My work with the George L. Mosse Program began in April 2021 at the UW Archives, working for the Oral History Program. The Mosse internship has a unique structure – it lends students to departments around campus that need extra hands for historical work. This worked particularly well for me, as I had already worked with the Oral History Program and enjoyed it; the internship would provide me with even more interesting interviews to work on. Throughout my time with the Mosse Program, I’ve been able to observe many different ways that we can record and preserve history, starting with the collection of individuals’ personal histories through oral interviews.
The Oral History Program’s Documenting COVID-19 project had a simple goal when it started: capture what daily life looks like in a pandemic, and preserve it for future generations. For me as a Mosse intern, this meant conducting interviews with a set of about 10 members of the UW community, including librarians, professors, alumni, and academic staff. I enjoyed checking in with this group every six months and indexing the content of the interviews, noting common themes and adjusting my interview questions as the pandemic progressed. I don’t think any of us could have anticipated how normalized COVID has become in our daily life, and I never would have imagined that we’d still be documenting the pandemic in the spring of 2022.
As our daily experience with the virus shifted, so did the themes of the interviews. My initial interviews included basic questions: Can you walk me through a typical day for you? How have you found the transition to new remote platforms? Through these questions, I learned about the different ways UW departments migrated online as well as the unique challenges each field faced. As an example, a Biomedical Engineering professor and researcher told me about the struggle to find basic plastic equipment, and how this has fundamentally altered the work she does in her lab. As the pandemic became more and more integrated into daily experience, however, I wanted to know: Has the pandemic permanently changed how you do your job? What do you anticipate the University community will look like in the coming semester?
Most frequently, my later interviews incorporated specific updates on the individuals’ lives. I checked in on their families, learned about career shifts and engagements, and even got to follow the UW Public History Project from its middle stages all the way to the launch of their capstone exhibit, Sifting and Reckoning. I asked my subjects what they had learned from this time and reflected on the purpose of archival work. University Archivist Katie Nash described a unique archival fatigue in one of our later interviews, saying,
“I think up front, we were like, oh my gosh, this pandemic is happening, we want to capture immediate experiences or day-to-day, you know, frame it as like what you’re doing every day has some kind of historical significance, and not waiting 10 years to say, oh, yeah, that thing that you did during 2020 and 2021 actually would be really useful for historians. But like, now, I’m just kind of like, you know what? Everyone’s tired. Everyone’s beyond tired. That stuff will appear later, when someone is ready for it to appear.”
As an archivist, it must be difficult to determine which stories to document, and I imagine it could be stressful to feel responsible for the preservation of narratives that might be important. From a historian’s perspective, though, it’s a given that there will be some stories that aren’t recorded, some holes in the narrative. Building the narrative back up from the surviving evidence is what makes history so rewarding.
Indeed, what we happen to preserve can be quite a lot, as I learned from my work on 1914: Then Came Armageddon, my most recent project with the Mosse Program. Our task was to translate an in-person exhibit on the outbreak of World War I onto a new online exhibit platform, using UW-Madison Special Collections and archival materials. Special Collections digitized pins, rare books, and postcards for the project, preserving a snapshot of daily life for future historians to access from all over the world. My favorite part of this project was working with the Andrew Laurie Stangel Collection postcards, which painted a vibrant picture of how German, French, and American civilians viewed the Great War. Readers will be able to see the results of this project soon, so I hope people enjoy the first digital cases of the exhibit!
The aspect of my work as an intern that taught me the most about the art of history was the task of processing interviews with George L. Mosse’s former students. I heard countless stories of his generosity, humor, and dedication to his students’ success. The many different places his history students ended up in life – across the country from Hollywood to Princeton, and all over the world – showed me just how valuable a history education can be, and the wide range of skills a student of history develops. While the interviews did not record every single fact about Mosse’s life and legacy, they still provide a rich archive of who he was as an educator, an academic, and a friend. His impact reaches beyond those he directly taught in the form of interns like me, who continue to benefit from his dedication to the craft of history.
Maddy McGlone will graduate in May 2023 from UW-Madison with a degree in History and Environmental Studies and a certificate in Folklore. She is currently writing her senior honors thesis on histories of conservation, wilderness, and the UW-Madison arboretum. She will serve as the Editor-in-Chief of ARCHIVE, UW’s undergraduate history journal, for the 2022-23 academic year and also works as a campus tour guide in her spare time.