A national history organization last month honored a Stoughton man for a career spent relentlessly helping to document the experience of everyday Americans for the permanent historical record.
Jim Danky received the Distinguished Service to Journalism History Award Aug. 27 from the American Journalism Historians Association. The award is a “rare honor” given on three other occasions and is generally reserved for those “outside the field of academe who have made major contributions to the preservation of journalism history,” according to an AHA Awards Committee news release.
“It is obvious that any successful nominee must be someone who truly ‘has made an extraordinary effort to further significantly our understanding of, our ability to explore, media history,’” wrote AJHA Awards committee chair Dr. Thomas A. Mascaro.
Danky, a faculty associate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication, was responsible for the preservation of a massive newspaper collection he tended during a 40 year career at the State Historical Society of Wisconsin, second in size only to the series at the Library of Congress.
One nominator wrote that Danky, “radically increase(ed) the scope of the Society’s serial holdings in many new fields” . . . (and) added more than 75,000 new titles during his tenure, helping to “define many new areas for inquiry by historians.” He was credited for being particularly effective at preserving publications outside the mainstream, such as African American, Native American, Alaska natives, Hawaiian natives, Latin American and Haitian American newspapers, among others.
“James Danky, through sheer dedication and resolve, expanded newspaper collections for the University of Wisconsin-Madison for overlooked subjects, and helped organize conferences and colloquia to expand intellectual discourse on these topics of journalism history,” Mascaro wrote. “His long list of impressive professional services to the field of media history is truly outstanding.”
Danky told the Hub last week he is particularly proud of the award “because it comes from peers, and even more so that it comes more than 12 years after I’ve retired.”
“My goodness … to be remembered so nicely,” he said. “I’m glad for all the support the society provided during my decades of work there.”
Danky started working at the historical society in 1973 with a student job when he was attending graduate school next door at UW-Madison. He retired in 2007.
“I just never left,” he told the Hub last week.
Tasked with acquiring materials, Danky said his approach came from a “pretty simple idea that everybody should be able to speak for themselves.”
“You want that principle of authenticity, and as a historian, I want those print materials that are the manifestation of that,” he said.
Danky was always actively seeking out the widest possible spectrum of publications to add to the collection, he said. The more obscure, the better.
“It’s about getting those authentic voices, and you do that by ceaselessly asking people about things – was there a newsletter from that group?” he said. “Back in the age of bookstores, you looked at the stuff on the ‘free’ piles. Don’t take the mainstream view if there’s an even more specific publication.”
Some of the more interesting ones over the years have been military newspapers, Danky said, which number by the hundreds, with a variety of information.
“Sometimes you get them from places that are incredibly ‘of the moment,’ like the base we’ve got in Kandahar, Afghanistan or (Guantanamo Bay, Cuba),” he said.
Those publications would include basic information like the cafeteria menu, he said, but also details people don’t find elsewhere.
“To me, it was about trying to take the lived experience of Americans and try to figure out what kind of print they produced, and what kind of print would be interesting to collect,” he said. “If you think that the lives of people are important, then you look for the sources that document them, and you collect them and make them available.”