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Odd Wisconsin Archive

Holy Grail?

That's what the Wisconsin Library Heritage Center recently called the antique bookcase in the Society's library lobby -- "the 'Holy Grail' of Wisconsin library artifacts. The WHS Library has grown from this small beginning to be one of the world's greatest historical libraries."

Whether this 1840s bookcase is, in fact, the Holy Grail of Wisconsin library history is a matter of opinion, but it certainly symbolizes the Society's on-going attempts to collect, preserve, and share stories from our past. It even has some stories of its own.

During three years of casual meetings and discussions beginning in 1846, the little bookcase occupied a corner in the Governor's office at the Capitol, and in 1849 it was moved to the Secretary of State's rooms. But after Lyman C. Draper took over as the Society's "corresponding secretary" in 1854, so many books poured in that he had to temporarily fill a room in his house with them. In 1855, the library moved to the south-east corner of the basement of a nearby church; 10 years later it filled the whole cellar and was looking for a new home. In January 1866, the library was allocated space in then-new capitol, where it moved with its 21,000 books. A decade later, when the U.S. government took a census of American libraries during the centennial year of 1876, it was the largest library west of Washington, D.C.

During all that expansion and moving, Society staff managed to save the little glass-fronted bookcase in which its library was born. Today this stands on the second floor of the Society headquarters in Madison. Early one morning in 2005, a thief smashed one of its glass panels to steal a rare book. The Society's eagle-eyed maintenance crew witnessed the theft, however, and kept the vandal in sight until police arrived. Society Museum curators soon located a conservator with a stock of mid-19th century glass and replaced the broken pane with an equally old one.

From tiny acorns grow giant oaks, as a hackneyed cliche rightly observes, and from this three-by-four foot bookcase the Society's collections have grown into one of the nation's premier research institutions on American history. The Library now contains nearly 4,000,000 publications -- books, magazines, pamphlets, microfilm reels, CDs, videos, and computer files. Its Archives possesses 140,000 cubic feet of handwritten and otherwise unpublished documents, as well as more than 2,000,000 photographs and other images, a vault full of Hollywood films, and 30,000 antiquarian maps dating back to the early 1500s. Not to mention its museum objects and historic sites.

The bookcase may (or may not) be the Holy Grail, but the Society and its collections are certainly a mecca for anyone investigating U.S. and Wisconsin history. Every day scholars travel from around the nation or other countries to consult them, genealogists with license plates from California to New York wheel their file boxes into the reading room, and school kids stream through the Society's museum or historic sites with their teachers and parents. Countless readers open books and magazines that have rolled off the WHS Press (metaphorically speaking) and every day literally thousands examine online collections. It's a legacy the little bookcase could be proud of.

:: Posted in Curiosities on September 23, 2008

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