Deb Anderson seeks to bring the past back to life by connecting people with historical objects

Editor’s note: As Green Bay prepared to host the national television PBS series, “Antiques Roadshow” (viewers will be familiar with the format of individuals and experts coming together to discuss the value and rareness of objects), we share our story about UW-Green Bay’s “archivist evangelist.”

“What’s past is prologue”
-William Shakespeare

History plays an important role in Deb Anderson’s life. Her first job in college was with her campus archives and research center, and her passion for bringing the past back to life started a domino effect that continues today.

Archivist Deb Anderson poses with an original source diary.

Archivist Deb Anderson with an original source Oneida language record book

Anderson, now the director of UW-Green Bay’s Archives and Area Research Center, manages all aspects of University Archives, including research services, collecting and preserving original materials and coordinating a wide variety of outreach projects, including teaching people of all ages.

The self-proclaimed “archivist evangelist” seeks to connect individuals to original materials on a more personal level. She believes there is something for everyone in the archives and enjoys helping people find connections to the documents and the past.

James S. Anderson's civil war diaries ca.1861-64.

James S. Anderson’s civil war diaries ca.1861-64

In the archives, every day is different. On any given day, Anderson works with community leaders and individuals interested in saving their records and precious family documents. At the same time, she assists a variety of people with a wide range of research questions. Anderson notes she has helped everyone from filmmaker Ken Burns (“Ken Burns America”) to adoptees; from history buffs to ghost hunters.

One of Anderson’s favorite roles is teaching people of all ages and introducing them to the rich treasures in the archives.

A ca.1735 Spanish/Nahualt (Indigenous language of Mexico) dictionary from the Archives' Rare Books collection.

Spanish/Nahualt (Indigenous language of Mexico) dictionary ca.1735, Archives’ Rare Books collection

“While some people may be inclined to think of the scarcity of a historical record, or its financial value, I think in terms of the intrinsic value,” she explains. “I pose questions to students such as ‘What can we learn about the past from this Civil War letter?’ ‘What do 1820s court records tell us about race relations?’ ‘How do 40-years-worth of diary entries paint a picture of life as a rural housewife?’”

A behind the scenes glimpse of the archival storage area.

Behind-the-scenes glimpse of the archival storage area

Anderson is also on a mission to educate individuals on the importance of preserving history. She mentions old courtship letters and diaries of soldiers as examples.

“We are able to analyze dating trends and etiquette from the past through old courtship letters and apply that knowledge to the present… or understand the experiences of a soldier by reading his or her diaries. However, now that most communication is digital, how will we be able to document these experiences for future audiences?”

Anderson joined UW-Green Bay in 1989. Prior to that, she worked on a project to process business archives at the Wisconsin State Historical Society. She often serves as a consultant for corporations, organizations and historical institutions about their archival collections. She has bachelor’s and master’s degrees in history from Mankato State University (Minn.) and a Master of Library and Information Studies degree from UW-Madison.

Learn more about the UW-Green Bay Archives and Area Research Center at www.uwgb.edu/archives. If you have your own treasure trove of historical records and other objects that might need a new home, or you want help in understanding the historical significance, Anderson welcomes a chance to talk with you. Email her at andersod@uwgb.edu.

Story by Amy Bauer ‘17, photos by University Photographer Dan Moore.