Edward J. Osowski

Duration: 1hr 22mins
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Uncorrected Transcript

Interview with: Edward Osowski
Interviewed by: Louis Marchiafava
Date:
Archive Number: OH 483

 

LM: [00:06] This is Louis Marchiafava interviewing Mr Edward Osowski for the Houston Public Library History Project, and we will be talking about his role as a project director during the early—excuse me—during the late ‘70s. I’d like to begin the interview, however—before we get to our main topic—by getting some background information and asking you about your earlier education and what led you to library work.

EO: Oh, what led me to library work—after I finished graduate school—

LM: Where’d you got to graduate school?

EO: At Rice—’70 to ’74. I needed to get another degree to find work. “Why did I go to library school?”—that’s an interesting question. There’s not enough time to answer that, but I did end up getting a degree in library science, and because I had enjoyed my four years in Houston so very much, I wanted to return to Houston. I wanted to live and work here after I finished library school. I finished library school in ’75, and I returned to Houston to work for Houston Public Library beginning in April ’76.

LM: What capacity did you —?

EO: I was hired as a reference librarian in the humanities department.

LM: And how long did you work in that department?

EO: Well, I think I was technically a member of that department for a couple of years, but it was shortly after I joined that department that someone—Ruby Weaver or David Hennington or Ann Hornak —I don’t remember who—asked me to take over an assignment that a librarian in that department had been working on. This woman—whose name escapes me—had written a grant proposal for Houston Public Library for submission to the National Endowment for the Humanities. If you remember back in the ‘70s, there was lots of government money for all kinds of programs, and NEH and NEA were two government agencies that were giving lots of money—in the case of NEH, a fair amount of money to public libraries.

[02:40] The particular project that this woman was involved in was designed to increase cooperation between academic settings—academic institutions—and public libraries by organizing things like lectures. As I recall, the only real guideline was that whatever was done had to somehow draw upon humanities resources and it had to involve academic professionals. She left. If I remember correctly, her proposal had never formally been submitted, but she left to take another position, and I was asked if I would take this over, and I didn’t understand her proposal so I couldn’t take it over—understand in the sense that, yeah, I understood what she was getting at, but it was a program that would have been so esoteric that I couldn’t see anyone being attracted to it. So I redesigned it, and I came up with this project called “City." It went into—whatever section of NEH it went into, it was basically for a 12-month project. I believe that the government—the federal government—turned around and gave us a $125,000, and then Houston Public Library demonstrated some—not a one-for-one match—but demonstrated some kind of additional funding principally in things like staff time. I don’t think HPL had to come up with a great amount of actual cash, but it did demonstrate some kind of matching funds.

LM: Do you have any idea where the whole idea of sending in a proposal originated from?

EO: I think that David Hennington had been contacted. I had—I subsequently became good friends with a person working at NEH—a man named Terry Krieger—who has no died. Terry was from New Orleans, and he had a kind of really wonderful—kind of populist—sympathy. I’m not sure if the whole notion of involving public libraries in NEH funding—I’m not sure if it may not have been his idea completely.

LM: Mm-hmm. (affirmative)

EO: If I remember, the first—there was a first—see, because I did several projects, they kind of overlap, and I’m not quite sure if this thing—which we called “City”—if those were kind of study projects to see if something with greater sophistication would or could work—I’m not sure of that. Nevertheless, we did submit a proposal to NEH, and it was funded for basically a 12-month period to run through—I think basically through 1977—sometime in there—maybe mid
’77 through mid ’78. And because I spent money so stingily, we were able to extend it for about three more months. In other words, we didn’t spend all our money in 12 months.

LM: [06:41] You know, I came in about ’76 to begin working here, and I had this vision of a large package grant, but from what you’re telling me, it was actually more than one grant.

EO: Well, see, this one was followed by a second, much, much larger public grant, which was part of a program at NEH called The Learning Libraries. Actually, NEH had a thing called Learning Libraries/Learning Museums. And this was indeed the section that Terry Krieger directed at NEH. We were invited to submit a proposal to NEH for the learning—for funding to come from the learning libraries thing. We were not—we were like the second group of libraries in the nation. They were all basically large, urban libraries. I remember that Boston Public Library—I think—was the first library in the nation to get one of these. And the Boston grant was tied in with—if I’ve got my dates all correct—I guess 1976 would have been the 200th anniversary of something in this country (laughs)—so the Boston grant was tied in with that big anniversary—I seem to recall. And what—again, this second one—The Learning Library—was designed, again, to involve academics in a variety of ways—programs, preparing reading guides. It offered libraries the opportunities to do things that traditional funding didn’t always permit.

LM: I didn’t mean to jump the gun on you by bypassing the first—

EO: Mm-hmm. (affirmative)

LM: —project, so before we get too far on into the second one, let’s go back and talk about the first one a bit.

EO: Okay.

LM: Now, the one—this first one that was submitted—this was strictly your proposal that you had rewritten after you viewed the first proposal written by your predecessor as too esoteric.

