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.


Dearths of Information

At UHD, the name O’Kane is ubiquitous. Both our gallery and our theater are named for this person. But how much do we really know about the life and work of Harry O’Kane, for whom these two places are named?

When I began working here, I assumed Harry O’Kane was some kind of art professor. His name is attached to fine arts in a very tangible way, so my assumption could probably be forgiven. Later, I heard that he was actually the Dean of Students, and that he started the basketball team, and the rodeo team, at South Texas Junior College. What? I asked myself. Basketball? But his name is on an art gallery.

The other day, as I was listening to the oral history of the first basketball coach at South Texas, Coach Dickerson, I heard him say that O’Kane hired him in 1955, as part of his attempt to create an atmosphere of camaraderie among the students at the junior college. With no dorms and no campus life to speak of, O’Kane probably realized this was an uphill struggle. Unfortunately, there is no way to know what O’Kane thought about nearly anything: we have no archival materials from his work or life.

This happens sometimes, in archives. When I was writing my masters thesis, for instance, there was a man named Hackett who was integral to the story I was telling. But he had no story, because his papers were never donated to an archives (there is a good possibility that they were destroyed after he took his own life). So when I heard about Harry O’Kane, I felt like I had to at least try to piece his life together, if I could. With no primary archival materials to work from, I resorted to the genealogists’ tools: vital records and census files.

This is the story of Harry Ward O’Kane, as far as I can tell:

He was born April 19, 1905, in Polo, Illinois. He may have been the youngest son of Aaron and Sadie (McNair) O’Kane. They moved to Waverly, Nebraska by the time Harry was 5. By 1920, Harry’s two older brothers, Charles and John D., had both moved out to Sacramento, California, to work for the railroads. By 1930, young Harry had joined them there (we must assume that he either did his bachelors degree in Nebraska or in California, but there is no record at hand of where he did his studies). Harry is listed in the 1930 census as a Methodist/Episcopal pastor in the rolls.

In the 1940 census, we find Harry has turned up in Chicago, Illinois, working as a “clerk” and boarding in the 46th Ward (this is north side Chicago, so we could make the assumption he was studying at either Loyola or DePaul for his Bachelors of Divinity, a postgraduate degree that he claimed to have earned).

The census records go quiet after this, because the National Archives does not make records post 1950 available to the public without permission of the individual or their descendants. However, we have something better: the catalogs and yearbooks of the South Texas Junior College.

There is, unfortunately, no record of when Harry arrived here in Houston, although he came to be the Dean of Students sometime in the 1940s. From all he accomplished here, he must have kept very busy with his work at South Texas, and with hobbies (he never married). He was one of the founding members of the Houston Philatelic Society, and as mentioned above, started many clubs and other social endeavors for the College. The catalogs of the College don’t mention staff members until 1950, and he is listed there and afterwards, until his death in 1967.

O’Kane died of carcinoma of the tongue, March 31, 1967–his attending physician stated on the death certificate that he had been treating him for nearly a year at the time of death. He is buried in the Lawndale cemetery. While we know that O’Kane had at least 6 nephews and nieces, we only have records of them to the 1940 census, and show them as living in Sacramento (his two brothers both passed away before him, and both in California). As far as I can tell, there was no obituary sent to the papers.

The gallery and the theater, both named for him, were founded in 1970, and the story is that they were started from his monetary donations. We can only assume it was designated from his will and estate.

When we have so little information to use, piecing together a life can be very difficult. But in the case of a man as important to our history as Harry Ward O’Kane, it is worth the trouble.


Digging for Archives

When people use archives for research, they are usually most interested in correspondence and other first-person accounts. But when I was researching the history of the Merchants and Manufacturers building, I went somewhere a little different for information: the air-conditioning records.

Now, in some places there wouldn’t even be air-conditioning, let alone meticulous notes kept about its use. But in an 11-story building in Houston, Texas, there are good records for this. The M&M had a lot of tenants; some used the building’s AC, and some had their own individual window units. When I was looking for lease information about what companies were in the building, these records were vital.IMG_20160630_105420.jpg

The records help us see that Shell Oil was headquartered in this building, taking up a substantial portion of the fifth floor. McGraw Hill Publishing took up the rest. Humble Oil had offices on 10, the KCOH radio station was on 11, a beauty parlor and a barber shop on the third floor next to the Mid-Day Club and Luncheon Counter. The elevator girls’ lounge was also on the third floor, but later moved to N-440 (where the library’s study rooms are now).

Usually, any written history of this building goes into detail about how it was never a “flourishing” building, never full and never important, but from something as unassuming as the utility bills, we can see that it enjoyed a wide variety of tenants, and was a hub of downtown, even from across the bayou.


This blog post was reposted as “Secrets of the A/C Records” on the Houston Chronicle Gray Matters blog, July 2, 2016

Destruction as Preservation

Sometimes, when we find old things that have been “preserved”, it is best to leave them alone. But at other times, the best course of action is to try to reverse whatever previous preservation was attempted. Today, a pictorial adventure in reversing bad preservation:


A framed map had been hanging in the library for quite a long time. The person who currently has it in their office didn’t like it, so I said “I’ll take it, it fits in with my ‘old-stuff’ decor.”

Even through the glass, I could tell this map is not an original old map; it’s a mid-century lithographic reproduction. However, when we took it down off the wall, on the back we see that it was a gift to the South Texas Junior College in 1969, donated by two faculty.

