Libraries Reckon and Reflect on their History

November 17, 2022 By Vicki Tobias, Friends of the Library Board of Directors

The University of Wisconsin is committed to researching its history of racism, exclusion, and discrimination. On the UW-Madison campus, this effort is led by the Public History Project and its Director, Kacie Lucchini Butcher. The UW-Madison Public History Project: Reckoning with our History: UW–Madison’s History of Discrimination and Resistance is a multi-year effort to uncover and give a voice to those who experienced, challenged, and overcame prejudice on campus.

Inspired by and in collaboration with the Public History Project, in early 2022, the General Library System (GLS) requested funding from the Friends to support two student researchers charged with uncovering instances of inequity and discrimination within the Libraries’ history. In these instances, the Libraries’ past actions may not have reflected current social justice ideals.

Like the Public History Project, the UW-Madison Libraries project provides a well-timed opportunity for past and present Libraries and campus community members to reflect on the Libraries’ history of exclusion and inclusion and ultimately provide a safe space for reflection, discussion, continued learning, and growth.

“It’s meant to be a granular-level look at exclusion and discrimination in the Libraries over time and shine a light on hidden histories and non-dominant narratives,” says Lucchini Butcher.

Under the guidance of Lucchini Butcher, two student project assistants, KJ LeFave and Isaac Ballwahn reviewed campus archival collections, including the GLS and UW-Madison Libraries Collection, library newsletters, the Daily Cardinal, UW chancellors’ manuscript collections and correspondence, oral history interviews with former library staff and administrators, and other significant collections from the UW-Madison Archives and repositories across campus.

This project allowed students to play a vital role in researching, preserving, and sharing their campus history and feel more connected to and understanding this history.

“It’s powerful to give students a chance to research and write about their university and ownership of the research process and resulting story,” observes Lucchini Butcher.

Isaac Ballwahn, Libraries project student researcher

Following both broad ideas and specific leads from Lucchini Butcher and relying on their keen research instincts, the students likened their experience to detective work, investigating and pulling together facts to tell a cohesive story.

Ballwahn is a graduate student at the UW-Madison iSchool. During the summer of 2022, his project focused on researching campus archival collections. Ballwahn reflected on the importance of this experience for an aspiring archivist.

“The opportunity to better understand how archives function and serve archives patrons and their unique needs, through this focused and supported research work, was invaluable to me,” remarks Ballwahn.

KJ LeFave, Libraries project student researcher

LeFave is an undergraduate honors student studying history. She continues with the project, and like Ballwahn, her work focuses on researching existing archival collections and reviewing oral history interviews for relevant stories. Currently, LeFave is adding to the historical record by seeking out and interviewing more recent Libraries employees, including past UW-Madison Diversity Resident Librarians

LeFave leveraged her previous experience as an archives assistant at the UW-Green Bay Area Research Center to research examples of discrimination within the Libraries’ history.

“Madison has issues with segregation and inequity; that’s no secret. And some of our project findings track with that history,” says LeFave. “But sometimes the lack of documentation around a topic or incident is as revealing as finding direct evidence. The silence also tells a story and is worth exploring.” 

Ballwahn and LeFave were quick to complement campus librarians and archivists for their expertise and support of this project and student researchers. Similarly, students and Lucchini Butcher emphasized these staff’s critical role in creating a positive experience by modeling research skills and stressing the importance of collaboration.

“Students don’t necessarily understand how an archive works,” explains Ballwahn. “They may not know how or what to ask for or be familiar with archives-related terminology. It’s important to start from the beginning and provide some basic instruction.”

Their advice to student researchers? Don’t be afraid to ask questions! Librarians and archivists are there to help so take advantage of their expertise.

“I love working with students. They bring liveliness to the work. They get excited about the research and sharing their work,” says Lucchini Butcher. “Their energy is contagious.” 

Students take in the UW-Madison Public History Project exhibition ‘Sifting & Reckoning: UW-Madison’s History of Exclusion and Resistance, at the Chazen Museum of Art. (Photo by Colton Mansavage / UW–Madison)

LeFave is excited to continue collecting oral histories from the library community and share her research findings. As a feminist scholar, she welcomes the opportunity and freedom to look at collections from a women’s perspective – to illuminate women’s experiences and existing disparities.

Currently working as the UW-Madison Limnology Library archivist, Ballwahn appreciates having more profound insight into different researchers’ experiences, specifically, the importance of facilitating access and discoverability – making things easier to find is a priority.

Libraries and archives must re-examine their history and collections, especially contemplating non-dominant narratives and untold stories of marginalized populations. It’s an opportunity to reflect on and remedy past collection development decisions to be sure all campus community members and their lived experiences are accurately represented in the historical record. It’s also a chance to evaluate existing access systems. Some histories exist in a seemingly hidden manner. Whether they become discoverable depends on whether or not they are described and documented in a way that facilitates this access.

“I’m proud of the Libraries for doing this work. It’s an opportunity to reflect and discuss, to make room for tough but necessary questions,” says Lucchini Butcher. “This project also serves as a model for other information organizations or campus departments interested in examining their history.” 

Lucchini Butcher and LeFave will present their project results to the campus library community in December 2022.

To learn more about the role of UW Archives in the Public History Project, attend the event on December 1 described in the sidebar of this article.

Sifting & Reckoning: UW–Madison’s History of Exclusion and Resistance is currently on view at the Chazen Museum of Art until December 23, 2022.