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Holding History Keynote Events Return with "Literary Materials"

On the evening of November 14, 2023, Holding History held its first keynote event since the 2020 COVID-19 Pandemic. Students, faculty, and community members gathered on the 9th floor of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Memorial Library, where the University’s Special Collections is located, to explore this question: “What can we learn about specific works of literature—and about ourselves—from hands-on experiences with objects in archives and special collections libraries?”

Student curators, undergraduate and graduate alike, started the evening with a “science fair” format, inviting attendees to handle different textual artifacts from the University’s holdings. Farhan Adnan, a first-year undergraduate majoring in Computer Science and Math, showcased a fascinating manuscript leaf dated between 1300 and 1500 that contains eight verses from Surah 23 of the Qur’an. Across the room from his table, another undergraduate student, Rachel Smiley, who studies Biology, displayed one of the most intriguing bits of “Shakespeareana” in Special Collections, a self-published family play that promises a “modernized” version of Hamlet (in which Hamlet falls in love with…Juliet?). According to Rachel, this text was also used by author William Hawley Smith and his family to perform the play at their farm in Peoria, IL.

Two undergraduate upperclassmen, Liam Beran and Libby Markgraf, showcased commonplace books taken from the University’s William B. Cairns Collection of American Women Writers. Commonplace books are informal, largely personal multimedia artifacts that are used to collect and collate various pieces of information, quotations, drawings, thoughts, etc. While Libby drew onlookers’ attention to an early-nineteenth-century text written and compiled by a woman known only as “Daisy,” Liam displayed the commonplace book of Emily Hayes, an upstate New Yorker who collected poems from her companions on the subjects of friendship and loss.

English department graduate students Megan E. Fox and Alex Paulsen guided audience members through fascinating, centuries-old texts. Megan pointed out handwritten reproductions inserted directly into a sixteenth-century edition of Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, and Alex demonstrated the ways that early modern books depicted “sundry strange things, seming monstrous in our eyes” by diving into an English translation of Pierre Boaistuau's French-language Certaine secrete wonders of nature.

Throughout the event and in a Q&A session, student curators called attention to the human element in archival holdings, emphasizing the personal alterations or emendations that change texts over time. Student curators helped attendees to think about how meaning is made and under what conditions cultural information becomes printed, archived knowledge. The result was a playful encounter between contemporary attendees and aged artifacts that drew attention to the way literary materials continually structure the world around us.

Student Curators:

Farhan Adnan is a first year student at UW-Madison majoring in Computer Science and Math. His interests include Machine Learning, Statistics, and Data Analysis.

Liam Beran is a third-year English major at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He has a passion for language and is additionally seeking a certificate in French.

Megan E. Fox is a PhD Candidate in English Literature at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her research interests include early modern literature; history of the book; library history and archival theory; and early literary criticism.

Libby Markgraf, a UW-Madison senior, is majoring in Economics with certificates in History and Data Science.

Alex Paulsen is a graduate student in Literary Studies at University of Wisconsin-Madison. They earned a BA in English from UC Santa Cruz, where they cultivated a love of monsters and mythology amidst the old-growth redwood forests.

Rachel Smiley is a curious and conscientious freshman from the Chicago suburbs. She is majoring in Biology, as she loves to learn and observe how living things operate: from the human body to watching animals interact in nature.

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