Classic Post: In A Time Of Uncertainty, The Pursuit of Permanence Reinforced

The article below originally ran on April 18, 2013, one day after a massive explosion at a fertilizer plant in West, Texas destroyed the facility and caused 15 fatalities (mostly first responders) and millions of dollars in property damage. We are reposting the article on this, the two-year anniversary of the event.

The aftermath of an explosion at a fertilizer plant in West, Texas, April 17, 2013. (Photo via BusinessInsider.com)

At the time of this writing, the campus of Baylor University is quiet, subdued under a twin burden thanks to the dismal weather (due to a cold front/rainstorm combo) and an event that occurred just twenty short miles up the road in West. As reports roll in documenting the destruction – physical, emotional, communal – wrought by an explosion at a fertilizer plant on the north side of town, the Baylor community is responding with a prayer vigil, offers of donations of materials and financial gifts, and the use of our collective expertise in helping the citizens of West find new hope in the rubble of last night’s wreckage.

As we try to come to grips with the scope of devastation, it comes at a time when the national mood is already unsettled due to the bombings at the Boston Marathon on Monday. Add into the mix the fact that this, the third week in April, has seen traumatic national events in the past two decades (the Columbine High School massacre, the Oklahoma City bombing and the Branch Davidian standoff, chiefly) and you have a general sense of discomfort, a time of unwanted reflection on the darker side of human nature.

All of this may seen like a strange topic for a blog post focused on digital collections, but it reinforces an absolutely inarguable point: life is uncertain. We can build legal structures, steel-studded concrete walls, social norms and inner rationalizations to protect us from the things beyond our control, but they can only take us so far. For all of us will face an event in our lives that we cannot control, that is beyond our power to influence. And in the midst of that uncertainty, it helps to have reminders that our daily work to preserve the documented history of our campus, our community, our world is one way we can provide the tumultuous present with a concrete anchor to the past.

“The Preservers of History”

Chiseled into the stonework of the façade of Pat Neff Hall, Baylor’s main administration building, is a quote from former Baylor president (and two-term Texas governor) Pat Morris Neff. It reads, “The preservers of history are as heroic as its makers,” and I believe this sums up our role in the Digital Projects Group in a simple, profound way that paragraphs of explanatory text cannot. We are the preservers of history, yes, by the nature of our work to digitize physical history and preserve its digital surrogate for access by the future. But more important than simply scanning and archiving data, we are preserving the stories contained within those documents and we are ensuring that those stories will be accessible and available to people many years from now. On days like today, it seems particularly important to preserve the stories happening all around us, even if they aren’t as newsworthy as an explosion, a natural disaster, or a terrorist attack.

This is not a responsibility we take lightly, of course. For every artifact, archival resource, photograph, map or other item that comes through our doors, we know we are handling the “real stuff” of history and it is our job to take that one unique thing and give it a new life, a greater usefulness in the realm of academic scholarship and worldwide access. In a sense, we serve not so much as the preservers of history but as its spokesmen, the professional communicators tasked with taking something out of its phase box, Mylar sleeve or acid-free folder and putting it on an international stage via the Internet so its unique story can reach people on our campus, on our continent, on the other side of the world.

The Way of All Flesh (and Data)

We are given only a short time on this Earth to do the work we were created to do. There will come a time when the words of this blog will be seen as a record of what one group of people thought was important in the early decades of the 21st century. They will read of a fertilizer plant explosion in a small, Czech community in central Texas and want to know more about how it spurred a library staff member at Baylor University to write about its relation to digital preservation.

To those future researchers –and to my 2013 contemporaries reading this post today – I can only say that as this week’s unexpected events have unfolded on the East coast and a half-hour drive from my front door, it drives home to me the frailty of life, the knowledge that the things we create today are not promised to exist tomorrow, and that the challenge for our field is to try to find some permanence in the world, to promise our grandchildren’s grandchildren that they will have access to the world we are living in today. And, more importantly than all of this, that they will have access to our stories.

