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Recollection Wisconsin Opens a Conversation with Local History

There’s a new way to explore local history through the photographs, postcards, maps, artifacts, letters, diaries, books, articles and more found in communities across Wisconsin. The recently launched Recollection Wisconsin provides Wisconsin residents and audiences worldwide with free online access to a growing set of historical resources from an impressive array of collections, archives, museums, and historical societies across the state.

Created in 2005 by a consortium of Wisconsin libraries and museums, Wisconsin Heritage Online began as a way of bringing together materials from digital collections within the University of Wisconsin System, the Wisconsin Historical Society, private colleges, public libraries, museums and local historical societies. The main program sponsor is Wisconsin Library Services; other core partners are UW–Madison, Wisconsin Historical Society, and the Milwaukee Public Library. Funding for the program comes from the Nicholas Family Foundation, which helped support the hire of current program director Emily Pfotenhauer in 2009.

“Many universities already have digital collections, but we really wanted to enable smaller communities and groups to digitize their materials as well,” says Pfotenhauer. “By finding ways to make the process as easy for them as possible—and offering lots of encouragement—we ended up with access to over 400 local historical societies across the state.

With the unveiling of Recollection Wisconsin in February of 2013, Pfotenhauer continues to build on Wisconsin Heritage Online as well as the efforts of Wisconsin archivists and historians who know this material inside and out.

“The beauty of the site is that you search across all these collections, across all these communities,” says Pfotenhauer. “There’s a vast wealth of historic stuff from all over Wisconsin. Sure, there’s a lot of great photos, but also manuscripts, rare and interesting objects, and lots more.”

The new Recollection Wisconsin website, developed by Milwaukee designer Dan Saal and web developer Jeff Ganger, is a visually oriented masterpiece combining the deep search and browsing capabilities of the old Wisconsin Heritage Online with curated tours of materials and interactive social media functions.

Themes for the curated tours are chosen by Pfotenhauer every week. “I’ll come up with an idea—not even a real specific one— then I’ll see what we have on that category, which that leads me to other, related things that snowball into a theme,” she says. For example, when someone recently suggested cabinetmaking as a theme, Photenhauer discoverd that many small-town cabinetmakers were also undertakers—another theme worth exploring.

Sometimes themes come from guest curators. Appleton’s History Museum at the Castle curator Nick Hoffman and UW– Madison History PhD candidate Jesse Gant co-curated a collection of images and essay on 19th-century bicycling in Wisconsin, which will be part of a forthcoming book on the subject: Wheel Fever: How Wisconsin Became a Great Bicycling State (Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 2013). Other guest curators include WPR’s Wisconsin Life editor/producer Erika Janik (“Home Economics education”) and UW–Madison grad student Beth A. Zinsli (“Deer hunting”).

Through social media sites like Pinterest and Facebook, Recollection Wisconsin users navigate themed images, make comments, and even create their own connections between themes or images. Indeed, people are encouraged to add their own materials, reflecting Pfotenhauer’s philosophy of community input as central to the updated vision for Recollection Wisconsin.

“Our goal is to offer this website as a showcase—a venue to spotlight intriguing and inspiring digital history projects happening around the state—as well as a meeting space where anyone can take part in the ongoing conversation that is the study of our past,” says Photenhauer.

The point is to make the project both accessible and interesting.

“It’s not History with a capital H,” says Pfotenhauer. “It’s about the stories, memories, and images that remind us of our continuous connection to the past.”

Visit recollectionwisconsin.org to explore local Wisconsin history and join the conversation.

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Contributors

Jason A. Smith is the communications director of the Wisconsin Academy and editor of the organization's quarterly magazine of Wisconsin thought and culture, Wisconsin People & Ideas.

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