsletter, called Notes. Notes ran for more than 15 years, and really comprises (along with the student newspapers) some of the best sources for historical information on campus. It’s the first place to go when we need a specific date or to know when an activity or speaker’s series or major began.

Newsletters really tell the whole story of the University, if one is willing to take the time to delve into them.

Lorenzo Thomas

One of the most important figures in the University of Houston-Downtown’s history is not a president or Regent, but a poet. Lorenzo Thomas was a Panamanian-born New Yorker with ties to the Umbra movement in Queens in the late 1960s. After gaining his PhD, he moved to Houston as a writer-in-residence at Texas Southern University in 1973 for one year, and never left Houston.  Thomas would later tell an interviewer that someone told him  “If you stay down here you’re not going to be a Southern poet; you’re going to be a forgotten poet.”

But he did stay, and kept publishing, and became a lecturer and professor at UHD, teaching writing and literature and acting as a faculty advisor for the Bayou Review literary journal. His poetry was known for its honesty and unique voice, and he was a beloved teacher here at UHD, where he was awarded an Excellence in Teaching award.

Dr. Thomas died in 2005 at the age of 60, after struggling with illness for several years.

Selected publications (look for his works in the UHD Library Catalog)

  • Chances are Few (1st edition, 1980)
  • The Bathers (1981)
  • Extraordinary Measures: Afrocentric Modernism and Twentieth-Century American Poetry (2000)
  • Chances are Few (expanded 2nd edition, 2003) (ISBN 0-912652-77-2)
  • Dancing on Main Street (2004)
  • Don’t Deny My Name. Introduction Aldon Lynn Nielsen. University of Michigan Press. 2008 (posthumous)

The Oral History Collection

The Oral History Collection came to the Archives from Dr. Garna Christian, UHD history professor and the unofficial historian of the University. His tireless work in gathering and protecting the archives of the South Texas Junior College and the early UHD story has been integral to putting together a comprehensive archives today.

In 1980, well before anyone else had the idea that the history of the University needed to be preserved, Dr. Christian put forth a proposal for a university archives. His proposal resulted in a rule for all permanent records to go to the library, which helped immensely in the process of finding and bringing together these permanent records in 2013 when the archives was officially created. Also in 1980, however, Dr. Christian started a project to collect the oral histories of the administrators of STJC and UHDC. He repeated this project in 1991.

Using students from his own classes, to give them training in the art of collecting an oral history, he recorded 41 oral histories from faculty, staff, and administrators about their personal stories and their work at UHD. Because of these projects, we have oral histories for a majority of the presidents of the University, including W. I. Dykes (for whom our library is named), Dr. Max Castillo and Alexander Schilt. We also have interviews for Chaney Anderson and Molly Woods, two of the longest-serving administrators in the University’s history, as well as the histories of many other people who were involved in the building of the University in the early and middle years.

Taken together, these narratives fill in the “gaps” in the history of the University. Documents and publications help us to understand the decisions made in a certain period in time, but oral histories give us the opinions, the emotions, and the motivations of the people behind those decisions. A pilot project of 12 interviews were digitized from their original cassettes in 2014 and are now available in the UHD Digital Archives.

Today, Drs. Gene Preuss and Bill Pogue are working to collect the next round of oral histories from the people of the University. Given how quickly the University is changing, continuing its focus on student success but expanding into community engagement, these should be a valuable addition to the collection once they are finished.