If you would like to assist the people of West in their recovery and rebuilding efforts, please visit Baylor’s “Response for the City of West” web age or contact the Central Texas Red Cross. Photo from REUTERS photographer Mike Stone via Business Insider (www.businessinsider.com)

“Lord, Don’t Forget About Me” – Thoughts on Sustainability, Digital Collections and Museums

buffet_quote_imageThis week, I’ve been attending the Texas Association of Museums’ annual conference in Ft. Worth (a.k.a. Cowtown, a.k.a. Funkytown). Amid the usual offerings on how to engage preschool visitors, trends in collections management and how to navigate federal law as it relates to Native American ceremonial items, one of the recurring themes has been the idea of sustainability. Not in the environmentally friendly, pro-recycling sense of the term, but in something more stark: do struggling museums deserve to survive, and if so, what can we do to help? Are museums doomed to fail because they are in thrall to their habits – good and bad – and unable to undertake significant change?

Specifically, there was a major report funded by the Summerlee Foundation that examined the state of historic museums in Texas, and the findings were eye-opening. Many of the state’s history-focused institutions have entered into a mode that can charitably be described as “perpetuation.” In other words, they’ve grown past the initial fervor that brought them into being in the first place – saving a historic structure, for example – and have entered into a second or third generation of leadership whose focus is on maintaining the status quo, or, at worst, keeping the whole affair from closing altogether.

This is discomforting news for many of the state’s 1,000+ historic sites and museums, as it indicates a lack of strong leadership, compelling history, innovative business models and the other positive attributes identified by the Summerlee report that are key to an institution’s survival. Implicit in all of this discussion is a question many museum professionals are hesitant to ask: If an institution that has pledged itself to add permanence to an impermanent resource (i.e. a physical collection or structure) is now in jeopardy, at what point do we say, “enough is enough?” We don’t expect for-profit institutions and businesses to last in perpetuity; stores go out of business all the time. But we DO expect our museums to last forever because they serve a higher purpose, namely, holding cultural assets in the public trust.

So Where Do Digital Collections Enter Into The Discussion?

The crux of this conversation focuses on our brick-and-mortar (and lathe, and log, and millwork, and adobe) brethren, but there are lessons here for institutions like our Baylor University Libraries Digital Collections, too.

While we aren’t restricted by the requirement that we care for an aging, actively deteriorating physical structure, we do have built-in costs related to our work. Servers, digitizing equipment, staffing, storage for physical items: all of these costs are inherent in the work we do. Without a scanner, a server and people to run them both, we can’t create a digital surrogate of a rare black gospel 45, and we can’t put it online for the world to experience it.

Being part of a major university certainly makes our position more stable than many of our historic sites colleagues, but even we aren’t immune from the changing whims of researchers, students and the general public. So long as the requests keep coming in for access to 19th century sheet music, the works of women poets and back issues of our campus newspaper, we will see the obvious demand for the resources we are committed to creating and hosting into the future.

But if there comes a point where online access to collections is considered as quaint as handling an authentic butter churn – that is, something you do once on a vacation and not something that has relevance to your daily life – that’s when we’ll know we’ve moved from a cause to a burden. It’s at that crucial point where so many historic sites are caught today, and it’s something we are actively planning to avoid.

We Must Sing In Full Voice

A big part of avoiding the “in perpetuation” mindset is to keep our voice fresh, to keep seeking new ways to engage with users of all stripes, and to spread the word about the uniqueness, usefulness and openness of our resources.

John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist Church, wrote a number of rules for singing in his congregations. One of them was,

Sing lustily and with good courage. Beware of singing as if you were half dead, or half asleep; but lift up your voice with strength.

