what is metadata, anyway?

What is metadata?

Metadata is just information about something.

Me: Hey, is that an apple?

You: Yeah, it’s red and round and crunchy.

Congratulations, you’ve created metadata!

In a place like a library or an archive, we create metadata about the things we own. This can get confusing for some people because a lot of what we own are just WORDS, wrapped up in a book jacket.

You: Wait, you are going to create words to describe these other words?

Me: …Yes.

You: Like….you are going to create information about other pieces of information?

Me:…Yes. Sorry.

Librarians avoid getting themselves confused by thinking of the materials in a library as OBJECTS, much like an apple. Except that it’s a book (or a CD, or an e-book, or a magazine). So, if *you* think of a book as an object, there is actually a lot you can say about it! You can describe its name (the title), who made it (the author), who made it into a physical thing and where that happened (the publisher and the city of publication), how big it is (page number and dimensions), what are some of its features (illustrations, the subject of it). All of this is metadata.

You (smugly): But what if the “object” isn’t an object? What if it’s a song in my phone?

Me: You can’t trip me up that easily.

Even electronic objects are still objects—you can think of them like virtual balls, round and whole and bouncing around the digital world as people upload and download and share. So the metadata for a digital object is pretty much the same as for a “physical” object, but the terms are a little different. You can describe its name (title), who made it (author/songwriter), who made it into something for others to use (recording company/hosting website), how big it is (file size), what are some of its features (file format, bit rate, playing speed).

Metadata is not *too* scary, because you create metadata all the time (tell me what that thing is you are holding, tell me about your car, tell me about your day). And the best part about creating metadata for things is that when you get a lot of things together in one place (like a library! Where you might have thousands of things in one small place!), you can take all the metadata and put *it* in one place too (like a library catalog), so that anyone who wants to find an object doesn’t need to look at everything to find what they need—they can look in the catalog and be directed to wherever they need to go to find the object they are looking for. And this is why metadata is so important.


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



Texana, Autographs, and Forgery

The special collections at UHD have never gotten much notice, since there are no Gutenberg bibles lying around, nor any kind of “precious” books that one normally associates with such collections. However, when the collection was physically situated with the University Archives in 2013, we discovered that the core of the collection is actually very special indeed.

Most of the books in the Special Collections are “local” history: Texas and Houston, with a special focus on oil history. Not until we dove into the books and looked at them carefully did we see what all the fuss was about: nearly all the books are from the private library of James A. Clark, a prolific author of many works, the most famous being his 1952 book “Spindletop.”

Clark held different jobs throughout his lifetime, including the public relations manager at the famous Shamrock Hotel, sports editor for the Galveston News,statehouse correspondent under Governor Allred, and the author of a long-running oil column called “Tales of the Oil Country.”

Clark passed away in 1978, and his books came to UHD sometime after that, although it’s unclear how it happened. The collection includes several autographed copies of some very famous Texas history, including one which, it turns out, is a forgery. Clark clearly enjoyed buying or obtaining autographed books, and at some point must have been thrilled to buy a first edition of the now-famous Shamrock and Cactus: the story of the Catholic heroes of the Texas Revolution by William M. Ryan. It was signed by the author with the note “to my good friend H.P.N. Gammel with my best regards…Christmas 1936.”

Karl Hans Peter Marius Nielsen Gammel, or H.P.N. Gammel, was one of the first people in Texas to preserve Texas history (he saved the laws of Texas from fire in 1881 and kept them safe in his home before republishing them a few years later). He was, and remains, one of the most important booksellers and collectors in our history. Having a book like Shamrock and Cactus, signed by the author and to Gammel, must have felt like quite a coup.

Unfortunately, Gammel is known to have passed away in 1931, five years before this book was published. Ryan, if he was indeed a “good friend” of Gammel, would have been well-aware of Gammel’s death. In Houston in the 1960s and 1970s, however, forgery of Texas historical documents, including autographs and other documents, was big business. Without Wikipedia at hand to check the death dates of famous people involved in publishing, scams like this were easy to  implement. No doubt James Clark suffered more than just once at the hands of the Houston forgery rings, just as many collectors of Texana have*. But so far none of the other autographs in our collection have been proven to be false.


*To read more about Houston’s forgery community, read Texfake: an account of theft and forgery of early Texas printed documents, by W. Thomas Taylor (1991).


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:


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


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.


The bathrooms of M&M North

If you have stepped foot into the M&M building, our main building here at UHD, you know that we have some *really* mind-altering bathrooms. Obviously, everyone knows about the third floor north bathroom:

3rd floor north edited

Why was it tiled like this? Was it the 90s? Just someone’s art project? No way of knowing.


But a lesser-known bathroom that really deserves a visit is 8th floor north:

8th floor bathroom edited

Why are the sinks red and everything else is yellow?! A mystery for the ages.

Some other bathrooms of note:

6th floor north bathroom edited

6th floor north (same design as 4th floor north, so you’ll be excused if that is where you thought this was)

9th floor bathroom edited

9th floor north. All pink with navy blue grout.

10th floor bathroom edited

10th floor north is surprisingly classy, I like that blue stripe.


First floor north never gets any love but it has a wonderful emerald green stained concrete thing going on.


I do not know why nearly every set of bathrooms on each floor is tiled in different colors. It really defies explanation, actually, because why on earth would they order new and different tiles each time a renovation was being done? At any rate, it is now a quirk of this place that I particularly enjoy.

Explore our bathrooms! They are treasures!


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.


Privilege in the Archives

About a week ago, I had a conversation with a faculty person about why most archives (our own included) have so many materials by white creators, and so little from everyone else. It’s probably the thorniest and most persistent problem in the archival world.

Even here at the University of Houston-Downtown, where we have more minorities in positions to create historical record, it is difficult to find or get materials. The person to blame for this, by the way, is probably the archivist herself (that would be me of course). But tangled up in laying blame at my door is that, when I arrived, I was regularly told to seek out the “hubs” of information here, the people who “made” UHD, who contributed to its success. And most of those “hubs” happened to be white.

There is a deeper issue here, one that is hard to recognize and harder to eliminate. It’s related to the issue of privilege, which is something that some people have and everyone else lacks, and privilege extends into so many aspects of everyday life that it’s pretty depressing to see it even in a place that is supposedly “neutral” like a University archives, where the materials are all just supposed to be institutional records.

But why is it, exactly, that the archives would find itself with many materials from white men and so little from everyone else? Doesn’t everyone create the same amount of records, and wouldn’t it stand to reason that if the archivist (again, me!) would just think to ASK people, the archives could then have lots and lots of material from underrepresented groups?

Well, no, it turns out. Part of the insidious nature of privilege is that it runs both ways, and it runs into nearly every facet of our own self-image. The privileged grow up seeing themselves represented in television, radio, visual media, and yes, archives. They see their grandfather’s records go to the historical society, they see the papers of brilliant privileged people of history going into national archives, and they internalize the idea that *someone like them* is important. Therefore, they also can be important and its important to save your materials when you have the potential to be important.

The flip side of this is easy to see now. When non-privileged children grow up seeing heirlooms set aside in closets, kept safe by the family but no one ever comes calling to take them into an archives or museum, when no one who looks like the child or comes from their neighborhood or school ever gets their materials into the national archives, it sends a message just as powerfully as the opposite message is delivered to the privileged.

So while we have a great growth of minority groups being represented on university campuses, and at UHD particularly, it is still hard to find materials, to get materials, that come from minority groups. This is in large part my fault, I freely admit it, because I am clearly not yet convincing these groups that their materials are valuable. And in many ways, I am very late. But I still have time, and I will keep trying.


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.