Lecture #13:
Landscapes of Information: An Introduction to Your Place Paper...and to UW-Madison Libraries


WHS tours this week:

  • Monday, 10/24, 4:00-5:00pm
  • Tuesday, 10/25, 9:00-10:00am
  • Wednesday, 10/26, 4:00-5:00pm

This week of section will be devoted to your place papers. Prepare to say something about (1) What place you've chosen; (2) Why you've chosen it; (3) How it links to course themes; (4) What documments you suspect you will use. Also bring one document related to your place.


This lecture is organized in part like your own place paper: it will help us answer the riddle posed by this photograph of Lower Campus.

University of Wisconsin Lower Campus, 1890s
University of Wisconsin Lower Campus, 1890s

Why was this area once called "Lower Campus," and when and how did that name fall out of use? We'll also consider a related question: What can we learn about the history of our campus and landscape history from studying the history of Lower Campus?

I'm going to use this riddle of Lower Campus to also tell the story of libraries on the UW-Madison campus: how they came into being, grew, evolved, and changed. So this lecture will be a place paper about Lower Campus, and the theme I'm choosing to emphasize in this paper with be the history of libraries and the history of information. Our understanding of information has been tranformed from the end of the 19th century until now.

Quickly, a reminder:

Your place paper assignment begins with this crucial paragraph:

You are to choose some place--either located in Madison or somewhere in the United States that you know well from your home or travels--and write a brief essay discussing your interpretation of some aspects of its landscape history, using the themes, tools, and perspectives we've studied in class. Because this is a relatively brief paper, you'll need to think carefully about what parts of your chosen place you wish to explore in your essay: it is far better to discuss a few aspects well than many aspects superficially. Write a description or tell a story that will explain to the reader how this place came to have the shape and qualities it has today. You should think of this paper as an exercise in historical, geographical, and environmental interpretation, asking you to read a small patch of landscape as a document of past environmental change. Just as importantly, your place should illustrate one or more important themes drawn from the course as a whole, so please be careful to think carefully about which course themes can help you interpret the past of your place, and which aspects of your place can illustrate the themes of the course.

I urge you to read the assignment sheet in its entirety. This paper coequally draws on two skills: (1) your skills at reading the landscape itself, and (2) your skills and identifying and reading primary source materials. See the course website for models of past successful place papers to help you come up with ideas for your own: http://www.williamcronon.net/courses/469/469_place_papers.html

Learning how to balance reading the landscape and reading primary source documents is not always easy. So you are encouraged to use this website: "How to Do Historical Research." I also encourage you to read this very helpful guide: Wayne Booth et. al., The Craft of Research 3rd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008; the 4th edition will be published in October, 2016, with more coverage of online research).

"What are the documents?" Searching vs. Browsing when Doing Historical Research:

History as a discipline is not the only discipline that thinks about the past: geologists, archaeologists, even astronomers study past phenomena and change over time. But unlike these other disciplines, the discipline called history has historically relied on written documents rather than—as an archaelogist might—physical remains or material culture. One of the defining features of history is that historians study something that doesn't exist any longer and we cannot visit; to make claims about the past, they rely on the scattered documents that have come down to us—intentionally or accidentally—from the past. Unlike social sciences and physical sciences, historians can't run controlled experiments or collect data.

Because historians studying something that no longer exists, they must always answer this crucial question: What are the documents? Historians, no matter what questions they're trying to answer, must immediately ask "What are the documents?" because if you cannot find documents that let you construct an answer to that question, you can't know the answer to your question about the past.

So we need to talk about how you'd find the documents. Here's Google. For all of its incredible power, Google is best at answering the question when you know what the question is. But history is a discipline that works by immersion: we immerse ourselves in a past world, we try to develop intuition about what it was like to live back then, then we have a better sense of what question we're even wanting to ask. So to ask a question like "What caused the Civil War?" leaps over a host of historical context and information that we to understand before we can understand, say, a five-point list of causes.

Here's the crucial point: Searching is not the same as browsing. When we browse, the point is that we don't yet know what we're looking for. Browsing is the serendipitous search for connections and contest. So I'd like to suggest the following:

Google: a searcher's delight.

Wikipedia: a browser's delight.

Wikipedia is an extraordinary resource. It is the greatest encyclopedia humanity has created by orders of magnitude, and it has been created by almost virtually all a team of volunteers. Hundreds of thousands of people voluntary update entries—which means that Wikipedia manages to represent a staggering breadth of knowledge. (Encyclopedias have never been go-to resources of depth.) I'm lingering on Wikipedia because I want to teach you to browse, to search without a specific aim for connections and context.