I think that advice is fitting for us as we work to create and promote our university’s unique cultural heritage assets via our digital collections. If we are engaged with the work, if we are focused and enthusiastic about what we do, that will show in our output, and people will carry the torch for us. But if we falter, if we give only a halfhearted effort, that, too, will show, and we’ll see an attendant downturn in interest.

But fear not, friends of our work: we have no plan to grow weary, to find our work a cross to bear rather than a song to sing, and we are fully committed to maintaining and expanding our collections “forever and ever, amen.” And the more you can help us by spreading the word to your friends and colleagues, the easier it will be to make sure our work is sustainable for generations to come.

One last note: if there’s a historic house museum, a county historical society or other history-related resource in your area, do all you can to support them. Pay them a visit, make a donation, volunteer to serve on their board of trustees, post something nice about them on Facebook; any help we can provide to our fellow culture preservers only benefits us as a society, and it keeps some really great people employed, too.

Unveiling the Black Gospel Music Restoration Project’s “Wall of Honor”

Screen Shot 2015-04-02 at 10.47.44 AMAny project as ambitious as our Black Gospel Music Restoration Project cannot happen in a vacuum, nor can it succeed without the willing hands and open hearts of a broad range of supporters, and after almost a decade’s worth of work toward preserving America’s black gospel heritage, we’ve made significant progress thanks to the support of literally dozens of people.

They are collectors, benefactors, private citizens with small collections to loan, major foundations with capital to invest in the equipment, talent and time it takes to advance the BGMRP from semester to semester. And we thought it’s high time they got some recognition on the project’s website. So, we’re happy to unveil the BGMRP Wall of Honor, a virtual listing of the backers big and small who’ve helped make it a success.

Screen Shot 2015-04-02 at 10.35.25 AM

Click on the image to view the entire Wall of Honor!

Each supporter’s name is placed on a label from a 45 rpm disk from the collection and the whole wall is organized alphabetically. The label associated with each supporter is randomly assigned, hence the quilt-like appearance to the entire Wall.

While it’s only a small token of our appreciation to these fine folks, we hope it helps drive home the importance of community support for projects like the BGMRP. And if you’d like to see your name on the wall – after you’ve loaned/donated materials or supported the project financially – we’ve got plenty of opportunities for you to show your support.

We hope to see the Wall continue to grow as the project continues to flourish, and with each news story, interview, public presentation or one-on-one conversation we have about the BGMRP, we’re seeing its importance and influence spread across the country. And the nice thing about a “virtual” donor wall vs. a physical wall? There’s literally no end to space we can use to feature anyone who shows their support!

The Black Gospel Music Restoration Project is an attempt to catalog, digitize, preserve and promote America’s black gospel music heritage, with a focus on the “Golden Age” of 1945-1975. Learn more about the project, including how you can support our goals, by visiting the project website.

The Freshmen (19)15: When Being Named “Fattest Boy” Was A Sign of Affection

Some people like to think that the proclivities of college students are a relatively recent occurrence. “They wear pajamas to class! They never look up from their cell phones! They give each other ridiculous nicknames! They have their laundry picked up by a service that washes and folds it before returning it to them!” And so on.

The corollary to this is that people also assume college students of a century ago were always serious, focused on academics, and learning how to become robber barons or doctors or famous theologians. (Also, the world was in black and white because color hadn’t been invented yet.)

If that’s been your mindset, prepare to clutch your pearls, because a look at a brief item from the March 18, 1915 Baylor Lariat reveals college students have been doing at least one of these – assigning ridiculous nicknames – since the days our great-grandparents roamed the campus.

This particular story was part of a “Freshman Edition” of the Lariat that was prominently stamped with the class’s graduating year:

Screen Shot 2015-03-17 at 3.48.15 PMThe fourth article featured above the fold is a two-paragraph story on a recent decision by the freshman class to memorialize itself in concrete.

