Bernie Schermetzler, CALS’ keeper of the past, retires

If you’ve ever needed an old campus photo, you may have talked to Bernie Schermetzler. The same is true if you had a photo that you didn’t need but couldn’t see throwing away. It’s the same story for old files, letters, notebooks and other one-of-a-kind items that help tell the history of the college and university.

Schermetzler retired recently after three decades as a UW-Madison archivist. For most of that time he was the campus photo archivist and also the de facto CALS archivist. The latter is partly because he spent most of his career stationed in Steenbock Library. It may also have to do with his background—he was raised on a farm near Marshfield—and with the fact that some of the most interesting things in the archives have a CALS connection.

“The Aldo Leopold photo collection hands-down is the most popular,” he says. “It’s our most significant and most widely used collection, used by people from all over world.”

Less well-known but equally fascinating, he says, are papers, recordings, manuscripts acquired by Robert Gard, a longtime Extension faculty member who collected and published the folklore of Wisconsin and the Midwest.

“Another great collection is the county agent reports. These are field reports from extension agents for most of the counties in the state. We don’t have every one from every year, but we have them back to the teens and probably into the 60s and 70s,” he adds. “They’ve got stuff about 4-H, field notes, projects, some photos. It’s very popular with researchers who have a local interest. It’s a great microcosm of rural life.”

Those of us who have shoeboxes of unlabeled family pictures stashed away can’t help but admire a guy who’s been able to keep track of thousands of images and boxes of other ephemera, some of it predating the establishment of the university. And while technology has helped in some ways, it has also brought some challenges.

“Now that everybody has ability to scan and manipulate images, it’s more difficult to control appropriate usage. And people are more demanding in how soon they want things and what they want,” Schermetzler explains. “People are casting wider net, and they want things sooner — they’re used to it because of the immediacy of information technology.

The new technology has spurred some interesting projects, such as the digitizing of the Leopold collection.

“It is our largest and most significant digitizing project. It includes just about every scrap of paper that Aldo ever had. His journals are all online and searchable.“

His parting advice is to think twice before you throw stuff away.

“What’s valuable from a historical standpoint are images, paper documents, primary source materials, faculty and staff material, letters to home, old scrapbooks.” Less valuable are non-primary materials, published materials for which there are multiple copies, and stuff that’s disorganized or unidentified.

“We’ve seen lots of really interesting photos that are less valuable because we don’t know what they are,” he says.

So get out those old family snapshots and start labeling.