Darlene Winter, Elizabeth Frank, Mary Kazmierczak
Milwaukee County Zoo
Writing a History of a Zoo
It can be difficult to write a book, but writing a history book, especially the history of a zoo, presents extra challenges. Every detail from the concept of a zoo, to the reality and progress throughout the years has to be documented.
If you know you cannot create the whole book yourself, recruit others who have the expertise to complete the task. Once everyone involved has made the commitment, you should make inquiries of publishers. Before all the work begins, try to have a publisher interested in the book. Contact zoo officials. Tell them of your project and solicit any support they are willing to give. Especially helpful is to have the Introduction or Foreword written by a zoo official.
Ideally, every zoo should have a library filled with the history of the zoo in the form of photographs, minutes of meetings and personal writings. All are invaluable for writing a book. However, explore all options available such as public libraries, historical societies and even private collections. Keep track of all photographs and to whom they belong, since permissions need to be obtained unless the zoo owns the photograph. The publisher may or may not pick out the cover photograph.
The photographs have to be scanned according to the publisher’s specifications. The book is more pictorial than text. The chapters’ introductory page and captions for each picture are what is required. After the text is completed, have several individuals read it for clarity and errors.
The publishing company will send you the proof. Review it carefully and make any changes you feel necessary. Return the proof and the book will go to print. With the publisher’s assistance, a book launch can be planned at the zoo or local bookstore.
Why Zoo History Matters
Zoological parks are important civic institutions in cities large and small. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, cities developed parks and zoos for the recreation of their inhabitants and to bring nature into the lives of city dwellers. Having a zoo was also a status symbol – an indication of the city’s economic, social, and political development. This was certainly the case in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The development of the Washington Park Zoo, the precursor to today’s Milwaukee County Zoo, was spurred by German immigrants and first generation German-Americans who wanted a zoo not only for the recreation of the residents, but also to announce Milwaukee’s emergence as a prosperous and socially-advanced city. Thus, preserving the history of the zoo is part of preserving the history of the city.
In the last twenty-five years, zoo history has moved beyond the celebration of institutional anniversaries. The examination of animal-human relationships has emerged as an academic discipline. Zoos have long been a venue for animal science research. Now, zoos are also venues for social science research, and the history of the zoo, the history of its animal collection, and the interactions between zoo animals and zoo visitors are subjects for academic research.
This paper discusses two projects that help to preserve the rich history of zoological parks. The Milwaukee County Zoo Library and Archive began in 1987. The library focuses on published material related to all aspects of zoo operations, including the history of zoos. The archive has two collection foci: material on the history of the Milwaukee County Zoo, including the previous Washington Park Zoo, and materials from zoos worldwide. The Milwaukee County Zoo materials include photographs, slides, 8-mm and 16-mm films, newsletters, annual reports, guidebooks, and souvenir memorabilia. Materials from zoos worldwide include newsletters, annual reports, inventories, and other printed material. We have received manuscript collections from Daniel Moreno, former director of the Cleveland Aquarium, and Gary Clarke, the Director Emeritus of the World Famous Topeka Zoo. In 2007, the Zoo received the Governor’s Award for Archives Innovation from the Wisconsin Historical Records Advisory Board. The Zoo was cited for taking the subject of zoo history beyond the confines of institutional history and recognizing that the histories of individual zoos acquire added meaning when considered in relation to their local communities, in comparison to other zoos, and in light of broader cultural trends.
The Pittsburgh Zoo’s Zoo/Aquarium Video Archive Project chronicles the history of zoos and aquariums through videotaped interviews with distinguished zoo/aquarium directors and veterinarians. By preserving the perspectives of many of the leading directors and veterinarians of the last half of the 20th century, this project allows zoo professionals to benefit from the wisdom of the pioneers who created our modern zoological parks with its emphasis on zoo conservation.
Preserving Zoo History
The Milwaukee County Zoo Library and Archives houses a collection of historical materials about the Milwaukee County Zoo and the Washington Park Zoo, the forerunner of the current zoo. This collection includes oil paintings, black-and-white and color photographs, slides, 8-mm and 16-mm black-and-white and color films, VHS tapes, DVDs, newsletters, annual reports, guidebooks, and souvenir memorabilia, including statues, postcards, and pins and buttons. One function of the archive is to preserve all of these items. Many of these historically important items, such as photographs, films, and paper documents, are kept in temperature and humidity controlled storage to prevent further deterioration. These historical materials are also preserved in the appropriate archival envelopes, sleeves, folders, boxes, film cans, etc., to preserve the item and reduce further deterioration.
A second function of the archive is to make these historical materials available for use by academic researchers and historians of local history. Making the collection available for use requires cataloging of the materials, creating finding aids, and creating paper or digital representations of fragile original documents and images.
Preservation of historical materials and making these materials available for research use requires professional staff with training in document and artifact preservation, as well as cataloging for public use, such as a librarian, an archivist, or graduate of a museum studies program. The Milwaukee County Zoo employs a part-time contract librarian to manage the library and archive. Preserving the history of the zoo is a large, time consuming, and labor-intensive task. Zoo volunteers can be invaluable in assisting with preservation tasks.
Under the supervision of the librarian, Milwaukee County Zoo library volunteers help with preserving images by organizing photo collections and placing the photos in archival photo envelops. With appropriate equipment (in the future), volunteers will scan photos, slides, and postcards into digital formats. These digitized images will then be put into a searchable photo database that will allow for the use of the images while ensuring preservation of the originals. Volunteers are working on transferring non-commercial, zoo-produced VHS tapes to DVD. These tapes are of veterinary procedures, animal introductions, or animal enrichment sessions, the content of which, without transfer to digital, would be lost to tape deterioration. Volunteers also assist in preparation of documents for archiving by removing staples and paper clips, organizing by date or subject, and placing documents in archival folders.
Working together, zoo staff and volunteers can preserve the history of the zoo and make that history available to academic researchers and local history writers.