It’s called the Herdbook because…???

Photo illustration by Sondra Cue.

The University of Iowa Student, Faculty, and Staff Directory has compiled contact information for UI students, faculty, and staff since at least January 1911. This valuable resource, now available in print and online, has one drawback: an extremely long name. One can understand why a nickname was in order.

So at some point, the directory became known as…the Herdbook.

The Herdbook?


This intrepid reporter posed that very question during a harrowing journey across campus and back in time.

First stop: the Herdbook’s overseer
Belinda Marner, assistant vice president of student life, oversees the publication of the printed directory, a responsibility she’s held for a number of years. What can she tell us about the Herdbook’s handle?

“I had always heard that ‘herd’ was just in reference to a group of people,” Marner says. “I don’t think there were any conscious conversations about it. I’ve been here 37 years and I’ve been working with the Herdbook for a long time, but I really don’t know.”

Hmmm…makes sense, but I’m still not completely satisfied.

Does the archivist have the answer?
Special Collections and University Archives has no shortage of source material for my search: an online collection of Hawkeye yearbooks, and every Daily Iowan newspaper from the first year of publication in 1868 to late last year. The collection also has a complete set of Herdbooks, dating from 1911.

University Archivist David McCartney did some digging for me in the UI Libraries collection.

“The earliest reference I could find to this term in the Daily Iowan is in the March 17, 1961, edition, as an item in the Flotsam and Jetsam column on the editorial page,” McCartney says.

In that particular edition, columnist Judy Klemesrud wrote “Ode to the Herd Book” in response to a student writing in as “I. Rate” (a precursor to the anonymous Internet comment, no?), who was frustrated with being listed with an incorrect classification in the directory.

(Click here to see the newspaper page; scroll to Page 2.)

Editor’s note: That same issue of the Daily Iowan featured a story across the top of Page 1 that provided a leprechaun’s-eye view of St. Patrick’s Day. Do read it.

A search through the old Hawkeye yearbooks finds the earliest reference to the Herdbook on Page 127 of the 1955 annual. The editorial staff rehashed for its readers a year of working on the yearbook. In April, “…editor Ellie Douglass memorized the Herdbook.”

(Click here for the yearbook scan; select Page 127 from the left column.)

“So we know the term has been around for at least 57 years, but how it came into being or precisely when the practice of calling it the Herdbook started is still an open question,” McCartney says.

OK. Strike two.

Let’s ask a longtime leader
If University Archives can’t give us an answer, maybe I need to talk to someone who’s been around for a while. Someone with extensive and intimate knowledge of the university.

Someone who, let’s say, joined the College of Law faculty in 1954, served as university president from 1969 to 1981 (and interim president in 2002-2003), and still teaches on campus.

That’s right—President Emeritus Willard “Sandy” Boyd.

“The ‘herd’ book has been the name for many years—I do not know how it came to be so,” Boyd says.

“I have never liked the term so I have always referred to it as the university directory.”

Darn. Tracking down this information is like corralling an unruly herd of cattle.

A query with the Department of Linguistics led to a plausible explanation:

“My assumption has been that the name comes from the fact that it’s an accounting of the entire ‘herd’ at the UI,” says William Davies, professor and chair of linguistics in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

Carol Hunsicker, a retired academic advisor who worked in the Academic Advising Center for 26 years, also has a credible guess:

“Presumably a herd book is what a farmer keeps with records of his or her cattle—date of birth, date of acquisition, gallons of milk each month or year. Nowadays, it’s probably a database. The UI Herdbook isn’t quite so detailed, but the joke persists.”

Any other detectives on campus?
After all of my conversations across campus, I was starting to grow desperate. There has to be someone on campus who knows the origin of the name, right?

My search led me to Jason Wolcott, an IT support analyst in Information Technology Services. Turns out, I’m not the first person to ask Wolcott for this information.

Wolcott has worked with ITS since 1987 and says the staff gets all sorts of non-IT-related questions, including “Why is the directory called the Herdbook?”

“I first came to the University of Iowa in 1982 and I’ve never met anybody who could definitively tell me why it’s called the Herdbook,” Wolcott says.

So this past fall, Wolcott decided to find out.

He talked to older colleagues, university retirees, and people who attended the university. He Googled up a storm. He found old references to a few kinds of herdbook on Iowa State University’s website and scans of agricultural herdbooks on Google Books. He even read a book on the history of the phone book to see if it held any clues. Wolcott compiled all of his research on a reference page on the ITS knowledge management system.

Later, he talked with a friend who attended the University of Colorado and discovered they also call their directory a herdbook.

“She always assumed it was because their mascot was a buffalo. A buffalo herd would make sense, but Hawks don’t usually travel in herds,” Wolcott says.

So, after all that research, what’s Wolcott’s final answer?

“I would assume that in the Midwest and places with an agricultural background, people were familiar with what a cattle herd book was and jokingly referred to their telephone book in the same way. But can I prove it? Nope. It’s all circumstantial.”

So while there certainly are a lot of possible explanations, perhaps the origins of the Herdbook moniker will never be known. It’s time to put this quest out to pasture.