EO: Yeah. I don’t want to say it was solely my proposal. I came here with no experience in this, so I would never say that I turned to David Hennington—whatever—with this baby and said, “Here is this baby.” I’m sure that I discussed this with people. I seem to remember being given more freedom than I actually wanted. I thought it was (laughs) peculiar that I wasn’t being watched quite as closely as I think I would have watched someone else who had never done something like this. But my sense was that—based on what I kind of knew from the guidelines—that we needed to prepare something that would appeal to not just an academic audience. The goal may have been to involve academics, but I didn’t see that as to involve academics as your audience, but as your kind of facilitators—a word I don’t really like—but as your resource people. That seemed to me the way that we were supposed to involve our academic participants.

cue point

LM: [10:12] Who was your direct supervisor over you?

EO: I don’t remember. Your earlier question over how long was I in the humanities department—for some time, I was reporting to Ruby Weaver—chief of Central Library. At a certain point, that kind of shifted, and Hornak, the assistant director, was a person that I reported to. I was getting assistance, though, from people like Mike Benedict, who at that time was head of the humanities department. This was in some ways viewed as a humanities department project even though the NEH umbrella—humanities—is much, much bigger than how the Houston Public Library in its departmentalization defines humanities.

LM: Mm-hmm. (affirmative)

EO: To be brief, what I ended up doing was coming up with a package that involved print material, bibliographies—I seem to recall that Ann Hornak really believed strongly in bibliographies—and so I found—at a variety of academic settings in the city—individuals who were experts in specific humanities disciplines and would help us prepare reading lists that a—an adult of kind of general reading level—not a sophisticated adult—might pick up and learn from. In a sense, I think at times we were calling the project a self-paced reading and learning project.

LM: Self—?

EO: Self-paced—

LM: Self-paced. Okay.

EO: —reading and learning project. Because we took this sort of urban theme—the reading lists, the activities were all designed to help participants understand how Houston functioned as an urban setting. And if you worked your way through all the books in the reading list, you’d come away with—I think—a fairly good understanding of what it meant to live and work and be in an urban setting.

LM: [12:34] If I recall, there were a number of separate publications that—

EO: Yeah.

LM: —that resulted from the project.

EO: We did three or four bibliographies devoted to various disciplines in the humanities. We did—we basically wrapped up the program with a really lovely essay written by William Goyen. We did a piece on how to research Houston—a little pamphlet on what kind of materials were available at Houston Public Library if you wanted to research the city of Houston. We commissioned three essays on minority groups in the city—blacks, Hispanics, and women. And then two remaining publications were illustrated with photographs—one documented Houston’s art deco buildings, and the other one documented environmental graphics—billboards, signage—and both of those publications were complemented by exhibitions of the photographs and lectures.

What I tried to do was not just present a booklet or not just present an activity over here, but I always tried to cluster things so that when we had individual—when we, for example, issued the publication on—a reading list on—architecture in Houston, I seem to recall that we drew from the holdings of HRMC for an exhibition of your papers on Houston architecture. And then we made a real effort to get—I remember Ann Holmes at the Houston Chronicle did a really nice article on that exhibition. I always tried to find some kind of a hook, and sometimes what I realized was that an exhibition would be a way to kind of catch someone’s eye, and then they might say, ‘Geez, this is interesting. Maybe I am interested in learning more about this subject,” and then we could give them the reading list, or we could invite them to a lecture by a scholar. I remember Jack Mitchell, for example, who was dean of the School of Architecture at Rice, presented several noontime lectures here at Central Library on how to view Houston architecturally. So there always were these kind of packages—in a sense—not just a lecture, not just an exhibition, not just a reading list—but we would try to group two or three like that.

LM: Was the public visibility good? Did you get good public visibility?

EO: [15:47] Yeah, I think so. That’s a very difficult question to answer.

LM: It is. You can only base it on—I suppose—how many people attended the functions and newspapers articles.

EO: For example, how many—when Ann Holmes wrote this particular article—and I seem to remember we pulled a lot of the FEN papers—does the Chronicle have a readership of 1,000,000 people? Does that mean 1,000,000 people read that article? You could cheat and say that’s true—that in this particular case, 1,000,000 people read about our project because of that article, but you really have no way to document that.

LM: Well, you can say what response you received. Did you receive any response? Did the library receive any response?

EO: The programs were never as—how to answer—programs— The library system— when it moved into its new building—had begun lunchtime activities, but if I remember correctly, the library system never really had a real sort of history of ongoing, continuing lectures or talks. So in a sense, there were no standards to be judged by. It was always disappointing if ten people would show up. There were some activities that drew a whole lot more. I recall the night that Bill Goyen spoke. I think we had about 75 people—and I guess that’s decent. I guess that’s a decent turnout. I’ve been at programs at Rice University when people would kill for 75 people, so I’ve never known how to answer the question: Was the response decent? I know that all of our publications were picked up. I think we probably—in some cases—printed 1,000. That’s not a huge number in a city this big, but we didn’t have to throw them away, so at least 1,000 people looked at them, and one would hope they maybe passed them on to someone else.

