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The state's word collector is closing his chapter of a never-ending story.

James Danky, a walking, talking wiki, a librarian and prophet who has lived comfortably in the past, and who has been a mentor to thousands of shoplifters, is retiring.

If all that sounds a little contradictory, then it accurately reflects the professional life and times of Danky, 35 years in all at the Wisconsin Historical Society. Officially, he is the newspapers and periodicals librarian.

What that position means is, if something is, or ever was, in print, then its ink has most likely darkened Danky's hands or its masthead passed over his desk, and its acquisition has tested his facility to collect. A test? No, more like a quest.

Danky has presided over one of the most comprehensive collections of printed works to be found anywhere.

As he described, appropriately, in a newspaper article in 2004:"Our role is, and our pride is, to assemble the fullest array of materials so that researchers have the opportunity to be challenged by all the materials that are out there."

At the time, Danky was being consulted for a story about the society library's religious periodical collection, which contained the only assembly of writings by Hutton Gibson, probably better known as actor Mel Gibson's father.

Danky tracked down Hutton in the usual way: Someone (in this case Danky's wife, Christine Schelshorn) saw a mention of Hutton in The New Yorker, and Danky wrote him a letter, and Hutton called him back. For $40, the story goes, Hutton sent Danky his books, a periodical subscription and back issues of a newsletter he wrote while working in a Wisconsin Civilian Conservation Corps camp in 1938-39.

That constant quest, with its trials, dead-ends, puzzles, rewards and dragons, ends soon.

When he retires, at 60, Danky will continue to teach a UW-Madison journalism course on minorities in the media and he will read comics.

"I'm going to work on a couple of books, a book on underground comics from the 1960s, a bibliography of underground newspapers and ..." said Danky, his voice not trailing off but gaining momentum.

"If I am going to do these books, I just need more time," he said.

"I am going to retire so I can work harder," he laughed. "I am going to stay deeply interested in, and advocate for, small and alternative publishing," he continued.

Danky notes that there is no lack of exception to the conventional wisdom that the future of print media is in the past.

"We are surrounded by print," he said.

It may not be in the forms grandma and grandpa knew, but the printed word is still out there and being collected. Danky has been granted nods of gratitude by representatives of most of them, including those in the world of "zines," the small-circulation low-budget publications.

"People still get tons of print, beyond the daily newspaper, the magazines, the church bulletins, the newsletters," Danky said. Collecting the periodicals of the day is a way of measuring society, and even the way it is collected is part of the reflection.

The New Jersey Militia, for example, is in the society's unrivaled collection of right-wing periodicals, and its publishers require payment, in advance, by postal money order.

"We are in this time of terrific transition, where the pace of change outstrips anything in my lifetime. Where print-on-paper will end up, well, if I knew the answer I would be rich," he said.

All he can say for sure is that it will end up in the Wisconsin Historical Society Library.

Danky's expertise, particularly in alternative and minority-targeted and -created literature and in such areas as African-American periodicals, has been noted by professional organizations. He holds a position as director of the Center for the History of Print Culture in Modern America, a center to which he donated the entire $5,000 he received from an award honoring his contributions to "reference librarianship."

A symposium has been held in his name, reporters seek him out for comments and he remains as approachable.

It is his connection to a niche in the justice system, however, that Danky considers to be one of his most important duties, and one that he fears will be lost.

He supervises first offenders who are "doing time" at the Historical Society Library. More than 2,600 first offenders, by his count, have been placed in his office to work off their community service sentences by doing mundane chores such as ironing newspapers. Danky reckons the state has saved $942,000 by using first offenders in his office.

Melvin Juette, who runs the first offender program for Dane County, is a little worried that the Historical Society library's connection with the program will end when Danky leaves, something that worries Danky, too.

"The (first offenders) like it. It is a quiet environment, they are treated nicely and they are able to go in and do their hours," he said.

Danky, a former social worker who has long appreciated the ironies of life as a public servant, notes that he volunteered to supervise the program and, when he is gone, there will be no one left to run the program because of budget cuts.

"Basically, we won't be able to afford to save money," he said.

The society's director, Ellsworth Brown, provided an uncertain response on the program's survival, saying, "as staff positions are filled in the future, the society will seek opportunities to work once again with the first offenders program."

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