So I took it with me, and cut the backing carefully, so I could get at the map underneath. Then I found this:


The framer who did the framing in 1969 used an actual cardboard box (from Spalding, I guess!) as the spacer in the frame. Because they put it in sticker-side-down, you can see how that affected the acid-transfer from the cardboard to the paper of the map:


(the light squares are where the stickers were, and they protected those sections of the paper from the acid coming off the cardboard)

So once I got all the backing off, I also see how they affixed the map to the matte: they used Scotch tape. Yes, those brown things holding the map to the matte are what happens to Scotch tape when it has sat around for 45 years. They came off the map with no problems other than staining; the adhesive that Scotch uses isn’t very good and turns dusty in no time at all.

So now I will get some good spacing material (acid-free) and make some paper triangles to hold the map to the matte, and re-frame the whole thing. And this time it will be a little better.

(the map itself)


In depth: Digital Divide

As most of us are aware, sometime in the ’90s more people in the U.S. started using computers than typewriters, mimeographs, or pens.

It was an interesting time to be a teenager, using the school’s computers to type research papers that you researched from physical books and newspapers and microfilm, or perhaps from a CD-ROM. Most people didn’t get onto the internet until the late ’90s. But the move from paper to electronic was so incredibly fast it’s a wonder that heads weren’t spinning.

Here at UHD, things were no different. In the archives, the challenge is to try to create accessible collections which straddle the physical/digital divide fairly evenly. But it’s a very complex problem to navigate. There is a bright line for UHD in terms of how records were created over the years: pre-2004, most reports and documents were created with the intent of printing. Post-2004, most reports and documents were created with the intent of never or rarely printing them. There are two noticeable outcomes of this shift in practice:

1) most records now came with embedded searchability, thus diminishing the need for traditional tables of contents, page numbers, indexes, etc, and

2) records could be and often were much longer and more detailed. Graphs from a spreadsheet or database, embedded into a WordPerfect document? No problem for the creator, but a potential headache for the archivist down the road who now has not one, but two or even three documents that could be considered “archival.”

So relatively quickly the university (and all universities, and all businesses, and all regular ol’ human beings) moved from the physical to the digital. The divide is deep, terribly deep, and one that the archival community is still coming to grips with. For 10,000 years (give or take), archivists have built their work around physical objects that could last for centuries if only kept away from wind, water, and sun. Now we are faced with a huge amount of material that, quite honestly, may not be able to be saved (or at least, not on the same timescales as we were used to before). This has placed archivists in the position of thinking not just about what a document was written ON, but what the document is written ABOUT, and considering the content to be the thing that must be preserved. The information, not the book or tablet or scroll, is paramount, because for digital objects, their physical format is so incredibly fragile that there is no known way to preserve it long-term. It’s been a sea change in archives, and will probably continue to change our work in fundamental ways and change how we give our communities access to the materials we save.

In depth: Campus culture 1991-1992

I did an experiment: I randomly chose a year in the “life” of UHD, and read the newspaper. Now, many things were happening in the world in 1991-1992 (fall of the Soviet Union, Kuwait, end of apartheid, “war on drugs”, etc). But of course, when reading a newspaper like the Dateline Downtown, global becomes local. So what do we learn?

  • The students of LASSO (the Latin American students organization) were tired of being ignored by the student press, which had no Hispanic students on staff. Their letter to the editor, while publicly rebuffed, led to much more exposure of their events by the paper (March 1992)
  • UHD made a concerted effort, against the system, to establish a “traditional” liberal arts program here (Feb 1992)
  • Maya Angelou and Carlos Fuentes both spoke here
  • In an interview with one of the shuttle bus drivers, Lawrence Smith, he revealed that his own brother-in-law had been shot just weeks before as an innocent victim of the drug wars of the early ’90s
  • There was a “Church under the bridge” which met every Sunday to give outdoor services to the homeless in downtown (April 1992)
  • The Chinese Student Association and Vietnamese Student Association played a volleyball game at Allen Park (October 1991)
  • The UHD Center, and its dormitory, closed for good, which prevented many students with disabilities from continuing their studies here at UHD (July 1991)
  • On Valentine’s Day, there was a campus-wide Dating Game held; applications were solicited from the newspaper. Who ended up with whom remains one of history’s mysteries (February 1992)

While there is little of “historical record” in student newspapers as a rule, the climate of the University is visible on every page: what the students cared about, how they approached their problems and the problems of others, and the role that their classes and professors played in their everyday life.

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.

In Depth: Student Publications

Today, UHD has two major student publications: the Dateline Downtown and the Bayou Review. The Dateline is a newspaper, published approximately every two weeks, and has evolved in recent months to include a podcast. The Bayou Review is a biannual literary and art journal. Both have faculty advisors and student editors and writers.

When South Texas Junior College split from the College of Law, the tradition of having yearbooks every year fell off, but a student newspaper was a must. The STJC newspaper was called The Talon, after the mascot, the Seahawk (the faculty newsletter, by comparison, was called The Claw).

The Bayou Review newspaper was first published in 1975, after the acquisition of South Texas Junior College by the University of Houston. The original student newspaper, The Talon, was not considered a viable name any longer due to the changing of the mascot from the seahawk to the gator. Bayou Review ran for eight years, on a monthly basis.
In 1982, shortly before University of Houston Downtown College became University of Houston-Downtown, another renaming took place, this time from Bayou Review to Dateline Downtown. The Dateline published its first issue in January 1983. It was intended to be published bimonthly on Wednesdays, barring holiday and finals weeks. The original editor was Kevin Watson and the original faculty advisor was Paul Alexander. After four years, the Bayou Review’s name was resurrected in the form of the Bayou Review journal. The Bayou Review is published biannually and continues to be issued today. It features poetry, prose, and artwork from the UHD community and beyond.

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.