Wisconsin Historical Society Library-Archive


A Review of the Wisconsin Historical Society Library-Archive (Madison, Wisconsin, United States)

The library-archives of the Wisconsin Historical Society are located on the campus of the University of Wisconsin-Madison and are home to numerous collections of materials preserving the history of the state of Wisconsin and the United States more broadly. These materials include manuscripts, historical photographs, and genealogical information.

In October, 2013, I spent two weeks at WHS working on my dissertation on American underground comics, with some help from the James P. Danky Fellowship, which is administered through UW-Madison’s Center for the History of Print and Digital Culture. The WHS library-archives is the home of a holding of underground comics of the 1960s and 1970s, as well as comics published during the middle decades of the 20th century by more mainstream companies such as Disney, Dell and Gold Key—these are what I came to see.

I spent most of my time in the rare book room, a quiet and brightly lit facility on the fourth floor, staffed by diligent, helpful, and endlessly patient librarians and archivists. This is where I found the bulk of WHS’ underground comics collection, including rare and important titles such as Lenny Of Laredo and Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary. I recommend researchers consult with staff if they plan to access a large number of the original underground comics in WHS’ collection prior to their research visit.

Another major resource for comics scholars at WHS is the August William Derleth Comic Collection, a collection of hundreds of cartoons clipped from various periodicals, as well as newspaper comics supplements and comic books collected by Wisconsin author, August Derleth. These include several early issues of Mad, Marge’s Little Lulu, several of Carl Bark’s Disney comics, and many others. Issues in the Derleth collection are collected and bound into large, hard-cover volumes, which allows visitors to access many issues without having to file a request slip for each one.

Visitors should consult UW-Madison’s online library catalogue ahead of time—all comics are listed there (“Comic books, strips, etc” is a particularly helpful category search term).  A quick email to askarchives@wisconsinhistory.org can also yield some very helpful insights from WHS’ knowledgeable archivists who were universally professional, polite, patient, and knowledgeable.

Since each title has its own entry in the system, thus requiring its own request slip, it can be time-consuming and tedious for both researchers and staff to make and fulfill dozens of individual requests and can cost researchers time as they wait for the next retrieval.

The rare book room contains two photocopiers.  Researchers can load credit to copy cards using a vending machine in the second-floor main library.  The machine takes cash only and requires an initial deposit of $1 to acquire a card.  Researchers should plan accordingly.

Prior to taking photographs of archival consult with archive staff in advance.  A few times during my stay, the rare book room hosted student groups who came in to conduct archival work in small teams. Though the resulting uptick in the ambient noise level could be disruptive, staff made sure to inform researchers ahead of time if a group was coming in, which was appreciated. Researchers are limited in terms of what personal belongings they are allowed to take into the rare book room (e.g., no jackets or sweaters may be draped over the backs of chairs), but lockers can be signed-out at the front desk free of charge.

The main library remains open several hours after the rare book room closes.  It is home to the library’s microfilm collection, where one finds the WHS’ substantial collection of underground newspapers, including several issues of Gothic Blimp Works.  Some additional materials for scholars of underground comics in this collection include a 1979 press packet distributed by Rip Off Press, which includes a transcript of a “rare” (according to the document itself) interview with Gilbert Shelton. Again, scholars should consult both the online catalogue and the library staff to get a proper sense of what is available to their specific research interests. In addition to the extended hours, the 2nd floor library provides scanners, to be used free of charge.  I recommend bringing your own USB drive to store scans of research documents. (If you wish to print materials, however, fees will apply.)

Some of WHS’ collection of underground comics is also available digitally via the Alexander Street Press’ database of underground and independent comics, comics, and graphic novels. Though users might find that the occasional issue is incomplete due to printing/licensing concerns, the database can still be a tremendous resource, especially if budget or other concerns limit your ability to travel. If you are a scholar of underground comics and your institution does not already subscribe to this service, it may be worth visiting their website to find out more information.

The WHS building is located at one end of the State Street mall, which is a pedestrian-friendly street lined with plenty of cafes, restaurants, and food carts.  Library mall provides a pleasant and convenient venue for the occasional much-needed diversion from my work.

Ian Blechschmidt
Communication Studies Department
Northwestern University

Image: Wisconsin Historical Society library reading room, Wikimedia Commons.

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