1915-03-18In these two short paragraphs are revealed several insights into life on Baylor’s campus early in the last century. First off, the lead paragraph tells us that the class of 1918, like its contemporary classes of the era, was interested in leaving its mark on campus in the form of a permanent structure. (The other practice of painting one’s graduation year on the towers of Old Main was a splashier but less enduring option.) The proposed fountain for the class of 1918 was to be “an ornamental design with the class emblem in relief,” according to the story’s opening paragraph.

The second paragraph reveals the quirky sense of humor on display by these early twentieth century Baylorites. A full list of “officers” and their “offices” includes:

T.P. Barron – future president
Hull Youngblood – Arch’s successor
Guy Crosslin – most timid boy
Carolyn Franks – fattest girl
Hazel Gorman – Quakeress
E.T. Gwaltney – class giant
H.C. Morrow – biggest liar
Roy Sanderford – biggest hobo
Lorene Patty – most reserved girl;
Doyle Thrailkill – leading suffragette
O.M. Webb – professional “vag” (vagabond)
Horace W. Williams – fattest boy

Some of these are pretty straightforward, if seemingly offensive to modern sensitivities. “Fattest girl,” “fattest boy” and “biggest hobo” are self-explanatory, but if you do a little digging you’ll find they’re much more likely to be satirical than true-to-life. For example, here’s a photo of “fattest boy” Horace W. Williams from the 1916 Round Up:

williams_1916-RUAnd “biggest hobo” Roy Sanderford? He wound up serving in the Army in World War I and was listed as an honored alum in the 1918 Round Up. “Most timid boy” Guy Crosslin also served in the army (as a Lieutenant) and “class giant” E.T. Gwaltney was active in athletics, playing both basketball and tennis.

Finally, “most reserved girl” Lorene Patty would go on to serve as secretary of the sophomore class in 1916.

Patty_1916-RUIn that capacity, she would write the class’s history for the 1916 Round Up, concluding with these words:

Screen Shot 2015-03-17 at 3.27.13 PMWorthy of Further Examination

But the two most interesting for my money are “Arch’s successor” Hull Youngblood and “leading suffragette” Doyle Thrailkill. One would be part of a long-running tradition among the freshmen classes of the early 1900s and the other would propose an idea that became one of Baylor’s most recognized and longest-running icons.

First, Hull Youngblood, pictured here in all his cravat-ly glory in the 1915 Round Up:

youngblood_1915_RUHis title of “Arch’s successor” has to do with the story of a long-serving “handyman” on campus and one of Baylor’s earliest African American notables, Arch Long, pictured here in the 1932 Round Up:

Screen Shot 2015-03-19 at 10.52.27 AMLong began his 45 years of service to Baylor in 1892, working alongside his brother William. Long delivered coal, made repairs and generally served as a prototypical maintenance and facilities expert, all while exhibiting a great sense of humor and morals that were praised by Baylor president Pat Neff upon Long’s retirement in 1938. Long would die in 1952, his long service to the university earning him the status of “legend,” according to an article in the September 24, 1952 Lariat.

For a number of years, during the first freshman class meeting each year, Arch’s name was put forward as a possible candidate for president, along with “candidates” like G.B. Hall (the name of a women’s dormitory) and Carroll Field (the athletic field on campus), the joke being that many of the freshmen wouldn’t know the latter two weren’t actually people, let alone members of the class. Ergo, Youngblood’s status as “Arch’s successor” seems to indicate he was likely to be put forward as a potential candidate for president of the class of 1918 at some point.

Doyle Thrailkill’s contribution to Baylor history is her putting forward the bear as Baylor’s official mascot. Replying to an appeal from Kit Roseborough in 1914, Thrailkill’s suggest of a bear won an overwhelming majority of the votes and would, of course, go on to become the official mascot. This process is best summed up by a brief recap in the 1928 Round Up:

Screen Shot 2015-03-19 at 11.31.21 AMSo the next time you think something a college student does is indicative of a modern trend toward dissolution, or you get the urge to shout, “Get off my lawn!” at a 20-year-old wearing earbuds and a fedora, remember that these same young people may go on to affect the history of your campus, your city or your nation in the years to come.

