Notes on the Harvey Hess Collection

Having worked for over thirty-five years in the Access Services Department of the Rod Library, I was excited when, in the spring semester of 2014, I was offered the opportunity to move part-time to Special Collections. 

My first assignment was to organize and catalog the papers of Harvey Hess, a former English and Humanities instructor at the University of Northern Iowa and at Hawkeye Community College.  After Mr. Hess died in July 2012, his family donated his papers to the Rod Library Special Collections.  

I was acquainted with Mr. Hess in his capacity as a library patron—I kept an additional library card for him in my office, as he inevitably forgot to bring one when he wanted to check out books—but  I was unaware of the depths of his interests, scholarship, and talents.  He was a writer, musician, theologian, philosopher, educator, and cultivator of the arts.

His papers presented a challenge, as they arrived in quite a disordered state and filled many large boxes.  But the process was also fascinating.  First, by its very nature I was drawn to the work, since it was so completely different than anything I do in Access Services.  Also, as a writer and composer myself, his creative work had a special attraction to me.  Finally, and perhaps most importantly, there’s something humbling about reading a man’s life in his own words, coming to know him after his death in a way I never did while he lived.   

Despite the pleasant aspects, the task was not an easy one.  Even deciding where to start was difficult.  Mr. Hess would scribble on any scrap of paper he had on hand, creating thousands of pages of unsorted material of various sizes, shapes, and conditions, all of which had to be put into order.  Among his work were poetry, entertainment previews and reviews, operatic librettos and musical scores, essays, official biographical documents, newspaper articles written about him, and personal possessions, as well as fifty years’ worth of journals and correspondence. 

I began by rough sorting each of the boxes according to genre and type of material and placing each genre into a separate folder.  All of the poetry would go in one folder, the reviews in another, the essays in another, and so on.  I then collected the folders from each box, one genre at a time, and began a second round of rough sorting.  For example, once I had the poetry folders from every box, I separated the poems with titles from the ones without titles, and separated them both from the haiku.  Then came the exact sorting.  Since very little of Mr. Hess’s poetry is dated, most of it is filed alphabetically by either title or, if untitled, by first line.  However, I made no attempt to inventory the haiku.  Because of their short, untitled poetic form, often with ten or more poems to the page (and many hundreds overall), it was impractical to attempt to make a systemic list.

Mr. Hess also wrote several poetic series; that is, a group of related poems under one umbrella title.  These were arranged alphabetically according to the umbrella title, and within each series, by the titles of the individual poems in the order Mr. Hess assigned to them. 

I cataloged his correspondence next.  The correspondence included not only letters (and later emails) written by, to, and about Mr. Hess, but also correspondence not addressed to him that was written by, to, and about his long-time friend and collaborator, Jerré Tanner.  Finally, Mr. Hess had in his possession a number of miscellaneous letters that were written by others but not addressed to either him or Mr. Tanner.  Arranging the correspondence proved rather straightforward—letters with dates were listed chronologically and those without dates alphabetically by either the name of the sender or the recipient.  The dates of the correspondence range from 1922, from an unknown writer to an unknown recipient (and an uncertain connection to the Hess family), through June 2012.  The contents of the letters have not been inventoried.

In addition to his own literary efforts, Mr. Hess also previewed and reviewed the musical, theatrical, and artistic works of others as a critic for newspapers in three states:  Hawaii, Washington, and Iowa.  Most of these articles arrived in the Archives as newspaper clippings.  These were sorted first by state, and then, within each state, chronologically by date of publication.  Since newspapers are unwieldy and deteriorate rapidly, the clippings needed to be photocopied.  Many thanks to Joy Lynn and the student employees in Special Collections for completing that task!  Once photocopied, these items were relatively simple to arrange and inventory.  The titles of the articles are cataloged but, as with his correspondence, the contents are not.

Next I tackled Mr. Hess’s journals, which began in 1960 and continued through July 12, 2012, just six days before his death.  Approximately half of them were undated.  My method of determining dates is detailed on the link to his journals on main collection webpage. 

Along with the journals, the collection contained many personal documents: report cards, diplomas, awards, photographs, and dozens of newspaper articles about him.  Most of this material was dated and not difficult to catalog.

I then proceeded step-by-step through the remaining genres, arranging each chronologically or alphabetically as appropriate.  The work definitely got easier as the pile of folders in each box shrank! 

As with any collection, there were several items that either fit into more than one category, or into none at all.  For instance, an essay written about a performer might as easily have been considered a review.  In cases like this, I generally made my best guess, although sometimes I had more than one copy and was able to file them in multiple categories.  Those orphan pieces that didn’t seem to fit anywhere else found their way into Box 13, miscellaneous items.

Musical scores and librettos were the last items I cataloged.  Mr. Hess was a performing musician who played flute with the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Symphony Orchestra.  Although he did not consider himself a gifted composer, he did try his hand at it.  However, none of the music manuscripts in his possession specifically lists him as composer.  Some indicate no composer at all and some indicate Jerré Tanner.  It’s possible, perhaps likely, that all of the scores among his papers were written by Mr. Tanner.  And what magnificent music it is!  The melodies are wonderful, the orchestrations exquisite.  Mr. Hess’s lyrics are a perfect match for Mr. Tanner’s music, and vice versa.  Their comic opera Ka Lei No Kane (The Garland of the God Kane), based on an old Hawaiian legend, was the first of its kind ever written.  It has been performed and recorded internationally, as have several other of their collaborations.  In addition, Mr. Tanner’s score for Boy with Goldfish was called by one critic “some of the most beautiful music written in this century.”  Although Mr. Hess was not the librettist for Boy with Goldfish, material about it was among his papers, and has been retained in his collection.

Once all the genres were cataloged separately, there was the matter of deciding how to arrange them within the collection.  I thought it appropriate to place his most personal work first, his journals, followed by biographical documents and correspondence.  After that I went with his literary creations: prose, poetry, and music, and finally the miscellaneous pieces. Thus, the order of the Hess collection is: journals (Boxes 1-4); personal documents (Box 4); correspondence (Boxes 5-6); prose works (Box 7); individual poetry (Boxes 7-8); poetry series (Box 9); individual songs, operas, cantatas, and song cycles (Box 10); oversized  musical scores (Boxes 11-12); and miscellaneous personal items (Box 13).

Here, then, is the collection of Harvey Hess’s papers.  He was a scholar and an all-around Renaissance man, and cataloging his work has been a rewarding new experience for me.  I’m glad I finally got to know him better, even it did come two years after his death.

Since I’m not an archivist by trade, special thanks go to Gerald Peterson for lending me his expertise and guidance during what at times seemed an overwhelming project.​


Essay by Library Associate David Hoing, October 2014; last updated, October 22, 2014 (GP).