This site collects images and descriptions of early citizen petitions specifically concerning divorce written to the legislatures of the Wisconsin Territory, and later the State of Wisconsin, from 1836 to 1891. All images on this site are sourced from the Wisconsin Historical Society (WHS) online collection and are in the public domain. This site is primarily published for INFO 684 Museum Information Management.
The Wisconsin citizen petitions are a unique set of records because they are among the earliest legal records in the Wisconsin State Archives. They show the various ways settlers of the Wisconsin Territory, and later state, interacted with the government. Documents in the Citizen Petitions, Remonstrances, and Resolutions, 1836-1891 collection illustrate the development of the state and link Wisconsin to larger national trends. WHS has made the 2,500 unique documents from the collection available online and published a digital exhibit featuring short essays and links to important original source documents in the collection. Short blurbs describe the background and implementation of citizen petitions as well as the range of reactions, including opposition and violence.
I am the original archivist who flattened, catalogued, and summarized these unique physical items so that they could be presented online intact to provide the fullest possible access without transcribing the petitions. It's hard to imagine that the writers of these petitions imagined their words being made public at all, let alone exhibited as windows to a distant past. As archivist, my job was primarily—and literally— to flatten narratives so they could be formatted as scans in an online collection, yet these documents demand a more robust examination as remnants of lives lived than the data architecture allows. I feel a sense of voyeurism when displaying the records of these people who advocated for themselves and their community members in writing to their legislators over a century ago. I have not yet reconciled with this odd intimacy.
I hope that, as I put this in writing, I convey the importance of confronting this liminality as both individual information professionals and as members of larger institutions. I am not a database professional, nor am I a particularly experienced catalog builder: it is easier for me to see problems in information infrastructure than to repair them. Radical transformation of collection practice only goes so far when the cataloging system itself remains based in hierarchies and the fake narrative of archival objectivity. I worry about teams at smaller institutions, working with fewer hands and fewer resources, that are not able to overhaul database infrastructure to create foundational change, rather than spot-by-spot reform. I wonder, if WHS had the full funding to implement a catalog overhaul, what these divorce petitions' metadata could look like.
But there are teams of archivists already laying the groundwork for reparative archiving: collection practices that follow a feminist ethics approach in which archivists are seen as caregivers, bound to record creators, subjects, users, and communities through a web of mutual affective responsibility and radical empathy. The Blackivists are leaders in this push. I believe that this reparative approach to archiving is the future of the field. I hope that as the Blackivists and many other voices bring attention to the way data systems replicate division between archives and record creators, subjects, patrons, and larger communities, institutions will step forward and lend their resources to the folks transforming data architecture practice on the ground.