LM: Mm-hmm. (affirmative)

EO: In the case of those photographs—the signage photographs—we worked out a way in which those eventually made their way into either your holdings—you hold photographs, don’t you? So they’re now part of HMRC’s holdings.

LM: Yeah. I remember that we did acquire some.

EO: Yeah.

LM: [18:32] Did you have a staff?

EO: No.

LM: How did the program—how were the programs put together—just by yourself?

EO: Well—

LM: Committee or volunteers?

EO: —the first thing, they were pulled together—I knew that we had to present public programs, and so I would talk to—let’s say—Jack Mitchell. Jack always had a really good understanding of what it meant to not be in an academic setting but to be in a public setting. So I’d say, “We’re going to do this bibliography, and we’ve got this display that we’re planning. Now I want to do some talks. What kind of—?” These were areas about which I knew nothing. I know about literature—I know about early American literature—and that certainly wasn’t something we were going to spend any time on, so I had to find people whom I trusted, and not only trusted but people who also understood what it meant to work in a nonacademic setting. I remember one person who came highly recommended—well, a couple of people came highly recommended—and did very good work for me—or for the project—but didn’t—weren’t really able to make that leap from an academic to a nonacademic setting. And those were people that I really tried not to ever invite back. And yet, there were other people—before you started taping, we were talking about Barry Kaplan. Barry kind of—I think—enjoyed shocking people, but somehow Barry knew that in a nonacademic setting—in the public library setting—you could perhaps get away with saying things that you couldn’t get away with if you were speaking with professional colleagues.

cue point

LM: So when did the project officially begin?

EO: If I remember correctly, this first thing called “City”—

LM: Yeah.

EO: —began sometime in ’77 and ran—well, obviously it was still going on
April 24, 1978, because I’m looking at this publication that Bill Goyen delivered on April 24, ’78. So in some cases, I’ve got a few concrete dates that I can give you. I know that that was when that was still going on. That was—I think—the last activity of that project.

LM: [21:19] When we talk about—formally—these programs, was there some philosophical—for lack of a better word (laughs)—reasoning for the way they took form and shape? Was there some particular objective the library wanted to achieve or was this simply something that might give the library good visibility?

EO: I think it was the latter. I don’t think there’s any difficulty—I don’t think one would have difficulty in seeing how activities like these—presenting lectures, doing exhibitions—are fit in so easily with what is generally understood as a library mission—providing educational opportunities. These were just different ways to provide pieces of information. In a sense, they looked different, but learning from a photograph is no different from learning from a book. It just kind of looks like a different way to learn. Learning from a lecture is no different from learning from a book. So in a sense, these fitted in with the library’s mission. One of those missions is to educate or to provide educational opportunities. Visibility—I think—was certainly important, and that’s why we always—I say “we”—whoever these “we” were— I felt that it was important to present activities that looked good—that never kind of embarrassed the library system—things that had content but that also were not kind of boring.

LM: Yeah. Was this the first such grant that the library had applied for?

EO: I don’t know.

LM: Well, okay. You wouldn’t know until you had arrived here, of course.

EO: Yeah.

LM: I could find no record of any similar type grant.

EO: Obviously, there were other grants like—I’m sure, for example, grants for building buildings—but if you mean this kind of grant—

LM: Public grant.

EO: Yeah, public, yeah. I don’t think—I don’t think there had been any preceding this.

LM: [24:02] Okay. In the background research that I did, I could not find any other type of grants similar to this that were attempted. All right. So after this—after the completion of this grant, were you already working on another grant, or—?

EO: I worked on two. The library was invited to submit—this one that I describe now tends to vanish—but the library was—

LM: What was that? Sorry.

EO: Tends to vanish.

LM: Okay.

EO: The library was invited to apply for a challenge grant—and I remember in this case it was Ann Hornak who asked me to prepare it—and it was a challenge grant that was submitted to NEH again for funding. The library had an obligation to match it—and I don’t remember what the match was—it may have been 3 to 1—that somehow sticks in my mind. And the funding was to be used to create an endowment that would be used to purchase materials in the humanities. The figure $350,000 sticks out—that we submitted a proposal for that amount of money and received it. And we kicked it off—we kicked off this activity—the awarding of this grant—with a big kind of gala—gala—however that word is pronounced—that Neiman Marcus put on.

LM: Oh.

