UTEP Encyclopedia Writes the Book on University History

Last Updated on May 9, 2014 at 1:11 pm

By Lisa Y. Garibay

UTEP News Service

Did UTEP hire the first Hispanic teacher in The University of Texas System? Was Coca-Cola or Pepsi the official beverage of UTEP? Who was one of the earliest advocates for the creation of a school of mines in El Paso?

The UTEP Encyclopedia — an online archive of school facts born out of the Centennial Celebration — can answer all of these questions and other inquiries related to UTEP’s history.

“We started this project because in order to truly celebrate UTEP’s history, we had to know about it,” said Keith Erekson, Ph.D., executive director of the Centennial Celebration and editor of the encyclopedia atencyclopedia.utep.edu. “This will be one of the most enduring legacies of our Centennial Celebration.”

UTEP Encyclopedia Managing Editor P.J. Vierra shows the UTEP Encyclopedia on two different screens. Photo by J.R. Hernandez / UTEP News Service

UTEP Encyclopedia Managing Editor P.J. Vierra shows the UTEP Encyclopedia on two different screens. Photo by J.R. Hernandez / UTEP News Service

As one of the first projects Erekson started when he accepted his position with the Centennial Office, the encyclopedia needed a few months for its MediaWiki software to be cleared and set up by UTEP’s IT department. By fall 2012, the technology infrastructure was in place, and just a few months later, rhetoric and composition doctoral student P.J. Vierra signed on as an intern.

Vierra’s work grew into a paid position, which dovetailed into his doctoral dissertation.

“I’m interested in the way institutions remember themselves,” Vierra, who is also credited as the encyclopedia’s managing editor, explained. “This project fit perfectly.”

Other members of the encyclopedia’s initial team included Ashley Swarthout, who graduated in May 2013 with her master’s degree in teaching English, and researcher Nancy Moya. The two researched and wrote the foundational hundred or so articles on the history of every building and UTEP president.

Vierra refined the encyclopedia’s layout and search engine optimization — which helps point visitors to the site based on search terms entered into search engines such as Google and Yahoo — while continuing to investigate the University’s history. By visiting the UT archives in Austin and digging deeper into information that has always been taken as fact, his research cleared up erroneous narratives. Following a footnote or off-hand mention, Vierra often uncovers important pieces of information, like the fact that UTEP’s first dean, Steve Worrell, went by Steve and not Steven as was often presumed.

Through data kept by UTEP’s Center for Institutional Evaluation, Research and Planning (CIERP), Erekson and his team are kept up-to-date on University facts.

“But there’s so much more than facts,” Erekson said, referring to the narratives fleshing out each entry in the encyclopedia.

The encyclopedia’s main sections are Athletics, Departments and Programs (which includes those no longer offered), Facts, History, Heritage (traditions such as songs, school colors and alligators left in offices), People (administration, students, alumni, faculty and staff), Places (including all historical, current or forthcoming structures), and Timeline.

A “This Day in History” box on the home page lets visitors know what occurred in UTEP history on the day they are visiting the encyclopedia. It’s one of the most popular sections, sparking memories for those who may have been part of a particular milestone at the University (implementation of registration by telephone in 1989, for example) and giving younger visitors more to appreciate about the University’s history.

In order to maintain top quality and ensure scholastic transparency, every article is vetted with a “trust but verify” motto. While anyone can contribute articles to the encyclopedia, Vierra edits the submissions for style and verifies the bibliographic information and references. Then, the article is sent to an editorial board, and if accepted, the author receives a byline.

The encyclopedia launched a new era of better self-documentation for UTEP. Vierra explained that the University has not always been the primary keeper of its history in its first 100 years. After a devastating fire destroyed the original campus in 1916, UTEP sent information off to Austin without archiving a backup copy on its own campus.

Vierra is encouraged by UTEP’s examination of its processes for archiving what is being produced now — from brochures to research papers to emails — so future researchers will be able to conduct the type of work that is contributing to the UTEP Encyclopedia.

Conducting this research has also had the side benefit of digitizing much of the older documentation for continued preservation and use. Widespread use of carbon paper in the first half of the 20th century means many documents have faded considerably. Scanning and digitally enhancing those pieces of history is paramount since these artifacts hold importance to scholars both within and outside of UTEP.

The goal is for the encyclopedia to continue growing well beyond the Centennial year. “We want it to outlive us asthe destination for the history of UTEP and to be an active teaching tool,” said Vierra, who has already incorporated it into his first-year composition classroom and hopes other instructors will do the same.

The encyclopedia’s viewership is growing, too. Google Analytics helps the editorial team track how readers from all parts of the world are learning more about UTEP through broad search terms like “men’s basketball” or global projects in which the University is engaging, such as UTEP’s academic and research partnership with Japan’s Kyushu Institute of Technology (Kyutech).

“My favorite story is from when UTEP signed that partnership agreement,” Erekson recalled. “P.J. came in the next morning and said, ‘Look at this – our hits are off the chart from Tokyo!’”

While the encyclopedia is informing on a global scale, it also reinforces UTEP’s distinctiveness within the United States. Of all of the mining schools founded before UTEP, the University is the only one to transform into a four-year university. Preserving the stories behind the transformation is relevant not just to the UTEP community, but also to the history of institutions, scholarship, politics, education and society both in this country and around the world.

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