The Body in the Library
On December 28th, 1936, Ismé Aldyth Hoggan, professor of plant pathology at the University of Wisconsin, agent of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and librarian of a remarkably complete collection of virus literature, died five days after falling from a window at the Bradley Memorial Hospital in Madison, Wisconsin. Reports differ on whether her stay in the hospital was the result of a brief illness, or whether her unnamed sickness had lasted nearly a year. It had been an uncharacteristically warm and foggy Christmas Eve the night of Hoggan’s fall; other sources suggest it occurred on the 22nd. She was 36 years old (though misreported as 38). Hoggan was buried in lot 210, section 11 of Forest Hill Cemetery just after 2pm on the 30th, the snow beginning that night or Tuesday, with little change in temperature.
These hazy outlines of the end of a life are the result of my encounter with a dumpster full of books behind a science building in Madison, Wisconsin. This purge of material is part of a wider move away from traditional libraries at the University of Wisconsin, which in 2017 implemented its most recent Facilities Master Plan, calling for the reduction of physical library space by two-thirds, and the removal of nearly 85% of collections to offsite storage. Plans like these come about amid a push for libraries to change and adapt in response to user needs in the digital age. For instance, at the University of Texas in Austin’s Fine Arts Library, 75,000 volumes were removed to storage to create room for “makerspaces” where students can access digital resources such as 3D printing. Another floor was requisitioned as space for a STEM- based program meant to address what one university Dean referred to as the anachronism of the “fine arts.”
Pushback to actions like these has occurred—when the New York Public Library (NYPL) announced plans to move 1.5 million books into offsite storage as part of renovations (to be partially paid for through selling off two of its branch buildings), protests by New Yorkers, as well as authors and scholars worldwide, led the NYPL to change plans. A major concern addressed by library advocates is the need for ready access to materials, as well as the ability to browse shelves and draw from resources based on proximity rather than algorithms.
Another reality of closed-stack offsite storage is the loss of context that becomes ingrained in each collection—how they were built, maintained, and interacted with over their lifetimes. Without their original context, these stories become scrambled and irretrievable. In trying to reconstruct whose memory was being erased in the deaccession of the ‘I.A.H. Memorial Library’, whose volumes filled that dumpster, I have assembled a set of images and stories that can’t quite be marshalled into narrative. Each archive that I searched through, hoping to shed light on this “story,” instead produced something more haphazard and speculative. Now more than ever, when funding is being stripped from our institutions of public knowledge—when we naively trust that the world’s memory is safe online—it is important to take care of the stories that have not, and perhaps cannot, be digitized. In that dumpster is a story being repeated around the world everyday, of so much printed knowledge no longer accessible, and so many unprinted histories lost.
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On Wednesday, February 3rd, 1937, President Wilkie residing, the Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin adopted Agriculture Item 10 of 65, transferring Ismé Hoggan’s remaining unpaid salary towards the appointment of William B. Allington, research assistant in Horticulture. Hoggan’s name appears in no official University files after this date. Her estate, totalling £4124 15s. 5d., meanwhile, was transferred to James Johnson, fellow virology professor and previously director of her PhD research. These funds would be equivalent to approximately $352,123 CAD in 2019. From this financial bequest, Johnson continued to add to the contents of his deceased colleague’s collection of historical virus literature. Hoggan’s tombstone bears an epitaph, apparently written by Johnson, reading “Silence dear shadow will best become thy tomb — and grief that is not only deep but dumb.”
Header image: Luke Johnson, C & O, photograph, gesso, pumice, graphite, 2019
See more of Luke Johnson’s work.