EO: Yeah. And that subsequently developed into this every-other-year library gala. But that was the first one, and that was tied in with the awarding of this challenge grant, which—as I recall—was for $350,000. While that was going on and while the project “City” was winding down, I seem to recall at this point that I was invited in to talk to David Hennington—it may have been Hennington and Hornak together. They had received communications from NEH inviting Houston Public Library to apply for what was called a learning library project—a 3-year—
36-month funding program. I subsequently learned—because of this friend Terry Krieger—that Houston Public Library would have been funded no matter what it submitted—that the act—there was so much money available that the act of submitting was enough. Anything would have resulted in the awarding of this grant. I don’t know if anyone else knew that. Terry—I used to visit him—he became a real good friend of mine. And apparently, there simply were places where they wanted to give these grants, and Houston Public Library had been singled out as one of them. I always felt that that was—I loved the fact that the proposal I wrote had nothing to do with the awarding of the grant. It made me feel very kind of normal—that my proposal had—you know. Now, he’s dead—how does one document what I just said to you? I don’t know. But I tended to believe him at the time, and I still believe him. I know that he so managed to get grants placed at certain—as the director of this particular section of NEH, he knew he was going to have to spend a lot of time on the road, and there was places he was not interested in visiting, and if your library was in one of those places that he did not want to visit, your chances of getting funding were slimmer than if your library was in a place that he wanted to visit. He had a friend in Chicago. Chicago Public got one of these learning library grants, principally because a friend of his was going to direct it that Chicago Public. Chicago Public—the project—was a great project, but nevertheless, it slipped into Chicago Public in a very kind of backhanded way. Again, it’s my understanding that this was not based on the quality of the proposals submitted, but it was kind of a friendship-connection that got the grant to Chicago Public. Now, I didn’t know this person beforehand, but I feel pretty confident in saying that subsequently what I did learn is that the quality of the proposal had nothing to do with the awarding of the grant. Did you expect to hear that?

cue point

LM: [29:18] No, but it doesn’t surprise me.

EO: Okay.

LM: I know such things happen.

EO: Yeah. I had been instructed by either Hennington or Hornak to prepare a proposal, which was Hispanic in theme.

LM: Now this is the third project?

EO: This is the third one. This is the one called the learning library program. This is the one that most people remember.

LM: Right. Well, just wrap up the second one.

EO: The second one was the challenge grant.

LM: [29:44] Okay. Did that end successfully?

EO: Well, I guess the Houston Public Library raised the money it was required to raise to match what NEH gave. I wasn’t involved in that.

LM: Okay. I thought you were.

EO: It wasn’t my responsibility to go out and seek the corporate givers.

LM: Who was handling it at that time?

EO: I think that that was probably going on through Ann Hornak’s office. I know that Valerie Sherlock—who was the library system’s publicist at the time—Valerie and I were involved in the connections at Neiman’s and getting that thing kicked off. That—I don’t even know how much that one event raised—I can’t tell you. Obviously this is somewhere in the library system. This stuff can be documented. But I don’t know how the library came up with the rest of the money to match this grant.

LM: This is a good place for me to turn over the tape.

EO: Okay.

LM: Excuse me.

[00:00 silence as tape is changed]

LM: Side two. You were saying that—

EO: Yeah, I’m not sure how that money was raised. I bet it was, but that wasn’t one of my jobs to become a kind of fundraiser for the library system. So then there was this third project called the learning library program. That was the name given to it by the National Endowment for the Humanities. And we submitted this proposal. The funding that we ended up receiving—I now forget it—I think it may have been about $300,000.

LM: $346,489.

EO: Okay. Thank you. (laughs) Thank you, Louis. To be spent over three years.

LM: [31:38] Yeah.

EO: Yeah. Which, actually, when you look at it—when you compare it with that previous one called “City”—was not really a huge amount of money. “City” used the same amount of money. Anyhow, based on David Hennington’s suggestions, I drew up a proposal—which went into NEH—for three years of activities that were Hispanic-oriented. The theme was looking at Houston’s Mexican-American community. One of the principle changes in this particular project—and what I was really so pleased with—was that I received permission from NEH to integrate children’s activities into this. Even though the kind of basic goals remained the same—to make sure that academic individuals or non-librarians became involved in it—I was able to get them to waffle on that so that we could present activities for children. I—

LM: Hispanic children or children in general?

EO: Well, children in general, but of course, on that theme. That was—if I look back at kind of the one big accomplishment—in some ways that was it, because—and now looking back at library system activities—this is my 17th year here—one gains a whole new appreciation for what it means to work with children. And somehow, I kind of intuitively knew it back then, but now, if I were given the chance to write a proposal like that, I would really insist upon a strong component of children’s activities. I don’t remember the exact dates—I remember I went off to Chicago for a meeting of project directors of learning library and learning museum activities, and the proposal that had been funded—which called for
36 months of Hispanic-themed activities—I was urged—strongly urged—instructed—it was highly recommended that the project’s theme be broadened. Terry Krieger said to me, “I can’t force you to do this. The money is yours whether you want it or not, but I—we—” was he speaking for NEH or for himself?—“don’t think that this project can work—that you can sustain it for
36 months if you don’t broaden it.”

LM: It didn’t come from the Houston Public Library administration.

EO: No, no, no.

