Holding History offers an intimate encounter with rare books

August 25, 2015

by Dean Robbins, UW Continuing Studies, News

Even in an age of e-books, a physical volume with pages and binding can cause a sensation. That’s the premise of Holding History, a new public humanities program that invites people to view, learn about, and, yes, even hold some of the most important books ever printed.

At each Holding History event, the University of Wisconsin-Madison welcomes the public into one of its Special Collections Libraries for an intimate encounter with rare books. A team of experts and student curators create an immersive experience, including discussions of individual volumes, a multimedia presentation, and a question-and-answer session.

FullSizeRender (4)

The books themselves have all the charm of cherished objects that have passed through the centuries. Participants can scrutinize handwritten margin notes from the 1500s, century-old leaves used as bookmarks, and wormholes winding through the pages.

“Holding History creates a space where faculty, students, and community members can learn from each other as we discuss books and history,” says student curator Kaydian Campbell. “The conversations sparked by our presentations range from the future of print books to pedagogical practices. Holding History presents questions relevant to the university and invites the community to join the conversation.”

In July Holding History presented “Shakespeare’s Plays and Poems,” which offered book lovers the chance to turn the pages of a 1640 second printing of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, along with a dozen other rare volumes. The program repeats on September 14 at UW-Madison’s Memorial Library, at 2:30-5:30 p.m. This time, UW-Madison’s Silver Buckle Press will demonstrate how books were made in the early days of the printing press.

“Participants will have a chance to learn the craft of printing by hand, including putting each letter into place,” says Joshua Calhoun, a UW-Madison English professor and the director of Holding History. “There will be ‘aha’ moments, like when they learn why we use the terms ‘uppercase’ and ‘lowercase.’ Afterward, we’ll go look at books that were printed on 16th and 17th century presses and immediately understand more about the world in which Shakespeare lived.”

UW-Madison freshman Elliott Puckette, who attended the July program on “Shakespeare’s Plays and Poems,” was impressed by its unpretentious approach.

“In his lecture, Prof. Calhoun emphasized the value of engaging with old works of literature collaboratively, treating them respectfully without locking them behind glass never to be touched or reinterpreted,” Puckette says. “By letting people connect with the past in a physical, tactile way, the Holding History program encourages everyone, not just ‘the experts,’ to engage the past on a personal level. Sharing knowledge should be the aim of any educational institution, and it is to UW-Madison’s credit that it has chosen to share its resources with the greater community.”

The value of a book

FullSizeRender (2)

A collaboration between the Division of Continuing Studies and Special Collections, Holding History exemplifies the Wisconsin Idea by opening the university’s doors to the public. It also trains the next generation of scholars to share campus resources with the broader community through high-quality programming.

For each event, student curators with a broad range of majors—from astrophysics to education to biology—work with Holding History staff to create a presentation on a single volume. They learn all they can about the book and develop strategies for making their research engaging to an audience. They also gain experience reaching out to diverse populations, from high schoolers to lifelong learners.

“Holding History approaches community outreach in a creative way,” says Calhoun. “We’re building on a public engagement model driven by active mentoring, by putting students at the center and giving them an opportunity to speak to a broader audience.”


Campbell appreciated the chance to practice public speaking, but the real thrill was getting up close and personal with rare books.

“We had the opportunity to hold a piece of history in our hands,” she says. “It is certainly easy to find all our information online, but I’m certain the students who’ve participated in this program understand that the value of a book is not simply the information it holds.”

Tapping into students’ passion

Holding History’s first year of programming is tied to the 2016 Year of Shakespeare in Wisconsin. Future programs may delve into the history of science, Tibetan and Mongolian prints, the notebooks and manuscripts of environmental pioneer Aldo Leopold, and early exploration in Africa, India, Iraq, and Israel.

FullSizeRender (2)

“Because mentoring students is an essential part of Holding History, their interests will help determine its future,” Calhoun says. “Tapping into their passions is sure to create programs the public will love.”