Friday, October 31, 2014

Historical Halloween

It's that time of year again!

Ghost stories, costumes, candy... and history of course.

In honor of Archives Month, I thought I would take a look at some historical societies and sites and how they remember past Halloweens!

Here at our very own Wisconsin Historical Society, you can find some great Halloween photos from Halloweens past simply by going to and typing 'Halloween' into the search bar. One of my favorites is this creepy window display:

Image ID: 14607
At Old World Wisconsin, one of our historic sites, they'll spend Halloween night telling ghost stories and folklore, finding their way through a maze, making crafts, and of course eating around a bonfire for their annual Halloween Legends and Lore event.

Meanwhile our neighbors at the Minnesota Historical Society pick a past Halloween costume photo to feature every year. Here's last year's winner:
Halloween Costume
"Pregnant Angel" Halloween Costume

My hometown in South Dakota has annual spooky events at our local haunted house, the Adams House Museum, which was home to one of Deadwood's wealthy and philanthropic families during the Black Hills gold rush. In years past, there have been Halloween sleepovers, dances, and ghost tours. This year they're conducting a paranormal investigation at this historic haunt:

Historic Adams House

Finally, last year the National Archives came out with this awesome article in their NARAtions blog which featured some of their creepiest collection items, including diagrams of "life preserving coffins", and the horrors of "mystery meat": Weird Records from the Depths of the Archives

How does your organization celebrate Halloween?

- Rebecca Rodriguez, 2nd year student

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Reference: 101

When I came to Madison last fall for Library School, I knew I wanted to be an archivist, but wasn’t entirely sure what that entailed. To be completely honest, I thought I would spend my days preserving the great records of the past, by describing and interpreting their meaning within historical context.  (Sounds magical right?) Arriving a month before school started, I frantically searched for a job in my desired field and for funding my continual habit of having to eat. At one point, I had a job at the local target, a museum, and a grocery store simultaneously. Finally, three weeks before the semester began, I landed a job as a Reference Archivist with the McCormick International Harvester Collection at the Wisconsin Historical Society.  Other than working in a few museums and a grocery store, I had little to no experience in a ‘customer service’ setting. In the beginning I was frightened that I would never learn the collection I would be ‘referencing’ and unsure of my ‘people’ skills.   A year has passed since taking the job, and let me tell you I have learned a ton! I have had my fair shares of ups and downs, but I have determined that the reference/outreach world in archives is the place for me. Here are the top three things I have learned over the past year: 

  1. You may not be an expert on a particular topic, but you surely can find the answer with a little bit of work. 
When I came to the McCormick Collection I had little knowledge of the International Harvester brand, but with each request I learned a bit more, which allowed me to become a better researcher.  Plus you may not know what the patron is asking for, but with a little work you will find out and learn something new with each request.  

WHI: 48305

My first day I answered a phone call, and the man asked, “What color should my cultivator be?” and I responded, “What is a cultivator?” DUH… if you want to know, a cultivator breaks up topsoil (I think)!
2      2. No two days are the same in a reference position.
Everyday is a new day, bringing new reference requests and new patrons to interact with. You may spend three hours of the day listening to the passion a collector possesses or solely answering emails.  With the collection, I have had the chance to scan and catalog images, process a collection of patents, and interact with patrons face-to-face. While with the McCormick Collection, I have noticed that our reference requests peak in the summer and slump a bit in the winter due to the nature of the hobby.  Everyday brings new reference challenges and surprising moments. I once had a patron ask me when my birthday was; thinking he might reply, “Ha that’s nice”, but he instead gave me an astrological reading! (He actually nailed my personality perfectly!) Everyday is new and that is what I enjoy the most.

      3. Your patrons really do appreciate the work you do for them.
Patrons are grateful for any piece of information you can give them. From a simple paint color to an owner’s manual, International Harvester fans are the most gracious people I have every meet. They are so passionate about their hobby and enjoy sharing their progress on a project. You will not believe how many times I have heard, “Wow, you must have the best job in the world.”  I enjoy being able to share this wonderful collection with the public.

