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The Wisconsin Historical Society: A Place for Remembering

Dec. 29, 2010
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Our personal and collective identities are shaped by the past. We figure out who we are—our beliefs, values, sense of time and place—by keeping a growing narrative of previous events. Then, throughout most of our lives, we connect with others by recognizing that shared history, whether it is the near past (e.g., we both went to Clearwater Camp when we were kids) or the distant (e.g., my ancestors are from Northern Ireland, too). Recording history is a deeply ingrained aspect of the human condition, and individuals take up its charge in societies around the world. With its library, archives, museum, public programs and 10 historic sites, the Wisconsin Historical Society (WHS) is one of the nation’s most distinguished state historical agencies—and a treasure trove for those looking to connect to the past.

Founded in 1846, WHS is both a state agency and a private membership organization, receiving approximately 60% of its funding from the state of Wisconsin and the other 40% from membership and admission fees, as well as gifts and grants. The WHS is headquartered in a stunning Neo-Classical Revival limestone building designed by Ferry & Clas (the architects behind Milwaukee’s Central Library) on the University of Wisconsin campus in Madison. While the building is home to the society’s archives, library, administrative offices and historic preservation program, its centerpiece is the grand reading room, a magnificent space recently restored to its original 1900 grandeur using old black-and-white photographs from the era.

The WHS’s library, which contains published materials such as books, periodicals and government publications, and its archives, which hold unpublished materials such as letters, diaries, oral histories, photographs, films and government records, comprise the largest collection on the history of North America outside of the Library of Congress. The newspaper collection includes more than 11,000 bound volumes, 100,000 reels of microfilm and access to digital copies of newspapers that reach as far back as the early 18th century. The archive’s images collection contains approximately 3 million photographs, negatives, films, posters, cartoons and lithographs that capture Wisconsin’s rich political, economic, military and social history.

“Our mission is to collect, preserve and share stories,” explains Ellsworth Brown, WHS director. “In some ways it’s as simple as that. It’s also as complicated as that.”

Preserving and Sharing History

Obtaining and preserving historic material takes skill, time and money, but the real challenge comes from sharing that information with the public. The Wisconsin Historical Society has found ways to overcome the inherent conflict in simultaneously preserving and sharing this valuable historic information, and, as a result, has become renowned for it.

Scholars, researchers, teachers, authors, genealogists and history buffs can find and borrow the historic materials they’re looking for at the headquarters in Madison, or obtain the materials through an interlibrary loan at their local library. Thirteen Area Research Centers located at UW campus libraries, as well as the Northern Great Lakes Visitor Center and the Superior Public Library, house records specific to those regions. The society has an efficient courier service—that has yet to lose or damage any materials, Brown says—to save patrons from making a trip to Madison to use the needed material. WHS also advises and assists nearly 400 local, county and specialized historical organizations to better preserve Wisconsin history.

In addition to the library and archives, WHS operates the Wisconsin Historical Museum, located on Madison’s Capitol Square. The museum gives visitors an opportunity to engage in Wisconsin’s unique heritage and a score of various American history topics through insightful exhibits that display artifacts and images, as well as creative multimedia programs and full-size dioramas. There’s also the Wisconsin Historical Society Press, a publishing house that issues a quarterly magazine, Wisconsin Magazine of History, as well as books on Wisconsin and American history.

Managing 10 historic sites throughout the state, WHS gives visitors the chance to immerse themselves in the sights and sounds of bygone eras. Among the most popular is Old World Wisconsin in Eagle, which has more than 60 historic structures, including ethnic farmhouses and outbuildings, making it the world’s largest museum dedicated to the history of rural life. In Baraboo, where Ringling Bros. Circus was founded, Circus World offers around 30 permanent structures on more than 60 acres of land. Among the structures are four original winter-quarters buildings and the Ringling Bros. circus-train complex.

The WHS reaches out to the public through its ever-evolving website, a herculean endeavor that manages to effectively organize the tremendous amount of material in the society’s care in a manner that makes it easy to use. Behind all that historic material, though, is the society’s devoted workforce.

“The objects on the shelves aren’t going to do any good if people can’t get to them,” Brown explains. “And historic sites wouldn’t be interesting if somebody doesn’t help you understand them.”

For more information on the Wisconsin Historical Society, visit: www.wisconsinhistory.org.


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