Finding the meaning in sources: the diary of Laura Manier

Historians approach sources in two ways: first, what does the source say. Second, what does the source mean. As a historian with a dual interest in archives, I enjoy an unusual relationship with source materials. Unlike most researchers who visit distant repositories, I’m still the primary steward of the Khalaf Al Habtoor Archives  at Illinois College (that is, until they hire an archivist in the next few months). This means that when I look at sources, they hold multiple meanings and responsibilities. I not only want to know what they say, but I have vested interest in their preservation and public use. One of the most insightful sources that has turned up in my research so far is  the diary of Laura Manier, who attended the Young Ladies’ Athenaeum in 1878 (if you click on the link, you can read the whole thing yourself). An account of the spring 1878 semester, Laura wrote about parties and friends, outings with young men, difficult professors who made her friends cry, violin lessons (for which she did not always practice), and the cultural events and concerts in Jacksonville. 

I’m still in the process of transcribing and reading the entire diary, but as a source it says a  lot about life in Jacksonville in 1878. Laura is constantly attending concerts, often with notable musicians and singers, as well as social and cultural events. Jacksonville was no rural outpost at this point. I’m not sure it was even all that typical for a small, Midwestern city given the high number of cultural opportunities. Most small towns and cities had theaters featuring traveling performers and vaudeville shows, but with Jacksonville’s colleges and Conservatory of Music, Laura describes having to choose and almost seems burdened by the constant activity.

Her experiences are telling of the freedoms and limitations enjoyed by a young educated white woman. Initially, Laura was very unhappy in Jacksonville due to a disagreement with her roommate, Nettie. She tempered her discontent by attending her first opera and in early February, her family tried to assuage her with a box containing long letters, candy, oranges, apples, gold sleeve [pins] and a “great big cake.” She wrote, “When you are at school, you can appreciate such a gift.” But it did little good. Laura went on the describe how she moved out of Nettie’s room and held an “Indignation Meeting” with friends to address her grievances. Laura and Nettie finally made up with a “shower of tears,” but Laura was no stranger to ongoing conflict. Later, she described a  grouchy landlady who forced her to move boarding houses at mid-semester. One evening when Laura was late for dinner, her land lady was “red hot.” Laura retreated to her room where her “blood actually boiled and I paced the floor. How could I endure any more, knowing I was innocent of any meanness yet condemned for everything?” (p.48-49). Ultimately, Laura’s discontent must have gotten the better of her because she only appeared in the YLA’s catalog for one year.

But Laura’s diary is also imbued with historical meaning. First, someone thought to save it. Throughout the diary, someone filled in names to be more specific, as though Laura or a member of her family wanted to remember more clearly who she wrote about. Someone valued the diary enough to save it and eventually turn it over to IC. I can’t track the exact provenance of Laura’s diary, but I am aware of how easily it might have been lost.

About a month ago, while searching for some missing photographs (which I thankfully found), I pulled Laura’s diary out of our T-series, a hastily assembled collection consisting of scattered items that were simply left out on a table in the old archival space. With the impending move to the new facility in the Spring of 2014, I asked the students just to folder everything up, put it in a box, make an inventory, and put it away. In my highly technical approach to collections management, the stands for “table.” There was no time for real processing, but somehow, amid the stacks and piles on that table was a detailed record of one young woman’s Spring 1878 semester. I remember very briefly seeing Laura’s diary amid the clutter and thinking, “This needs some TLC,” but again, our purpose was to preserve, not to enjoy the sources. Into a folder it went. So finally, reading Laura’s diary represents my much longed for return to research and doing what I do best. Much more than a historical source, there is real joy in sharing Laura’s experience because I was part of its preservation in the first place.


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