Here's an example from Wikipedia:

Mining >> California Gold Rush >> References / External links. The material in the "External links" category is often very different from what hits a Google algorithm would return to you, but instead point you towards a set of materials that a human brain found fascinating.

Wikipedia will put a frame around the next two lectures, as will the assigned readings for next week.

"What are the documents?" The Case for Libraries in a Digital Age

Wikipedia is not the only incredible resource of browsing. In the second half of this lecture, I'd like to make the case to you that libraries are a crucial resource for browsing. They will point you towards an incredible array of primary sources for your place paper.

In Bill's case: he turned to old town and county reports to find historical references to caves in the Madison area that had since been forgotten.

Here are some of the primary sources you'll find in a library like the Wisconsin Historical Society:

  • Letters and diaries
  • Photographs
  • Business and institution records
  • Newspapers
  • Government records
  • Audio, film, and video recording
  • And, of course, books

I want to persuade you that you should go into the library stacks and rummage around. In order to do that, I want to talk to you not so much about how to use a library, but why. Most of the information in libraries is not yet digitized. (At its peak, Helen C. White perhaps held 250,000 books at its largest; now that number is closer to 25,000.) So one of the chief points I wish to persuade you of is that there are things ungoogleable today that are still worth looking at and paying attention to.

A Mini Place Paper: What was Lower Campus? Why and how did it change?

A Place Paper Riddle: How did a big open city block called “Lower Campus” that was once used for playing football get reinvented as “Library Mall” with buildings holding millions of books...and how has our relationship to those books changed over time?

By the 1870s, a quarter-century into the life of UW-Madison, the campus still had no library. It was not until 1878 that the building we know as Old Music Hall was constructed as a combination assembly hall and library. If you look at the building today, you will not find skylights that had been installed for students reading in the library.

The State Historical Society of Wisconsin (today the Wisconsin Historical Society), founded in 1846—two years before the founding of the UW—began collecting historical documents under the directorship of Lyman Copeland Draper. Draper was succeeded by Reuben Gold Thwaites, and the collecting efforts of these two men helps explain why we have treasures here at the Wisconsin Historical Society like the Daniel Boone papers. In the late 1890s, it was decided that the Wisconsin Historical Society and the UW-Madison should join forces to construct a new library that could house the volumes of both institutions.

If you look at this birds' eye view of campus from 1907, you begin to understand why this area was called Lower Campus. The area now called "Bascom Hill" was known as "Upper Campus" until 1916, when a fire destroyed much of what was then called University Hall and was renamed Bascom Hall. It was only after Edward Birge renamed the building Bascom Hall that UW affiliates stopped calling the sloping lawn "Upper Campus" and began calling it "Bascom Hill."

By the 1940s, the old Wisconsin Historical Society building was packed to capacity. So a decision was made in the late 1940s to build a new library: what would become known as Memorial Library was built facing the Wisconsin Historical Society. That construction created a new space between the two buildings, called "Library Mall."

Once Memorial Library opened, the holdings of the Wisconsin Historical Society were split between Memorial Library and the Wisconsin Historical Society. To navigate the newly opened library, you needed to use a card catalog. The card catalog in Memorial Library followed the Author-Title nomenclature. But we could also use a Subject Catalog (and here, Google does infinitely better what the subject catalog once tried to accomplish). The third card catalog in Memorial Library was the Shelf-List Card Catalog, which ordered cards by call number. Finally, there was also a fourth catalog in the library basement called the Cutter Catalog.

I'll flag for you the puzzle of being a librarian. You have a book: how do you decide what one place on the shelf that book will go, given how many different subjects it is about. Also, how do you organize the sum of human knowledge into categories and classifications? Multiple thinkers have answered this question a variety of ways: Melvil Dewey (inventor of the Dewey Decimal System), Charles Ammi Cutter (Cutter Expansive Classification System), and Herbert Putnam (Library of Congress Classification System). Notice that the Library of Congress system, what is used here in UW libraries, is really useful for browsing. If you're writing a paper about Wisconsin, the Library of Congress system tells you that you should absolutely make a pilgrimage to the F576-590 shelves in the Wisconsin Historical Society and browse to your heart's content.

To close, I want to suggest to you the difference in worldview between Herbert Putnam (creator of the Library of Congress Classification System) and Sergey Brin and Larry Page (founders of Google). In Herbert Putnam's system, you physically need to go to a physical location to find a book. In the Brin/Page sense of Google, information appears to not be physically or geographically located. What you need to do in a library is to find the location of a book.

I want you to wander the stacks, I want you to rummage. F576-590: here you will find books on Wisconsin as well as the rest of the U.S. and Canada. Don't forget that oversized volumes are also a rich source of information and photographs, easily overlooked.