LM: This was an outside—

EO: [34:55] Yeah, yeah. I was really confused by this. I understood what he was saying, and based on the kind of participation that we had had in programs under the grant called “City,” I had had the same misgivings that were we to present a program—it had never been our intention to present programs solely in neighborhoods that might be defined as principally Hispanic, but if—as I recall—that proposal had been intended to present activities on Hispanic themes throughout the system. I had real difficulty understanding how I was going to find people who would come up with 36 months of lectures on Hispanics in Houston that I could present at the Kendall branch—to use one example. It has always disturbed me that, unlike other cities in the United States, Houston has not been a city that scholars have devoted huge amounts of attention to, and so while it’s possible to pick up the phone and call up scholar X and say, “I just finished reading your book on Lithuanians in Chicago, and I’d love for you to present a program,” there’s no scholar out there who can talk about Lithuanians in Houston, although there are Lithuanians here. So I had some—in terms of how this would be done—some misgivings. And in a sense I felt relieved when I was advised—recommended—urged—to broaden it. I remember going to see David Hennington, and Hennington’s directions to me were, “Well, what do you want to do?” I’d also, at this point, I’d used Tom Kreneck—who’d been your assistant archivist—I’d used Tom’s help a whole lot in getting this initial proposal ready. Tom was very disappointed that I would not follow through on the 36—the original 36-month program.

LM: But this was not a change that you had made, as such. You had been instructed to change the course, hadn’t you?

EO: What verb does one use? High recommended? People who had more expertise than I did at presenting stuff like this said to me, “We don’t think this is going to work. We don’t think you can sustain this for 36 months. Your theme is too limited.” And I was—I was really confused by all that. Okay?

LM: So you ran into problems with Kreneck over this?

EO: I wouldn’t use that word. Tom was disappointed—

LM: Okay.

EO: —that I tried to shift the focus—broaden the focus.

LM: [38:08] From Hispanics to other areas.

EO: Right.

LM: Okay.

EO: What I ended up doing—with library permission—was preparing the proposal that looked at Houston’s minority communities. Had we—had we—if we possessed the jargon back then that we now use, it would have been a proposal looking at Houston’s marginalized communities. We broadened it to include blacks. Hispanics were still included—women. We didn’t talk about gays. We didn’t talk about Asians. But those three groups became our focus. And I really tried to make this a popular program. We—for example, when we presented a series of talks on women in Houston, and I found people—scholars, teachers—who were willing and able to either spend some time researching certain aspects of women in Houston or had already spent some time researching that.

We really tried to jazz it up by offering film programs. This was another one of my efforts to kind of even broaden and popularize what it meant by bringing in experts. I used Eric Gerber—who was the film critic at the Houston Post at the time—to help select films, to help prepare film guides—which were published and distributed to the audience, to—on several occasions—lead discussion after the films. I remember an acquaintance of mine from graduate school who was on the faculty at TSU—Antoinette Boecker—helped me with selecting women’s films and preparing reading notes and leading discussions. And as I recall, what we would then do—in this particular case of the film programs—we presented them here at Central, and I believe at least at one other branch—I think Jungman branch library. That was another change between the first proposal, “City,” and the third one. There was a much greater effort made to broaden the system participation. By this point, I’d been around for a while, I knew more people, I knew how Houston Public Library was set up, and it seemed to me that these were activities—some of these activities—could indeed work at other branch sites—at other library sites. There was no reason solely to offer them at Central Library. So we offered film programming at Jungman.

cue point

We—one example that comes to my mind—as I remember, we offered a lecture on the history of blacks in Houston at the Smith branch. I seem to recall that cases like that, we would just not offer—say that case, the talk on blacks in Houston—at a branch in a traditionally black neighborhood—I’m uncomfortable with that—and so I would make sure that we would offer it—as I recall—at least at one other neighborhood—one other neighborhood library that could not be defined as a black neighborhood. I didn’t want to make this kind of assumption, that if you’re black, you’d only be interested in a black program—or Hispanic or whatever—and so we would try to bring that program to what would be viewed as not a traditional black neighborhood. That was a part of the goal of integrating academics into this program. It was a way of getting libraries—this library—Houston Public Library—to present a certain kind of activity that the public didn’t perhaps—had not always viewed us as presenting. And I kind of—we—in this period, we were following on some of what we had learned from the project, “City.” I felt that “City” had not done enough to document Houston—this kind of humorous example I used earlier of who in the city would one call on to talk about Lithuanians in the city—I didn’t feel that we had documented Houston enough. And so one of the things I really wanted to do was to create some original material, and we did that in a variety of ways. Paul Hester—who had worked on the project on signage in the city—was contracted. Paul’s a photographer. Paul was contracted to work on a project on—

LM: [43:48] Paul Hester.

EO: Paul Hester—on Spanish-themed architecture in the city. And this is one of those examples, I think, of—we pulled together a really great package because Peter Papademetriou—who had been on the architecture faculty at Rice—and Paul worked on selecting sites that should be documented. NEH allowed us to purchase the photographs as long as we didn’t call them photographs but call them, I think, archival material.

LM: (laughs)

EO: But again, I wanted stuff to be left for Houston Public Library.

LM: Mm-hmm. (affirmative)

EO: And so what we did with Paul—I don’t know—50 photographs—60 photographs are now in HMRC’s holdings. We produced a booklet, which was distributed system-wide—free to Houston Public Library patrons.

LM: What was that called?

