The first two archivists at the University of Wisconsin Archives both had the distinction of serving with the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives program (MFAA) during World War Two. Both of these Monuments Men, Gilbert H. Doane and Jesse E. Boell, were instrumental in the creation of the collection we have today.
An undated portrait of UW Archivist Jesse Boell smoking a cigar.
Jesse Boell was born in 1899 in Nebraska. He served in the Navy during the last months of World War I. Boell earned his B.A. from Nebraska Wesleyan University (where he played basketball and football) and M.A. from the University of Nebraska before moving to Wisconsin to continue his graduate studies in history at the UW.
From 1937 until 1941 Boell served as the State Director of the Wisconsin Historical Records Survey, a project to collect and publish an inventory of local, county, federal, church, and court records around the state, as well as manuscript and newspaper collections. The survey, a WPA project begun in 1935 to collect for the first time all repositories for vital statistics, became an increasingly important resource as the National Defense Program began demanding proof of age and citizenship for WWII defense workers.
Archivist Jesse Boell examines records during his time at the Wisconsin Historical Society.
This effort complete, Boell transferred to the National Archives in Washington, D.C. where he was Assistant Chief of the War Records Division. Part of his work at the Archives involved the preservation and security of highly classified State Department records during WWII.
After the war, Boell went to Germany as an archives officer with the MFAA. As one of the Monuments Men, he helped in the efforts to preserve Nazi records, including some of those famously found stored in abandoned salt mines. Boell was also part of the military government in Germany and participated in the Nuremberg Trials.
Boell returned to the United States in late 1946 and in 1947 he moved back to Madison to accept the position of State Archivist for the Wisconsin Historical Society. His tenure at WHS was innovative, and Boell is credited with the development of several important archival ideas, including regional archival depositories and loaning federal depository documents.
Wisconsin Historical Society archivist Jesse Boell in his office on the third floor of the Historical Society building.
Perhaps most important (in our obviously unbiased opinion) was his creation of the the collection that would become the University of Wisconsin Archives. Originally a division of the State Archives, the development of UW Archives hit its stride with the research and writing of Merle Curti and Vernon Carstensen’s two volume history of the UW. Boell worked with Carstensen to classify and catalog the University’s records, which they found in “appalling shape.”
Boell continued to expand the UW collection during his time as Wisconsin State Archivist. When Gilbert Doane, the first University Archivist, took time off for research in 1959, Boell was appointed director of the Archives and an associate professor at the University. Boell worked with Doane until Doane’s retirement in 1962, when Boell himself became University Archivist.
During Boell’s 12 years with the UW Archives the collection grew to over 12,000 cubic feet of records with 9,000 reference requests annually, the third largest academic archives in the United States. It was a hands-on job: “There is no attic or basement or temporary building on the campus I’ve not searched for valuable records,” he recalled during an interview. The collection continues to serve not only as part of the historic record, but as an important reference collection for students and scholars across Wisconsin and the nation.
University Archivist Jesse Boell poses with a framed copy of ‘The Archivist’s Code’.
Although he retired in 1971 (only because of reaching the mandatory retirement age), Boell continued to work in the Archives as a volunteer, including writing a handbook for future University archivists. It was a labor of love: “This business of retirement. If you’re interested in what you’re doing, it’s the end, dammit.”
At the time of his retirement, he was named Emeritus Professor of History by the Board of Regents in 1971.
Boell died in Madison in 1991.
By Elzbieta Beck for UW-Madison Archives
For more information about this story or UW-Madison campus history, visit http://archives.library.wisc.edu. On Wisconsin!