This is a story about four women. It spans more than 100 years, but the setting's a little trickier to pin down. It could be said it takes place on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus, but it might be more accurate to say it leapt from the worn pages of century-old scrapbooks to a boundless network of social media connections.
It stars two UW-Madison alumnae: Ava Cochrane, who studied English literature from 1905-1909, and Lucy Rogers, who studied journalism from 1914-1919. Ava was a social butterfly who kept her schedule busy with dances, concerts, plays and trips to her cabin — and quite sassy, especially for her time. She even drank and swore every now and then. Lucy was also bold, though it shone through in different ways; she played field hockey and was involved in a variety of campus activities.
Ava and Lucy attended UW-Madison at a turning point not just for the United States — in the years leading up to and including World War I, and inching closer to women's suffrage — but also for the university. They were on campus while President Charles Van Hise led the university into the philosophy that came to be known as the Wisconsin Idea: the concept that the university should improve people's lives beyond the campus.
The story picks up in the summer of 2013, with two women working in the UW Archives: Megan Costello, a School of Library & Information Studies master’s candidate who also happens to be the director of communications for the College of Letters and Science, and Vicki Tobias, an images and media archivist for the archives.
Through a series of blog posts on the "Found in the University Archives!" Tumblr, Costello and Tobias have brought to life Ava and Lucy's stories — and along with them, an assortment of slices of campus history. Sometimes surprising, sometimes amusing, sometimes a little shocking, each "From the Vaults & Back" post focuses on a detail from the women's lives and, more often than not, shows that, as different as the world was, then, much about UW campus life has stayed the same.
The threads that connect Tobias and Costello to Ava and Lucy are the scrapbooks the young women made during their years at the university, providing an intimate glimpse into their lives as college students. More than 200 such scrapbooks are housed in the UW Archives vault in Steenbock Library, full of memories from men and women who attended school in Madison from the 1800s through the 1950s.
"It humanizes campus history," Tobias says. "It gives students on campus a way to connect to their past — a reason to be curious about the past. But it also gives them a sense of continuity and familiarity. You look through these scrapbooks and you see that pretty much every student has complained about climbing Bascom Hill and they still do. So there’s themes that connect us to our past that I think are really interesting to share."
What Tobias and Costello love about the scrapbooks is how revealing and personal they are.
"Oftentimes, we think of history as being very flat and two-dimensional and full of stereotypes, but if you dig in and you really think about what some of the students are saying and the comments they’re making under the photos, they have a sense of humor, they’re witty, they’re cynical, they’re sarcastic, they’re political," Tobias says. "So I think what I love about it is, it’s history coming to life for me."
Tobias served as Costello's advisor throughout the project, and she said Costello developed a formula for storytelling and connecting with the community that UW Archives will likely apply to other projects. Although Costello finished her research and writing at the end of the summer, there are still about 15 more posts in the series that will be published on the Tumblr in the coming weeks.
"One of the things I’ve been thinking about is how you can bring things back to life using social (media), which is so exciting," Costello says. "Just by crafting the story and being able to position it, so you can laugh about cat jokes with yearbook ads."
That's right — cat jokes were a thing, 100 years ago — and Costello unearthed an example.
From Tobias's perspective, social media has allowed the university archives to create new, stronger relationships with students, faculty and staff — and to reach new audiences beyond the UW campus. Just as the nature of the items archivists collect is changing, the nature of the way they produce and communicate information is changing, she said.
"I want people to be excited about campus history; I want them to feel connected to their campus history, and this is a great way that we can do that," Tobias says of the UW Archives Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook, Flickr and YouTube accounts.
Costello sees the value in those strengthened partnerships; in her role as a communications director, she sees endless possibilities for the materials in the university archives. Photos, letters, videos and more can be brought back to life to remember people, to pay tribute, to commemorate a special event, to educate, and more, she says.
The hope is that, at the very least, someone will see a post and learn something new about the UW campus — but also that they might remember the collections are there and use them for research. And further down the road, that they might donate items of interest to the archives.
The archives are free to access, and while an appointment isn't necessary, Tobias recommends talking to an archivist before visiting so she can pull a few boxes and collections out in advance.
"I want to make sure people feel like we’re doing right by these collections and making them accessible to anyone who ever wants them," Tobias says. "That’s really important to me."
Costello urges people not only to take advantage of collections like the UW Archives and the Wisconsin Historical Society, but also to consider the benefit of thinking carefully about what they choose to save and tell about their lives — whether that's by downloading their Twitter archive or by keeping a scrapbook.
It's something worth thinking about, she says — that she was able to take these two women, whose stories had essentially disappeared — and resurrect their experiences just by visiting the the vault in Steenbock.
"What I thought was so important was to see that I could bring her back up, out of the vaults, which was why I ended up calling it 'From the Vaults and Back,'" Costello says. "It was bringing these two women back to life."