EO: [44:43] Oh, that booklet was called Arquitectónica: Spanish Style Architecture in Houston. We offered a series of three lectures on understanding Spanish architecture—Spanish-styled architecture. And then we offered the bus tour in which people made reservations—I think we offered six of these—and basically the base tour took people by many of the same buildings that were pictured in the architecture booklet. I don’t know—I might have lost count—is this five different—in a sense—activities all clustered together. We’ve got the booklet—oh, we displayed the photographs at Central Library during the same period that the booklet was available—so we’ve got the booklet, we’ve got the display, we’ve got the series of talks, we’ve got the bus tour—four activities going on. And that’s what I tried to do—to come up with themes like that that would lend themselves to somehow being presented in more than just one format.

We did this with another publication on cemeteries in Houston. Douglas Milburn—who had been a faculty member at Rice, but was at this point a freelance writer or—had done some writing on—kind of—tour guides to the city. Doug and Paul Hester were contracted again to do a project on Houston cemeteries. And this became a really kind of neat opportunity to document black cemeteries, Hispanic cemeteries, and—I guess—Anglo cemeteries. Again, we issued a booklet. We had a display of the photographs. Milburn lectured here, and then we also offered bus tours. And I look upon that as a really successful package—a group of activities that were all linked. Again, the photographs that Hester took were purchased with NEH money and donated to HMRC—or acquired by HMRC—whatever verb should be used.

All this stuff did not have problems. There were groups in the city who were very distressed because a lot of the funding, which had been initially earmarked for—towards developing Hispanic archives—collecting Hispanic materials—the papers of Houston’s Mexican-Americans—that component of the project was downplayed. Why was that downplayed? I didn’t view that as a very public activity. I came to realize that our funding source was calling for public programs, and I didn’t see the acquiring of papers—the kind of activity that HMRC does—as fitting the definition of NEH’s public programs. This—the section of NEH that this came from was called the Public Programs section. So what happened—as I recall—is Tom Kreneck, whose special area of interest was Mexican-American materials in Houston, was distressed—was disappointed—was angered—found individuals who were themselves disappointed—distressed—angered—and felt that I had mishandled this project.

LM: [48:49] In this Mexican-American community?

EO: Yeah. Yeah.

LM: Let me—before we get into that, let me just ask you this as background—when you made this shift, did you get approval? Was it approved by the administration?

EO: It had to have been. Yeah.

cue point

LM: When I say “administration,” for anybody listening, I’m talking about the library administration.

EO: Yeah, yeah ,yeah. I never got anything in—did I ever get—I don’t know if I ever got anything in paper. I’m sure another proposal ended up getting submitted to NEH, and I know that my signature was not the only signature that went on these.

LM: Yeah. Okay.

EO: So if approval is finally “what is the highest signature you can get,” I know my signature was never the highest signature. I was a librarian II.

LM: (laughs)

EO: That’s not terribly high here in the Houston Public Library hierarchy. It became really uncomfortable. I—there were individuals—both on staff of Houston Public Library and individuals in the community who, however, had remained really committed to the original proposal idea—which included a really strong component to acquire Hispanic materials for the archives and to focus solely on Hispanic activities—and the library system felt it was best that I be removed from being project director. And I don’t remember the exact dates—I think probably two years of the project had passed, and I switched positions with an individual in the social sciences department—a woman named Mary Vela-Creixell became project director, and I became a reference librarian in the social sciences department. I guess that the project lasted perhaps about another 12 months—12, 13, 15 months after that. I think, again, the same thing happened—the Houston Public Library had problems spending the money as rapidly as NEH thought we should have spent the money, so I’m pretty sure that the project lasted more than 36 months. I don’t have a very firm grasp of what activities were conducted in that remaining period.

LM: [51:37] A couple of questions—before the shift or before this conflict that you described occurred, what kind of reaction were you getting from the various communities? For example, were you getting strong support from the Hispanic community? Were you getting strong support from the black community for the project?

EO: How does one describe support?

LM: Interest—(speaking at same time)

EO: (speaking at same time) I remember, for example—as I said much earlier—one of the things I was most pleased with was that we did strong—a strong component of children’s activities, and I remember presenting children’s programs at Cliff Tuttle branch—which the neighborhood is heavily Hispanic—and we were very successful with pulling in children to those programs. I remember what we did—

LM: Ethnic children.

EO: Yeah, yeah. They were Hispanic kids. We did a little thing on—we had a puppet show. We actually pulled together this little kit in which the kids themselves got the kind of puppets, so they were able—as the puppet show was presented—the kids had already had a chance to color the puppet, and they could kind of act the puppet show along with the puppet show that was being presented, and it was based on a Mexican legend. Anyway, that activity we took around to about three or four places. We did some children’s stuff on traditional Mexican crafts. I remember we did a program (laughs)—we taught kids how to make Mexican food. (laughs) That was really strange—fun. So your question of success is—we got lots of kids to come to those things. I don’t think at that particular time—we’re now talking 1980, perhaps—I don’t think the people who wanted to see this project returned to its original format cared one bit whether we were attracting Hispanic kids to Hispanic-themed puppet shows. Okay? I don’t think they cared one bit about that.