And if nothing else, you can rest easy in knowing that none of them will earn the title of “Quakeress,” so at least there’s that.

 

An Open Letter to Whataburger: Advertising Deliciousness at Baylor Since 1954!

open_letter_series_header

Dear Folks at Whataburger,

Did you ever wonder what would happen if you advertised your delicious hamburgers consistently in a university’s publications since 1954? You’d get 186 occurrences of ads and other mentions of Whataburger throughout the Baylor University archives, and pardner, that’s just what we wanted to talk to you about!

Of course you’ll recognize the “flavor” (pardon the pun) of that opening line from one of your most memorable ad campaigns in recent memory, but it also serves as a nice intro to this open letter. Let us start by saying all of us in the Digital Projects Group are BIG fans of the hot, fresh, juicy goodness you serve up 24 hours a day, every day. We all cut our teeth on your burgers, fries, taquitos, milkshakes, you name it. And, lucky for us, there’s a location right across the highway from our beautiful campus here in Waco, so we’re never more than a few minutes away from getting our fix, day or night.

The recent Waco cold snap put some of us in a mind to grab some taquitos and sausage biscuits recently, which led me to thinking: what would happen if we searched our 250,000+ items in the Baylor University Libraries Digital Collections for the word “Whataburger”? Well, it turns out you’ll find 186 items spread throughout our archival collections. That includes mentions in our campus newspaper, the Baylor Lariat, the annual yearbook (The Round Up) and other sources.

Below are a some of our favorites, starting with the earliest ad from the January 20, 1954 Lariat:

1954-01-20Within just four short years of your founding, you’re already in the empire mindset, with locations spanning as far afield as Kingsville, Alice and Waco. While the store at 17th and LaSalle is gone now, we’re proud to be home to five Waco-area locations today.

One year later, you’ve added some delightful artwork to help differentiate your burgers – all served on a very specific 5″ bun – from the competition. (Ad from the February 18, 1955 Lariat.)

1955-02-18_LariatIn the 1970s, you really “upped” your game by flying the Whataburger balloon over the campus during Diadeloso, an annual spring celebration that sees classes cancelled and college students generally behaving like half-civilized young people. (From a Baylor University Press Release dated April 23, 1974.)

1974-04-23If there was ever an ad that screams, “I was made in the 80’s!” it’s this one. It’s got everything: a bold serif font headline, three-column text, inset photos, large image of whimsical person’s face, a chance-based game – it’s all too rad! (From the April 12, 1984 Lariat.)

1984-04-12_adYou’ve even been such a part of campus life that you got your own mention in the 1990 Round Up as a pivotal part of the fun to be had by our freshmen!

1990_RoundupOf course the samples don’t include the dozens of times you’re listed as sponsors for our athletics programs or other special events, and you’re included in items as recently as a couple of years ago, so we know you remain an active part of our students’ shared experience right up to today. In fact, I nearly tripped over an empty drive-thru bag on my way into my office in our main campus library the other morning, because nothing says, “I’m cramming for mid-terms” like a bag full of taquitos.

So keep making our state proud with your amazing burgers, and we’ll keep making it proud by maintaining a tradition of academic excellence, Christian ideals and athletic dominance. And if the guy that did the voiceover for those “Did you ever wonder” spots is still around, send him our way. I’ve been told my impression is pretty accurate, and I’d love to hear what he thinks!

All the best,

Your friends at the Baylor University Digital Projects Group


This post is part of a series of Open Letters to musicians, authors and others that we hope will connect our collections to prominent people in America. If you have someone to suggest, or if you’re the subject of this post and want to drop us a line, send us an email (digitalcollectionsinfo@baylor.edu).

For more information on Whataburger, visit their website. And be sure to follow their awesome Twitter account!