Is Social Media, Archival? Sometimes.

This essay was originally published in the Houston Chronicle’s Gray Matters blog on June 16, 2017.

Are a president’s tweets federal records, to be preserved in perpetuity? A bill in Congress says yes, they should be.

The COVFEFE Act takes its name, of course, from a mysterious presidential Twitter typo last month. But as indicated by the strained acronym — Communications Over Various Feeds Electronically for Engagement — the bill introduced by Rep. Mike Quigley (D-IL) would mandate that the National Archives and Records Administration preserve all social-media posts from Donald Trump’s personal accounts.

The flip side of the bill: If the tweets are federal records, deleting them would become illegal.

The bill, like Trump’s tweets, raises loads of tough questions. How could tweets, of all things, be considered federal records? What constitutes a record? And why do we even make these distinctions in 2017, when electronic storage is cheap and plentiful and we can keep everything?

Let’s start with the Federal Records Act. Enacted in 1950, it’s the guide for how the U.S. government keeps its records. In 2014, the Obama administration updated it, modernizing the definitions to include electronic documents. That update also granted the Archivist of the United States (yes, we have one) full discretion to determine what constitutes a federal record.

 

According to those federal guidelines, a “record” is any documentary material, regardless of format, made to transact public business. This seems like a very broad definition, but when masses of documents come into the  federal archives, it actually helps archivists cut away a great deal of extraneous material. For instance, a lunch invitation via email does not constitute “transacting public business.” Nor does a secretary’s reminder to attend a meeting, nor interoffice memos about the copier being broken.

Often this definition is also used to discard drafts of reports, agendas of meetings, and other documents that predict the future but are not valuable in determining what was actually enacted. An agenda is a guideline, but the minutes of the meeting tell you what actually happened. A draft of a report is not the final version that is available to the public, and if it is not finished, it is not yet a record.

 

Thus another portion of the incredible mass of documentation created by the federal government every day is stripped away. It’s presumed that the National Archives keeps fewer than five percent of all the federal documents generated each year. Though that sounds like a very small number, it adds up: According to NARA’s website, the National Archives currently holds 10 billion pages of textual records and 133 terabytes of electronic data, and those numbers are rising exponentially.

So given that the National Archives is very, very busy preserving the national historic record, who cares if Donald Trump deletes tweets from his personal twitter account?

Well, this is where the rubber meets the road.

While not every public official’s Twitter account could be considered to hold records (especially since records are by definition about transacting real business), Trump has used his personal account to make many official statements. He seems to prefer it as a form of communication to, say, a press release or an official letter.

 

This is what prompted the COVFEFE Act, ridiculous name and all.

Since the Archivist of the United States has clear power over what is and is not a record, this act will probably die a quick death. But the fight to get and keep the “official” records of the president who communicates important things on a social media platform as fickle as Twitter will probably be long and bitter.

The deeper questions raised aren’t just about Trump. As we move further into the digital age, we’re still figuring out what it is that our country chooses to remember.

 

What is that?

Perhaps, as you are walking up the Main Street Viaduct, you have noticed this weird metal door halfway up the bank between Buffalo Bayou and the One Main Building. Perhaps you have wondered what, exactly, that weird thing is. Fear not, gentle readers, for the University Archives is here to help.

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The weird thing in question

 

 

It is in fact a cargo entrance.

When the M&M building (what we now call the One Main building) was built in 1929, it was built in exactly this spot for a specific reason: it sat at the confluence of two railroads and two bayous. It was meant to take advantage of both railroads *and* waterways. Originally, that door was the cargo entrance for anything that came into the building via river barge. In fact, if you look on the left side of this photograph, you can still see the pilings for the old loading dock.

Now, you may be asking, how did they get cargo all the way from the bayou to the first floor of the building, up that slope? Well, the short answer is that they didn’t. Behind that metal door is a tunnel which leads directly up a gentle slope to the lower basement of our building (yes, we have a basement. In fact, we have a basement and a sub-basement, which is where the door’s tunnel came into). Once inside the building through the sub-basement’s tunnel, there was a big freight elevator that would take goods up to the basement or up to the first floor, where they could be offloaded for transport by train, or by truck through the Girard Street entrance.

But they didn’t carry stuff through the tunnel; that would have been a job for two or more men, or even impossible in some cases. Instead they used carts, like these, which are currently stacked on top of each other in the basement.

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These handcarts are waiting to find a good permanent home, perhaps on display

It had to be slow work, but there was really no other efficient way of offloading cargo up such a steep slope. There is also a theory that the sub-basement and tunnel are actually remnants of the original warehouse which stood here since the 1850s, and which was used as a holding area for Union POWs for a time during the Civil War, after the Battle of Galveston Bay. The current door is clearly not that old, but was probably added once shipping was fully routed to the Ship Channel and upstream commercial traffic stopped.

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.

A History of Willow Street

We all know that Willow Street Pump Station used to be, well, a pumping station. Some of us even know that it also was the city’s main trash incinerator. What probably very few people realize is that it was also the site of the first mill in the city of Houston, and at the epicenter of the history of the city’s growth throughout the years.

