The diaries, notebooks, family letters, and accounts of men and women in rural society provide direct records of their own lives, activities, interests, and ideas. Thus they are very important documents for rural history. The best cover extended periods and are systematic in what they record of the rhythms and routines of rural life. But brief and even fragmentary records can still take us inside the author’s world in ways no other document can.
The University of Guelph archives holds a representative range of such material. Several major diaries that are currently being processed will greatly enhance the scope and quality of the collection.
In assessing any such document it is necessary to go beyond the catalogue description. Look through the source itself, to see its form, its main purposes and content, and the exact period covered. Is it consistent? Are there chronological gaps? What sorts of activities does it document? Is it about sales, purchases, work, travel, the employment of others, religion, politics, community and social events? If marketing is involved, what is bought and sold, from and to whom, and where? Are there some main characters? Where is it set? Watch also for complete changes in the character of the document, as when an old book was taken up anew, perhaps in a different location, by a different author, or for another purpose.
Among the challenges in using these sources is to make sense of the frame of reference, what the author took for granted and did not directly address at all. Detail can pose puzzles too – for example, unfamiliar (to us) names, places, and relationships. Further challenges include language – eccentric spelling and unfamiliar words – and handwriting. Words, once deciphered, can be checked in major dictionaries and in specialized sources (e.g. 19 th century almanacs).
Taking the time and making the effort to get to know the source(s) will, however, open perspectives deeply into rural life, revealing choices, complexities, and meanings that outside observers never saw and inviting new and different questions from those that have usually been asked.
Some examples of sources that have done this, making imaginative, systematic use of such records.
Catharine Anne Wilson, “Reciprocal Work Bees and the Meaning of Neighbourhood,” Canadian Historical Review, 82: 3 (Sept. 2001), 431-64
Historical Atlas of Canada, vol. 2, L. Gentilcore, ed., Plate 14 A New Agriculture: Upper Canada to 1851, Annual Farm work on the Benjamin Smith farm, 1805 and 1838.
Cecil J. Houston and William J. Smyth, Irish Emigration and Canadian Settlement: Patterns, Links, and Letters (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1990). Includes text and interpretation of letters
Winifred B. Rothenberg, “The Market and Massachusetts Farmers, 1750-1855,” Journal of Economic History, 41: 2 (June 1981), 283-314
The Seasonal Round of Gentry farmers in Early Ontario: A Preliminary Analysis
by James O'Mara
Terry Crowley, "Rural Labour", in Paul Craven, ed., Labouring Lives : Work and Workers in Nineteenth-Century Ontario.(Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1995). pp. 13-104
Some examples of published diaries:
Royden Loewen, ed, From the Inside Out: The Rural Worlds of Mennonite Diarists, 1863 to 1929 (Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 1999)
Elizabeth Smith, “A Woman with a Purpose”: The Diaries of Elizabeth Smith, 1872-1884, Veronica Strong-Boag, ed (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1980). Included because, before she went on to pioneer in other ways, Elizabeth Smith taught at (and recorded the life of) a rural school.
Jon Studiman’s essay on the John Keith account book is available in the University of Guelph Archives.