In November of 2011, The Library as Incubator Project went on their first IncubaTOUR of the University of Wisconsin Archives, a vast collection of images, films, sound recordings, and documents housed in Steenbock Memorial Library on the University of Wisconsin Campus.  Vicki Tobias, the Images and Media Archivist at UW Archives, gave us a tour of the collections and revealed how the archives preserves UW campus history and how the collections tell the story of the Wisconsin experience.

The UW Archives on the 4th floor Steenbock Library.

The UW archives has a long history, and was originally housed in the Wisconsin Historical Society  before being incorporated into Memorial Library when it was built in the early 1950s; today the University Archives is housed on the fourth floor and in the basement of Steenbock Memorial Library, and has lived there for three years.

Though the Wisconsin Historical Society and UW Archives separated half a century ago, there is still some crossover among the collections:  The WHS  archives some materials associated with the University when they relate to Wisconsin history.  The UW Archives focuses on archiving materials that chronicle the history of campus  life in Madison, and more recently, at UW System institutions as well.

Collecting comprehensive documentation of campus history is an incredible job, one the Archives must rely on donations in order to do.  Much of the collection has been donated to the archives in large accessions that the archivists on staff preserve and organize.  Most archives will leave such donations in their original order, but the UW Archives will often re-arrange items from a single accession or split it among various collections in order to preserve a record of objects and documents in a way that tells a cohesive story.

Telling the story of the University can be a daunting job when you consider the impact of digital information on an institution whose mission it is to preserve such ephemera.  Tweets, Blogs, e-mails, and Tumblr feeds are the modern equivalent of letters, postcards, playbills, and other ephemera about campus events that the UW Archives collects, a fact that prompts an interesting question from Vicki:

One hundred years from now, what will we use to tell today’s story?  Blogs and Twitter feeds might seem like ephemera, but they tell a story and we need to think about how they can be preserved.

At the UW Archives, you’ll find:

  • Comprehensive ready reference materials, including the entire run of Badger Yearbooks dating back to the 1880s, Commencement programs,  and full runs of the Daily Cardinal and the Badger Herald
  • An incredible wealth of photographs donated over the last 100 years, including boxes of negatives produced by university photographers and keepsake Photo Books, some of which have been digitized by UW Digital Collections.  A very rough estimate of the Archives’ image collection is 2.5 million images.
  • 3,500 unique films, including silent promotional film from 1929 about a Depression-era boy who visits the Madison campus (which can be viewed on the UW Archives YouTube channel.)
  • Sound recordings, including transcription disks and WHA  broadcasts for over 20 years of campus events.
  • Other items of visual interest (Stay Tuned for Part 2 of our IncubaTOUR for more!)


How is all this stuff used?

Researchers of all types use the UW Archives for their work, including historical narratives, geneaology research, and University history projects.

Film strips with creative titles.

Classes in visual culture, history, and visual materials also come to the archives to spark creative research for papers, presentations, and even art projects. A student in one of these classes found an historic image of a beer barrel among the Archives’ vast collection of photographs, and decided to research campus during prohibition.  His research revealed that even though there was a nation-wide ban on alcohol, a law reinstated the manufacture of beer in Wisconsin in 1925– so long as it was for export– making booze easily accessible on the UW campus, even as America went dry.

There are rich possibilities for artists to use the UW Archives as well:  Imagine listening to landmark games recorded by the WHA and splicing the commentator’s dialogue into video or audio tracks, or leafing through photo books from the turn of the century to find inspiration for invitations, cardstock, and even clothing design from old pictures and dance cards.  Or use the aerial images of Madison in different eras, or pictures of the Haresfoot Club to spark a piece of creative writing or performance art.  With such a rich narrative preserved at the UW Archives, the possibilities are endless, one only needs to visit the collection!

Ultimately, every object and document that the UW Archives collects is preserved as part of a rich narrative, and Vicki’s goal is to make more archived material easily accessible.  Her current digitization projects are a good example:  when she chooses what documents to put on the web, she always asks herself “Will this make someone care more?”

Vicki hopes that if more people are aware of the wealth of resources at the UW Archives and understand the Archives’ role in preserving campus history, that they will consider donating materials to the archives in their wills (and during their lives!).  Her goal is to present as rich and complete a story of campus life as she possibly can.

If you are interested in viewing the collection, you may stop in when the library is open, or call 608-262-0428 or email Vicki to make an appointment.  An appointment is recommended for anyone with specific research requests in mind.  Many images and materials can also be viewed online.

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