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:

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.
Excerpt from a student evaluation of “what…you learned by being part of this production”, mid 1980s
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.

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.


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.


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.


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


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.

finished misc



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.


A glib explanation of the difference between archives, libraries, and museums will often be that libraries have books, museums have objects, and archives have paper. While this is generally true, it doesn’t really encapsulate how nuanced collections can become.

A photo was recently found in the archives, of a sculpture called The Third Man. It was built in 1980 by students at the University with the help of a sculpter-in-residence. The Third Man was made of found objects (“Junk”), and was 10 feet tall.

third man

The Third Man was, according to the newspaper article from the Bayou Review, donated to The Pits. What happened to him after that, we don’t know. So, if the sculpture was found today, would it be an archival object? It was made by our community, for our community, using junk that even came from around here! It’s provenance (or origins) seem to be crying out for inclusion into the collections. On the other hand, it’s an art piece, something that archives usually don’t allow in their collections because archives are for business records and other information objects like that. There is no answer to this question, by the way, since the sculpture isn’t here. But an interesting thing to think about.

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.

The Pits

In 1980, the University of Houston Downtown College had just received the green light a few months earlier to start issuing four year degrees. With this new designation, students were staying at the College longer and seeing it more and more as a “home away from home.” The M&M building, having been built essentially as a retail and warehouse space, had not been planned with large gathering spaces in mind. The students decided that they needed a place to hang out between class periods, to study and catch up with peers and hold meetings. The only place to do that was the cafeteria. David Wallace, then Director of Student Affairs, said “students cannot sit in a cafeteria and make friends and chat, due to the noise.”
So the student body asked for an unused space on the third floor, and with their own labor, transformed it into a student lounge. Labor was volunteer, and all materials were donated. A design class at UH Central used it as a project to design a space with a 1930s feel, and the University contributed paint supplies and air conditioning for the space. Soon many students pitched in to help. The students dubbed the lounge “the Pits.”
The tables were just spools for large cable, donated by Southwestern Bell. The mural was done by student artists.

feb80 2pits photo2 (2)pits photo3

Additional items were found to be brought in, like vending machines, a juke box, a pool table, and pinball machines. The student photographer for the Bayou Review student newspaper, Mike Marx, said “the Pits represents the most organized effort ever put forth by both students and faculty to accomplish something worthwhile for the school.”

The grand opening on May 2, 1980 was a star-studded event: Dr. Charles Bishop, then-President of the UH System, Leonard Rauch, Chairman of the Board of Regents, and all of the administration of UHDC were on hand for the ribbon-cutting ceremony.

Not only was a large plaque dedicated, with all the names of everyone who worked on the Pits, but the Mayor himself, Jim McConn, proclaimed May 2 “UHDC Day in Houston” in honor of the “dedication” shown by the UHDC community to bring its students a place of their own. The Houston Chamber of Commerce also issued a statement, congratulating the students on their perseverance and hard work, and called them “a credit to their generation.”

In the end, nearly 60 members of the UHDC community participated in the effort and built a comfortable space for students to take time off to socialize and relax. For a commuter campus, and in a building that was already bursting at the seams, it was controversial but necessary, and it bore fruit, as students were able to become more of a community, together.

The Pits when it was finished.
The Pits when it was finished.