A Gift from the People: The Libraries and Archives of the University of Wisconsin

July 6, 2023 By Stu Levitan

One of my favorite things about writing history books is getting to use the libraries and archives of the University of Wisconsin–Madison, particularly the resources of the UW–Madison Archives, Memorial Library, and the Wisconsin Historical Society Library and Archives (with four million items, the world’s most extensive collection devoted to the history of North America). Whether in person or online, they are a never-ending source of information, images, and enlightenment. I could not possibly have gotten to my third book on the history of the city of Madison without these libraries and archives.

I’ve relied most heavily on the WHS’s fourth-floor archives—one of the country’s great intellectual repositories and one of my happy places. Just approaching that landmark Ferry & Clas building puts me in a historical mood, and walking up its marble stairs adds a touch of class. The free lockers are nice, too.

And when the young runner brings out the boxes I’ve requested, either online or in person, the excitement of the intellectual hunt ticks up. The boxes are a drab grey, but they shimmer and shine with the information they contain, each folder within a potential source of vital documentation or illustration. And I turn every page and examine every image (even the negatives) because what I need to know and see is there. Somewhere.

The unpublicized correspondence among Madison and federal urban renewal officials is critical to understanding the eternally controversial Greenbush/Triangle urban renewal project. The unpublished photograph perfectly captures the chaos of the Mifflin Block Party Riot. The Sanborn maps reveal the socioeconomic trends of the city’s built environment. All there, just for the asking.

Stu Levitan

Two floors down, the pleasures of the WHS Library—and not just the elegant and functional Reading Room. For me, the real fun is climbing the rickety, narrow stairs up to the shelves filled with municipal records. Minutes of the Common Council, annual reports of the Police Department and School Board, and messages from the mayor are the primary sources.

And now the material is increasingly online. Maybe not as romantic an experience, but more efficient.

Because the University of Wisconsin has such a powerful effect on Madison, I am also devoted to, and heavily reliant on, the UW Archives and Record Management, now located in Steenbock Library.

I’ve lost count of how many interesting and important things I’ve learned by combing through the records of the faculty senate, the papers of chancellors and presidents, the cabinets filled with clip files, and the boxes of photographs.

My favorite resource there is the Oral History Project, which encompasses over 2,000 interviews (over 5,000 hours), touching on all aspects of the UW’s history. These interviews can be a gold mine: a single comment by former UW president Fred Harvey Harrington about the 1967 Dow protest gave me a critical new insight into the administration’s understanding of that historic event and how it shaped its attitude going forward—something I had not learned through any other research.

Scanning images WHSA

Again, technology has made research ever more efficient, with an increasing number of transcripts and even the actual interviews being placed online. Once upon a time, I had to make my way down to Steenbock and crack open the red-bound volumes of transcripts; now, I can sit at my computer and, with a few clicks, be listening to the recording, indexed and transcribed for my convenience.

And the Oral History Project is only a small part of the digital UW–Madison Collection, itself just part of the massive and amazing UW Digital Collections. Many nights, I’ve sat at my desk and reviewed minutes of meetings of the Board of Regents, caught up on old news in the 2667 digitized editions of the Daily Cardinal, or just browsed the photographs in the “Cultural Landscape of the UW–Madison campus” collection.

The brightest star of the UW library and archives constellation is Memorial Library—the largest single collection in Wisconsin, and one of the country’s great research libraries, with three million volumes on its 78.5 miles of shelving. I greatly appreciate one set in particular—its massive collection of theses and dissertations. The UW–Madison has produced many great scholars, and it’s always valuable and interesting to find previous work in my areas of interest.

In the ancient world, the greatest intellectual resource was the Grand Library of Alexandria; created at an emperor’s direction, buffeted by shifting geopolitical winds, it ultimately declined and decayed.

Today, we have the University of Wisconsin–Madison libraries and archives. Created by the people of Wisconsin and their representatives, sustained by them for more than a century, they comprise an intellectual fountainhead that will continue to thrive only if we have the will to sustain it as our predecessors have done. It will be a tragedy if we don’t.

Stu Levitan is the author of Madison: The Illustrated Sesquicentennial History, Vol. 1 (1856–1931), [UW Press, 2006], and Madison in the Sixties [Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 2018]. He is currently researching Madison: The Illustrated Sesquicentennial History, Vol. 2 (1932–2006). He was the editor the commemorative booklet published in 1987 by the Dane County Bicentennial Commission on the Constitution.