LM: Okay. Another aspect of interest that I’m asking you about here is from the community leadership in those ethnic groups, and the reason why I’m asking you this is because you described this conflict that occurred—

EO: Mm-hmm. (affirmative)

LM: [54:28] —and apparently, at that point, there was something aroused in—

EO: Yeah, I tried to—

LM: —the ethnic groups—the Hispanics, at any rate.

EO: But—I’m trying to remember if NEH guidelines required that we do this or if, in an effort to ruffle feathers, Houston Public Library did this—but a committee was organized of not just scholars—people many of whom had academic ties, but they weren’t just academicians. I can remember Richard Vara, who was a columnist at the Post, then moved to the Chronicle. He was on this committee. Tatcho Mindiola—who still is in the sociology department at the U of H. Felix Fraga, who is now on DHISD board. There were several black people who served on this group. And what they helped me do was come up with project ideas. Several individuals—I remember Tom Kreneck was—if I remember correctly—was very good friends with Tatcho Mindiola —and Tatcho always kept the heat on. Felix Fraga, on the other hand, seemed much more easy going. So there was this group—

LM: It sounds as if this group had been—oh, I suppose it’s sort of like sticking a stick in a hornet’s nest. That’s how their interest was stimulated?

EO: Yeah. If I remember, the group was not there first. The group was created to, as I said, ruf—to smooth feathers—did I say ruffle feathers?—to smooth feathers. If I had a problem, it was that I’m not from this city—not that a person needs to be from the city to do something like this—but that I didn’t have anyone kind of taking me by the hands saying these are people who need to do this—that these are—this is person X, and person X needs to do such-and-such—should be doing such-and-such. Person X can get you into so-and-so. Were I to do this all over again now, I would look for that person who could—or persons—who could help me figure out which individual can help in this particular way.

In a sense, one of the real problems that I think that we always face was attracting individuals—attracting the public—library users—to these activities. What I discovered was the jazzier I could make something, the more successful it would be. If I offer the bus tour of Houston’s Hispanic or Spanish-themed architecture, we could fill up six buses in no time, but if offered the lecture on the origins of Spanish revival architecture, 15 people would come, and it wasn’t a matter of where we offered that lecture. Given the chance now, I might never do something like this again because presuming that there indeed—that it indeed might be possible to design an activity that could appeal to this whole city, I don’t think that’s true. I don’t think a series of talks that might interest people where I live in the near east side would be interesting to people who live in the far west side. In a sense, the kind of goals of not just what Houston Public Library offered in this, but perhaps the goals of the learning library project itself were unrealizable.

cue point

LM: [59:12] From what I’ve understood now, when there was this pressure brought to bear—and I imagine the pressure was brought to bear on the library administration—

EO: Yeah, yeah.

LM: —from these outside sources—a decision was made for you to relinquish what you had been doing.

EO: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm. (affirmative) Yeah.

LM: And a Hispanic—I remember her, as a matter of fact—

EO: Mary Vela-Creixell.

LM: She was placed in control of remained of the project.

EO: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm. (affirmative)

LM: Okay.

EO: And a sizable amount of money remained. I spent money very wisely or carefully or tightly (laughs) so it’s not as if though she was given nothing to do but
15 months to do it in. There was a lot of money left. So we’re not talking about just sort of casting something at someone that had no significance. It was still meaningful.

LM: Did you follow the progress of the grant after your departure?

EO: As I recall, it became very academic. In a sense, what excited me about both of these—when I say both—“City” and the learning library project—is—my politics are very populist. My family trained me to be very politically correct. I have a great distrust from academicians. And I saw the project taking on the direction that politically I wasn’t comfortable with—and I know we also talk about public libraries as being political institutions—

LM: Yeah, they are.

EO: —but, I saw this shifting into a kind of an academic program that I was glad I wasn’t directing, and it had nothing to do with the people in it. It had to do with my feeling that it was an inappropriate program for a public library—that it wasn’t public—and so I chose not to pay much attention to it. I felt that, if anything, I had pulled together program—

[1:01:31]

LM: Side three. Continuing interview.

EO: Program—I had pulled together programs, which—if nothing else—were popular—appealed to a wide audience. There were people dying to get on those buses (laughs) to see Houston cemeteries. Oh, God, that was a terrible pun. I didn’t really—didn’t intend to say that. There were people who truly were clamoring for the publications. I remember I did a publication—I’ve got it here—a woman named Patricia Lacy Collins—who—

LM: Yeah, good piece.

EO: —used to volunteer at the Heritage Society—and, again, this is an example of my trying to take that notion of a consultant and broaden it because Pat did not have an academic connection. In fact, what she knew—she did volunteer work at the Heritage Society on their costume collection—basically, what she knew about costumes she’d either learned there or she’d taught herself. I don’t think this was her training and yet she was extremely knowledgeable. And what we pulled together was a publication called Status and Style that looked at one century of how Houstonians dressed. Pat helped us organize a really lovely exhibition, and we did some talks. And in a sense, the exhibition and the publication are two that I was really proud of because what we did was we demonstrated the kind of the continuities—the connections—that linked Anglos and blacks and Hispanics in this city. You were able to demonstrate—sort of—fashion from period X with an image of blacks—it could have been illustrated with a photograph of white people—that the clothes being worn were identical. And in a sense, that publication—that exhibition—summarized what had been—in a sense—my thrust to show connections—

LM: Mm-hmm. (affirmative)

EO: —not to look at separate groups—to show the kind of integrated quality of these three groups in the city.