WHI 26623
This past year has truly been a learning experience. I look forward to the following year and cannot wait to see what kind of ‘researching’ adventures I will get into!
Learn more about the McCormick International Harvester Collection: Here
~ Lindsey Hillgartner, Second year SLIS student

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

How to write a Multivolume History of Mapping

How to write a multivolume series on the history of mapping over the course of three decades:

 Prior to the internet: Card catalogs and fax machines…

1.      Turn on computer.
2.      Open your browser.
3.      Search desired library or archive catalog.
4.      Watch as the internet brings up that eighteenth-century map, monograph, or treatise you need right before your eyes.*
5.      Check encyclopedic entry written by a celebrated international scholar to make sure everything matches the original eighteenth-century document.
6.      Thank your lucky stars for all the archivists working tirelessly to increase access to historical materials through digitization for researchers of all levels, professional to novice.
7.      Have another cup of coffee and repeat steps 3-6.

*If the work has not been digitized, get on the horn to the good people of Interlibrary Loan. They can work miracles.

Experience based on life at the History of Cartography Project: solving your every cartographic need, one tome at a time, since 1981.

- Nichole Barnes, first-year SLIS Student

Monday, October 27, 2014

Marathon County Historical Society

Marathon County Historical Society in Wausau, WI

I graduated from UW-Madison in 2011 with a BA in History but found myself with a bleak outlook because job opportunities were few and far between – at least ones that didn’t involve teaching. I started volunteering at the Marathon County Historical Society in Wausau, WI, in June of 2012. The MCHS is located in a house that was built for and occupied by one of the wealthy families in town. I had absolutely no experience working in a historical society or even a library. I wanted something to fill my time but more importantly to get my foot in the door somewhere.    

My first task was accessioning 100 year old business ledgers from a local paper mill. After that I was given a string of donations to be accessioned. After a couple of months I was finally moved to something a little more complex: rearranging the archives. Admittedly, there was nothing too disorganized about the archives but over the years bits and pieces had been moved and misplaced and overall it seemed space was needlessly being taken up. I started with the boxes of the ‘Personal Collections’, which is the materials that are from local citizens. The idea was just to alphabetize all the boxes – simple enough but time consuming.

Vintage rum
Next I took on the task of organizing the boxes from the emergency services. Again, it was a fairly simple task of sorting the police, fire, and ambulance services. However, it was during this process that I came across a plain brown box that had a simple white tag with the word ‘rum’ written on it. Naturally, my curiosity was piqued. I dug through the mess of packing popcorn and pulled out an unopened bottle of Bacardi rum. I took the bottle to my supervisor, the head librarian and archivist, and he told me the story of that particular bottle. It had been hidden, along with several others, in the wall of the attic of the house since roughly the 1920’s. The son of the owners of the house hid the alcohol there and would indulge himself when he found time and would sometimes invite the servants to join. Unfortunately, his life was cut short at the age of 19 when he took his own life in the room where he held his impromptu parties. The room was sealed off until the house was sold in the 50’s and bottles weren’t discovered until less than ten years ago when renovations were being done.  But now that bottle in a box is a prompt for a dark tale of Wausau’s past.

In all the time I spent in the archives I think one of the best moments came when I was accessioning some miscellaneous ledgers and journals that had been in the archives for a long time but never touched. While working through the piles I came across a ledger dated from the middle of Prohibition. It was from a local pharmacist and the contents of the ledger were all about alcohol. There were plenty of details for each sale: the name of the person purchasing the alcohol, the name of the doctor prescribing it, type and proof of alcohol, and amount of alcohol.  It turns out that this was quite a find because some of the names mentioned in the ledger belonged to very prominent citizens and they were the kind of people that didn’t need a doctor’s note to get alcohol. I honestly felt proud of myself for bringing this ledger to light.  It had just been sitting in the archives for years, waiting to tell its part of Marathon County history but no one had bothered to look at it.

My time in the archives was one of subtle enlightenment. As a History major I had always had an appreciation for the past but I had appreciated it at a distance. When I entered the archives I was able to actually physically handle the past and make connections that couldn’t be made from just reading about the past. Most of all, I enjoy knowing that there is likely something like the ledger and the bottle sitting in every archives, waiting to tell its story.

~ Matthew Westlund, 1st Year Student