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University Archivist David Null showcases items from the Pail and Shovel Party during the Libraries' Our Funny University event, Sept. 2014
University Archivist David Null showcases items from the Pail and Shovel Party during the Libraries’ Our Funny University event, Sept. 2014

Have you ever wondered what courses students were enrolled in 100 years ago? Maybe you’d like to know more about the long line of Badgers from which you descend. Perhaps you want to listen to an oral history, or watch a long-forgotten film. Whether you’re looking to dive deep into the University’s past or just want to search for some light-hearted moments in time, the University of Wisconsin Archives, located in Steenbock Library, is just waiting to be explored.

With more than 27,000 cubic feet of materials, 2.5 million photos, 12,000 audio and film recordings, and 1,300 oral histories, the UW Archives is responsible for maintaining the history of the University.

“People are amazed at what they find when they come to us,” says David Null, University Archivist. “We are an official state records repository, which comes with a great deal of responsibility.”

Founded in 1951, the UW Archives serves as the official repository for not only UW-Madison, but for UW-System Administration, as well as the UW Colleges and UW-Extension. The UW Archives collects primary source materials from the University, provides records management services to University offices, and maintains photographic, media and oral history programs.

In addition to countless physical records, UW Archives is also dealing with the mass wave of digital records. It’s an opportunity and a challenge that Null says not only his staff, but archivists around the world, are working feverishly to keep up.

“It’s not just the physical space to preserve materials that we have to consider. We also need to look at how to handle all the digital content – from preservation to searchability,” Null says. “To show how far reaching some records keeping can go, the Library of Congress signed an agreement to preserve public Tweets from America. Think about that. Preserving an entire nation’s 140 character messages from a single social media platform.”

Yearbook stacks, Archives.
Yearbook stacks, Archives.

That’s a lot of Tweets. More than 600 billion to be exact. While the UW Archives doesn’t have that responsibility – yet – Null says maintaining the records UW Archives does have is a critical, meticulous process.

“We are legally obligated to keep a long list of University items, as a state agency,” Null notes. “We have hundreds of records schedules that dictate to us what needs to be kept and for how long. It’s a very careful and detailed process, as you can imagine.”

Null says while the recording, preservation, and presentation of the materials coming to UW Archives may vary, he says it’s an important part of preserving and sharing knowledge about how a university functions. He also notes it’s a job that never gets boring, but instead provides the opportunity to help find a piece of history that can change someone’s life.

“The Archives is such an interesting place to work, because you never know what you’re going to help someone find,” Null notes. “One minute I might be helping someone find an admissions paper from 1901. The next I’m helping someone from the other side of the world find an oral history that has their mother’s voice recorded – something they haven’t heard for decades. To realize you help someone find that sort of joy, brings a different level of importance to the work we do.”