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Reading in the Archives

This student-written series began with English 181: "Holding History; Or, Where Literature Comes From." In the course, Holding History Co-Director Joshua Calhoun led students on an odyssey through centuries of writing about collection and preservation — and through archives across campus, including Memorial Library’s Special Collections, the Ebling Library for Health Sciences, and the UW Zoological Museum.

At the end of the semester, under the guidance of professional writer and editor Marek Makowski, students drew on the semester of class visits and research to craft public-facing essays addressing the course’s animating questions: When we emerge from the archives, what stories do we have to share? What can we learn about a specific artwork — and ourselves, and our ways of knowing — from hands-on experiences with objects in archives?

After months of collaborating, brainstorming, writing, and editing, we’re proud to share "Reading in the Archives," a nine-part essay series that explores wartime literature and Armed Services Editions, letters and drafts, sacred texts, collector’s editions, a Shakespearean fan fiction mashup set on a farm, and essential questions about community, preservation, intimacy, beauty, the creative process and “the vast expanse of time and human experience.” Because, sometimes, the mystery of what it means live and endure suddenly becomes clear. We can see it here before us, in the hundreds of years preserved in the cooled quiet rooms of campus — paragraphs and illustrations bound in paper and leather, handled with care — and in the essays of this series — paragraphs and images made of hundreds and hundreds of pixels, and countless hours of young writers wandering, wondering, and discovering.

Funding for this series—which allowed HH to pay student writers and editors—was generously provided by the Friends of the UW-Madison Libraries. Special thanks are due, as well, to the staff of Special Collections, and especially to Lisa Wettleson, who guided students through the process of learning how to conduct original research in rare book and archival libraries.

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