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.


Save It?

It’s generally accepted in the archival world that CDs and DVDs are not permanent storage solutions. As anyone who bought a Green Day CD in 1994 or pirated a copy of Independence Day via DivX format onto a DVD knows…they are a pretty unstable media and the likelihood that a CD or DVD will just stop working is very high. There are a couple of reasons for this.

First, it comes because of the way discs are constructed and written upon. Commercially made CDs/DVDs use an aluminum substrate with a dye in it. When you “burn” a disc, you are doing just that. The cd-writer heats up the dye within the aluminum to represent a 0 or 1. This doesn’t heat the disc because, as anyone who has used aluminum foil knows, aluminum doesn’t heat up much. Over time though, the dye breaks down even though the aluminum stays stable (this is irregardless of whether it is kept in light or shadow, hot temps or cold temps). Shelf life on burnt media cannot be considered safe over two years. There are now discs available, called M-discs, which were developed by the US Department of Defense. They have special writers which write *directly* onto the metal of the disc. It takes an inordinate amount of time to write a single disc, but the disc is stable for much longer (in fact, about as long as a vinyl record would last, very similar type of media).


The other reason that CDs don’t last is usually because of the way that the information is constructed. Perhaps the format of the object is old and not supported anymore. Or the self-executing program that launches the CD disintegrates due to too much copying. When archivists talk about the “best” way to keep digital media, we usually advocate for keeping everything on “spinning” hard disks–ie, a hard drive that is hooked up and plugged in. And even then, you still need to go through all your files periodically and open them, make sure they are still in working formats and haven’t suffered any “bit rot” (an unfortunate condition where the very structure of the data disintegrates as the 1s and 0s flip themselves around for no reason at all).

The main issue when we try to preserve digital materials is that we don’t understand it very well yet–digital things are 50 years old AT MOST. We understand paper, and have developed the technology over thousands of years to be stable, portable, and permanent. Digital has a long way to go before it is as trustworthy as paper, which means working harder to preserve it, for now.


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.


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

An Anniversary

Three years ago this month, in June 2013, the University Archives was established at UHD. Although the Library had been the official repository of archival material since 1980, there had never been an attempt to systematically keep or teach the history of this institution. Since UHD and its predecessor, South Texas Junior College, represent such an important cross-section of the city’s history and population, it was vital that we begin working towards preservation.

In the first months, there were no shelves, no storage, just slowly working towards gathering “things.” Today, with the help of many people here at UHD, the Archives has collected official records and historical materials from nearly every major office in the University and made them available for both internal and external researchers. It’s been very exciting to help uncover the deep and important story of Houston’s downtown university.


Current holdings (all acquired since June 2013):

7.3 GB of digital holdings (approximately 6,200 individual files)

~120 linear feet of physical holdings (approximately 150,000 pages of paper and photographic material), with another 150 linear feet currently in queue for acquisition

370 hours of oral histories concerning both the history of UHD and education in Houston


Major activities:

Added over 550 linear feet of archival storage to two storage areas since June 2013

Created 6 physical exhibits and 2 virtual exhibits on UHD history

Created a dedicated website and digital archives for direct online access to the University’s historical materials

Started the UHD history blog, Confluence, which has welcomed nearly 800 unique visitors to the site since February 2015

Recipient of a High Impact Practices grant to teach a two-day workshop on digital archives and literacy

Hosted three students as archival volunteers to learn the work of archives



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.


Exploring the M&M, 11th floor

This blog has explored some of the history of the 11th floor of One Main, and its time as a radio station. But there is another “eleventh” floor that I discovered the other day. I have started calling it “the cathedral.” It sits at the top of this staircase:


When you get to the top of the 10th floor, you might expect a door or just a continuation of the same stair, but instead you see this:IMG_20160520_075154

The staircase that goes up to the catwalk above is a suspended staircase, helping to hold the stairs against the wall and also up to the top of the tower.

From the outside, you’ve probably seen this tower but never really noticed it before (the full tower is visible from the Girard and Second St side but people rarely take pictures there):UHD Academic Building facade pattern colering detail - teleshot

I’m told it’s just access to the elevator machine rooms. It was built, I believe, when the Academic Building was built, as a combination of staircase and two elevator shafts. But it’s also another one of the hidden spaces within the University that draw us to explore the nooks and crannies to find the hidden history of the building.

Update, August 29, 2016:

Found this in a 1986 edition of the Dateline; the tower predates the Academic building by nearly 10 years!

Circulation tower 1986


The bathrooms of M&M South

After the ridiculously wild success of the post on Confluence on the bathrooms of the One Main Building’s north side, we decided to document the south side as well.

Starting at the top, we have the 10th floor, which has to be from the late 1980s, with its contrasting pink and brown (this is the men’s room, very soothing):IMG_20160520_075642

The eighth floor clearly did not have anyone of creative genius designing it. Or at least, no one who understood how important it is to have *interesting* bathrooms:


Seventh floor south is a recap of my favorite image from the north side gallery, red sinks with bright yellow everything-else:



Sixth floor south is actually really interesting to me–that’s a wood panel on the front of the sinks, and I actually kind of like the tiles on the floor. It’s very cozy, for an institutional bathroom:


We are all agreed that fourth floor south is a mess and needs something to pick it up immediately:



The glory of third floor south:


And a surprisingly interesting bathroom we found on 2nd floor south! There is a chair back there on the other side of Sink Island!


Accreditation, 1959-1960


In 1959, the South Texas Junior College, which for 11 years had been intrinsically tied to the destiny of the South Texas College of Law, decided to become accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS). It was a major step for the College, since SACS, established in 1895, had a very rigorous process for accreditation and there were several hurdles to jump over before being approved. We are lucky in the archives to have the personal correspondence between Chester Cochran, South Texas director of development, and Gordon Sweet, Executive Secretary of SACS, during the process of initial accreditation.

The College began investigating the process in 1956, and by late 1958 reached out to the organization to apply. The preliminary site visit was promising, but there were concerns: namely, that the Junior College had no separate Board, the library was in several unconnected rooms, the Registrar and the Dean of Students were the same person, there were not enough women for a co-educational college, and the faculty did not do enough service through committees and administration. After several site visits and a lot of letter writing (and some rented limousines for the SACS officials, and a few golf games at the Houston Country Club with John Kelsey and other influential Houstonians), Mr. Sweet was pleased to offer the final report and acceptance.

When SACS offered their accreditation to South Texas, many substantive changes had occurred, probably in what felt like a whirlwind to the college community. Faculty were shown to be more engaged,  the library built out new space, the students had created a Student Government Association, and most importantly, the Junior College had begun to administratively de-tangle itself from the College of Law (the Colleges would break permanently in 1966).

Even today, a visit from SACS, like the one that occurred this past April, is a flurry of activity as the University puts its best foot forward for inspection. During the first round of this process nearly 60 years ago, it must have felt like quite an accomplishment indeed to make it through the gauntlet.