In the late 1980s, when the Harris County Jail was set to expand its facility into the Houston Terminal Warehouse and Cold Storage, there was an archaeological and land use survey done of the surrounding area. Since this land happens to be right across from Allen’s Landing, the most historic site in all of Houston, it should have been no surprise that there was a lot of historical use to cover in this nearly 50 page report. A copy was sent to the University of Houston-Downtown, probably as a courtesy, since we were already interested in the pumping station and it was generally included in the report. The details are quite fascinating, and negate the idea that the area north of the bayou was not important or historic.

In the report, they cannot resist the account of the first time someone mentions visiting Houston (June 1836):

“There was so much excitement about the city of Houston that some of the young men  in our neighborhood, my brother among them, visited it. They said that it was hard work to find the city in the pine woods; and that when the did it consisted of one dugout canoe, a bottle gourd of whiskey and a surveyor’s chain…they said the mosquitoes were as large as grasshoppers…the bayou water was clear and cool, and they thought they would have a bath, but in a few minutes the water was alive with alligators. One man ran out on the north side and the others got a canoe and rescued him. He said a large panther had been near by, but that it ran off as the canoe approached.”

There was also the first documented use of the land where the pump station now resides:

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Listed as “M. Bakers Mill Tract,” it would later come to be called Allen’s Steam Saw Mill, and is the reason that the street it still called “Steam Mill Street” today. Although the area looks like it is inhabited, in 1854 it was really just surveyed–there were very few buildings on the north side of the bayou at this time. Incidentally, is also known that at the foot our own M&M building, originally the area was used to repair boats and ships away from the main port at Allen’s Landing.

By the latter part of the 19th century, that mill was gone, but the pump station was put in place in 1902, as part of many water control projects through the years.  In 2001, there was discussion of whether to tear the building down or renovate it, and a comprehensive investigation of the building’s challenges was undertaken by a group of outside engineers and architects.

The buildings were in serious disrepair:IMG_20160226_121903

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From the introduction to the 2001 study, we learn that the pump station was actually in use until the 1980s, and the adjacent incinerator building, while not original to the 1902 site of the pumping station, was built in 1917 and expanded in 1925. The red bricks used in the construction are also considered quite historic, coming from a brickyard near Nacogdoches.

In the end, since the buildings were becoming an eyesore but presented a unique opportunity for adaptive reuse, the University went forward with its renovations and subsequently beautified an integral part of this area, which, though part of the history of Houston from the earliest days, was too long ignored.

The First Interim

In 1979, UH Downtown College did not have a President. Back then, all the heads of constituent universities within the UH system were called Chancellors, and the head of the system was called the President (today, for obvious reasons, we find this confusing).

UH Downtown College Chancellor J. Don Boney died unexpectedly in 1979, having only served 4 years in the office. Upon his death, the Board of Regents and President Philip Hoffman (who was, as Chancellor Khator is today, both Chancellor of Central Campus and the President of the system) began the process to find an interim chancellor for UHDC.

President Hoffman had someone in mind: Dr. Joseph Champagne, who was at the time serving as the Vice President of Academic Affairs, but had previously been Boney’s successor at HCC (Boney had been President of Houston Community College before taking the job at UHDC–Houston, at the time, was a very small community, especially academically).

The Board of Regents, however, had another person in mind: Dr. Allen Commander, the system’s lobbyist for the state and federal government. Commander had been instrumental in getting UHDC its accreditation as a four-year university just one year prior, but from the rumors, he and President Hoffman did not get along. Hoffman suspected that Commander was interested not in being the ‘interim’ Chancellor, but in taking the job permanently, and was absolutely against it. When Commander had initially approached Hoffman for the job and Hoffman turned him down, Commander then went over the President’s head, directly to the Regents.

The Regents approved Commander for the interim Chancellorship, and as a result, Hoffman was forced to resign from the Presidency that he held at UH for nearly 20 years. However, many people assumed this was simply the last straw, not the reason itself. Hoffman had always relied on the “good ol’ boy” system, but by 1980, the Board of Regents felt that strategy was outdated, and wanted more accountability and transparency from their administration. Hoffman, who had engineered the purchase of the South Texas Junior College 6 years earlier (and without explicit approval from anyone), was not inclined to give them the transparency they wanted. He resigned. Dr. Champagne went on to a successful Presidency at Oakland University and later Lamar University. Dr. Commander, after serving as Interim Chancellor, was not ultimately chosen as the new permanent Chancellor–that honor went to Dr. Alexander Schilt who would, 9 years later, be named as the Chancellor of the entire UH System. Commander, rumored to be furious, left the system entirely.

Although we have had other interim presidents, Commander was certainly the one who caused the most stir.

 

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.

 

Technology: A Retrospective

Technology is one of the cornerstones of what makes UHD work; our first “online” classes took place in the mid-80s, and by 1994 we were already comfortable with using distance education. To celebrate the great computing generation, here are some really excellent photos of computers and the people who loved them.

A student transfers her notes to her word processor. Notice that there is no mouse. F commands!
Molly Woods, staff and faculty member at UHD since the beginning, is here being photobombed by her state-of-the-art desktop Apple computer (with mouse! Fancy!). Notice the 3.5″ disk drive as well.
The servers were always spinning in IT. You can see the magnetic tape reels sitting on top of the machines.
Computer lab! Dot matrix printer in the foreground. The woman in the mid ground looks like she’s using command line to do something, but since almost everything was command line then, it could have been anything.
Computer science class. The students are using VT100 terminals, which were the first to really use ASCII codes. It’s hard to see what the woman in the foreground is working on, but it could be C++ exercises.