LM: [02:42] Just for your own knowledge—by the way—we are thinking, in fact, we’ve approached—what’s her name again?—Pat?

EO: Pat Collins.

LM: Yeah—to do a revised edition of that for a photo essay for the Houston Review.

EO: Oh, really?

LM: Yeah—

EO: Oh, good.

LM: —because I thought, it had a lot of merit.

EO: Oh, good.

LM: I found it—I found that pamphlet quite by accident as I was going through my own things, and I thought with some revision it would fit nicely as a photo essay in the Houston Review.

EO: Oh, good. You know, the nice thing about this is—one of the things we haven’t talked about is that the NEH gave us money to be spent on printing. In terms of visibility—in terms of the library’s profile—the library’s image—we had money to hire—on a freelance basis—designers, to go to really first-class printers, and so library publications, which had always been really sub-serviceable—bibliographies, whatever—but never had a kind of snap or sparkle to them—started to look really great. There was a real kind of unique feel and look and quality to these publications. And it had nothing to do with my skills or my talents. It had to do with the fact that we were getting a lot of money. If anyone gets a lot of money, you can make your print material look great. If you have
$50 to print a bibliography as opposed to $5,000, your bibliography will look like a $50 bibliography.

LM: That’s true.

EO: And—but there was this four or five year period of time when Houston Public Library publications were looking really handsome, and the only thing NEH asked us to do was make sure that the name NEH went somewhere on the publication so the public would know this came with—was paid for federally.

LM: [04:48] In sort of an overview of this project, do you see it as a—and I don’t want to put words in your mouth—and knowing you, I know you won’t let me anyway.

EO: (laughs)

LM: (laughs) But, was it sort of a product of the times when people were becoming more conscious of—at least in Houston—of cultural diversity—ethnic diversity?

EO: You know, earlier—did I—earlier—

LM: You alluded to something close to that.

EO: I used the phrase “marginalized.” You know, it didn’t cross my mind until I actually came in and sat here and started talking to you that that’s what we were doing. On one level, Houstonians have manifested a fascination with their fellow citizens who aren’t of the same ethnic background. Houstonians love to eat in Mexican restaurants. Would an Anglo Houstonian choose to live in a Hispanic neighborhood? is another question. It’s one thing to visit, but it’s another place to dwell. My whole sort of orientation is urban—not suburban, not rural—and so I find the very question of “What does it mean to live in a city?” and then specifically the question of “What does it mean to live in this city?” I find those very interesting questions. I’d like to think that there are at least 50 other Houstonians out there who find those questions interesting. And as a said earlier, Houston is a city that people just haven’t studied. It seems to me that Houston is as fascinating as Chicago, and yet you can’t find the same number of books on this city, and so on some level, what I wanted to do was kick people in the pants, and say, “Start studying this city”—find certain scholars who needed certain projects to work on and say, “Maybe this is a project for you to look at.”

cue point

LM: Are there any areas that we haven’t talked about related to these projects that you’d like to bring up?

EO: Oh, there are specifics—little activities that I don’t remember concretely or— I remember, for example, with, I think, the “City” project, one of the things we did—and this is the very end also when I mentioned integrating children’s activities—when it was clear we weren’t spending our money fast enough (laughs) and we were going to lose it, so I had to find ways to spend the money, we ended up getting permission to increase—to add—children’s stuff to that first project—“City”—and I remember that we bought really cheap Kodak cameras, and we did a project—I remember we did this at Cliff Tuttle, and I don’t know where else—but we tried to get kids to learn what does it mean to look at their city. Because putting yourself behind a camera does something. It forces—no matter how old you are—that framing activity does indeed force you to view your surroundings differently from the way you view it without the camera. And I recently used that experience in a review I wrote for Spot magazine. I was asked to review a book of photographs taken by children—homeless children—in a project conducted in Washington D.C., and I had forgotten about what Houston Public Library had done 12 years ago. And looking at the book on homeless children reminded me of how we tried to get kids—in a sense—to do the same thing—not look at their homelessness—that wasn’t the question—it was what makes your neighborhood special. And the assignments were real simple. We gave kids these cameras, and we said, “We want you to go out and take pictures of things in your neighborhood that are really special.”

[09:33] I remember being really struck by the fact that as an adult, I frequently try to censor out stuff, and driving around the city, I try not to look at the abandoned cars but to look at what that neighborhood would look like without the abandoned cars and to kind of imagine my neighborhood cleaned up. And I was struck by the number of kids coming back with pictures of abandoned cars, and in discussing with these kids these photographs, what became clear was that these were not eyesores to these kids. These kids were playing with these cars. These were things these kids enjoyed. And it allowed me—and I hope the other people who kind of—this is a case where we displayed—

[10:27]