The Information Mosaic and the Narratives of the Past: An Exploration in Structuring Historical Discourses on the Web


Because I am interested in the issues of digital continuity for historical materials and archival documents, I embarked with a group of students on a research project which resulted in a digital archive documenting the history of Wisconsin. This web-based resource was created by the students in Library and Information Studies class Special Collections in the Digital Environment, at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

It includes two modules, the Frautschi Letters Virtual Archive, and the Wisconsin Mosaic. This resource uses unpublished materials from local collections including the Max Kade Institute, to tell the story of a family of Swiss immigrants who settled in Wisconsin in the mid-19th century. Astute keepers of family tradition, they left a richess of information about the period in a collection of letters, a diary, and an essay on family history written by Lowell Frautschi, based on reminiscence and the family records. The extant letters reflect a lively correspondence between the Wisconsin Frautschis and the Swiss Frautschis, and between Madison and Minnesota Frautschis. Frautschi Letters Virtual Archive provides digital continuity for this collection of letters that document the lives of the members of the Frautschi family from 1852 to almost a century later when Lowell Frautschi reminisces on his family history in 1969.

From rags to riches, this family embodies an immigrant success story, in which a carpentry business grew into a fortune of one of most prominent Madison families, patrons of culture and the arts. The letter narratives relate the experiences of a rough overseas passage of Johann Jacob Frautschi, who emigrated to America in 1852, with graphic detail about the physical discomfort of such voyage, and the problems of setting up a business. Christian Frautschi, who emerges as a central figure in this body of correspondence, left a record of his life in letters that range from 1868 to 1905, from the first one written to his parents and siblings who stayed in Switzerland, relating the difficulty and expense of shipping periodicals and other items from the United States and Switzerland in the late 1860s to the impressions of his visit to his native Turbach in rural Switzerland almost forty years later in 1905. Excerpts from Christian Frautschi's diary tell a story that is unique and yet typical of the New World, of courage, optimism and willpower. This virtual archive is a mosaic that comes together to tell a story, or many stories, in the voices of its actual protagonists.

Providing a broader context for a biography of a family, The Wisconsin Mosaic reveals 19th century Wisconsin in a multimedia collage. It allows one to enter the information universe of a nineteenth-century Wisconsinite and understand the infrastructure that enabled information to circulate. It also brings to life the diversity that made up 19th century Southern Wisconsin in the voices of the protagonists of the revolutionary 1848 which swept Europe like wildfire and resulted in emigration of many of the political radicals of the time, the early suffragettes, the first nations, the immigrants, Black Americans, and women. The Wisconsin Mosaic is truly an authentic resource because it brings unpublished primary sources from the State Historical Archive to life, rigorously documenting them to make them available for scholarly use. The official launching of the site was celebrated on Monday, May 15, 2000, hosted by the Max Kade Institute. Ironically, the person who assumed the role of the Frautschi family historian, Lowell Frautschi, passed away just weeks before the completion of this project.

Last revised: August 29, 2000
Comments to: dalbello@scils.rutgers.edu