FHA Underwriting Manual

This summer I was reading Louis Hyman’s Debtor Nation when I came across a surprising reference to the FHA Underwriting Manual developed in the 1930s advising mortgage lenders that college campuses were an excellent buffer for good neighborhoods against infiltration by lower class and racially diverse residents, so the presence nearby was a good factor in the security rating system (the “redlining” maps). I had never thought to look at the Underwriting Manual and so immediately tried to find one on the web. Being that it was a government-produced document I was also surprised to find that it was difficult to find one on the web. Google Books has only digitized a 1958 version of the manual and will only make it available in their Snippet View. This was aggravating. I went to HathiTrust and found a scanned document there I could look at, but it was in terrible shape.

This spurred me to action. I have always been very happy to find an easily accessible text/HTML version of the Port Huron Statement right here for the last 10 years or so, and I figured the historians of the world could use the same for the underwriting manual. As an assignment in my undergrad Digital History course I had students clean up the OCR’ed pdfs of the manual, then use an HTML editor to make the Web version look more or less like the book, but without the artifacts of the printed book, like page headers or forced text wrap.

Feel free to read or link or download the April 1936 version of the underwriting manual here.

An increasing number of historians are creating or accumulating digital archives and sources as part of their research. I think it’s incumbent on us to put all the stuff we can out on the web — the public domain stuff is a no-brainer and I think a good bit can be shared under fair use (e.g. with some interpretation). You don’t have to make a wiz-bang site to make materials available (though I recommend just about everyone develop their own professional/personal site). Maybe just a simple Omeka installation can do the trick.

What Has Been Lost

I read Jonathan Rees’ blog pretty regularly, as I think he is a fairly astute critic of the way that educational technology is often deployed and its labor implications in the academy. Here he really nails the issue of knowledge loss with the introduction of new technology.

Don’t you think it’s funny that in all this talk about progress, nobody in the edtech world wants to think about what is getting lost? Maybe we can we keep a “seed” bank somewhere so that we can revive perfectly good education ideas after they go extinct, the same way that those hover-chair people in WALL-E learned how to walk again.

It’s quite normal that some knowledge, skill, or information is replaced by technology. This happens all the time. Nobody but an amateur film enthusiast knows what’s in D-76 film developer or even how to develop a roll of black and white film. Heck, now that there is an iPhone app with the Massive Development Chart, I don’t really need to remember what the dilution or times for developer/fixer/wash/hypo-clear are for Ilford HP5+. It’s in the database, so I touch the screen and it tells me.

However, though this is a normal process, I do find it somewhat surprising that there is not much of a reckoning of this in higher education, which seems to me it should take very seriously the issues of the creation, endurance and preservation of bodies of knowledge. This is a pressing matter to me as I am slated to teach an undergrad course in historical methods this semester and I taught two “how to be a historian” intermediate seminars last year. For example, though there are tools like Zotero and EndNote that will dump in your citations in the right format into your paper, you have to recognize what the right format is — and you have to write/type them out yourself several times to solidify that body of knowledge — many more times than you might think. Another skill would be knowing the basics of the Library of Congress classification system — if students don’t have to navigate it because they get all their readings from the web, they really won’t know how to use a library (the book part) when they need to.