Humanities & Culture

How can you not care about the past?


Erika Janik in her second home: the Wisconsin Historical Society, where she unearths the stories from our past. Photo: Bryce Richter.

It’s a question that Erika Janik MA’04, MA’06 has been asking since her childhood in Seattle, where she was raised by parents who loved history and guided by teachers who nurtured her eager curiosity about those who lived before her.

“I learned from a young age that history is more than a bunch of dates,” Janik says. “It’s stories about fascinating people.”

Janik has told some of those stories in this magazine, most recently through the tale of 1920s scientist William Bleckwenn. With UW master’s degrees in history and journalism in hand, when she’s not at her job as a producer for Wisconsin Public Radio, she’s pursuing her passion: scouring documents, letters, and other artifacts of earlier days. “I love reading the words of people from the past,” she says. “How did they see the world around them? These people are a lot like you — they just lived one hundred and fifty years ago.”

Well, maybe not exactly like you. Janik finds particular pleasure in unearthing the odd and quirky when she’s digging around in a library’s archives. “Quirky stories are the avenue into the rest of history,” she says, admitting that her motive is to lure you in, to show you that learning about the past can be fun, exciting, and a powerful tool for understanding ourselves. And besides, the stories that aren’t in textbooks are the best, she says, calling them “secret knowledge.”

Janik credits close-to-home libraries as treasure troves for researching her books, including her latest, Marketplace of the Marvelous: The Strange Origins of Modern Medicine (Beacon Press), and her next-up exploration into real and fictional female detectives. She has spent countless hours at the Wisconsin Historical Society, bent under the warm, comforting light of a reading lamp.

As she walks up the building’s “worn marble stairs,” she says, “I love thinking about everyone who has walked there before me.”

Published in the Spring 2015 issue


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