W.I. Dykes

It can be hard to get full information on the people who shaped our institution, but digging through history is always worthwhile. Here, a short biography of Dr. W.I. Dykes, for whom our library is named.

Dr. William I. Dykes was born in western Oklahoma on a homestead in Roger Mills County on February 26, 1907.  He received his bachelors from Oklahoma Christian College in Cordell, Oklahoma, and his MS in mathematics (not doctorate) in 1936 from Oklahoma A&M, and was one of the first professors of the South Texas Junior College in its inaugural year of 1948 as a math and physics professor. He became dean by the mid-1950s, obtained the first accreditation of the College through the Southern Association of Colleges and Universities, and concurrently earned a doctorate of education (EdD) at the University of Houston, finishing in 1963 (we have his original dissertation, which was written about how to improve the South Texas Junior College). When the Colleges formally split in 1967, he led the institution to it’s final home at the Merchants and Manufacturers Building and raised record-breaking sums of money to refurbish the new space for classrooms. He presided over the integration of the College in 1967 as well, and negotiated the sale of STJC to the UH System in 1974, serving as its first chancellor at the request of the University of Houston until 1975, before retiring to care for his wife Lottie as she struggled with illness. After Dr. Dykes passed away, the UHD library was named in his honor.

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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.

 

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.

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.