Engaging the Past through a Community of Transcribers: The Rural Diary Archive

Erin Schuurs

John Harrington Ferguson Peel Art Gallery, Museum and Archives

John Harrington Ferguson
Peel Art Gallery, Museum and Archives

In September 2015, Professor Catharine Anne Wilson and the library at the University of Guelph, launched the Rural Diary Archive*, an online archive showcasing over 130 Ontario diarists writing from 1800 to 1960.  This digital archive collectively holds thousands of pages of handwritten diaries and the goal in placing these pages online is to engage volunteer transcribers. By fostering a transcriber community, those working behind the scenes of the Rural Diary Archive hope to make these hard-to-use but highly valuable documents more accessible.

With the launch of the website, I myself decided to try my hand at transcribing. My first task was actually choosing the diary I would transcribe from the wide variety of diaries available. I eagerly searched through my options. Should I choose a diarist who lived in a region of Ontario I was familiar with? Would I relate best with a female diarist? Perhaps a farmer? I eventually landed upon John Ferguson’s diary from 1869. After looking through some of the diaries, I admit that my initial attraction to Ferguson’s journal was based upon the highly prosaic reasoning that I found his handwriting the easiest to read.

As I began transcribing, I found the process rather time consuming. While Ferguson’s handwriting was relatively clear, Ferguson had his own way of writing capital letters and would use short forms to represent names of people and places. Patience was key at this early stage, but as I progressed, I began to recognize the quirks of his particular writing style. In this way, it was almost like unlocking a code and once his diary was unlocked, I started piecing the puzzle together, and I found that I was quickly swept into Ferguson’s world.

Ferguson was a young farmer from Peel County who had left high school when his father fell ill to take over the running of the family farm. I quickly learned what mattered to him based upon the focus of his entries. He studiously reported on his church attendance as a member of the local Wesleyan Methodist congregation. He attended two church services on Sundays (occasionally squeezing in an additional afternoon service as well) and a Wednesday evening service mid-week. He increasingly kept a record of these various sermons, tracking in his diary the subject of the various lessons, such as “The Unfortunate Widow,” supplemented by the corresponding bible verses, “Luke VIII.” It became clear to me as I progressed that Ferguson was increasingly focused upon his faith as shown by the steadily growing number of entries focused upon this aspect of his life.

I was also struck by the vibrancy of Ferguson’s neighbourhood. Almost every evening he reported upon his visits to neighbour’s homes where games and good conversation were the order of the evening. He regularly lent a hand on his neighbour’s farms, went sleighing into town, and welcomed visitors into his home for tea or dinner. As he made daily entries regarding these goings-on, I found that I had a clear picture of his busy life. It was heartening to see that as he worked hard as a farmer, he also found time to enjoy being a young man in his early twenties. What I found most intriguing was that I could begin to understand his personality, even sensing the mood he had been in while writing. He would make his entries in the evening before bed and most highlight that he was personable and jovial. However, events did not always go his way, putting him in a rather foul mood at times. For example, he made an entry following Mr. Wiggins’ surprise party, an event he did not enjoy “as dancing occupied the whole time.” It is likely the presence of dancing ruffled his Methodist sensibilities but despite his grumpy tone, he must have had some fun, as the party did not break up until 4 a.m. While his diary is not filled excessively with his opinions on matters of politics, economics, or international affairs, the daily experiences of this ordinary young man truly captured my attention. Ferguson’s world was filled with his local rural community, his family and friends.

However, sometimes the most intriguing entries are frustratingly vague and you find yourself caught up in a mystery. At one point in John’s diary, he described receiving a gift from Ms. Sarah Snell one evening at church. Ms. Snell had given John a photograph of herself. This immediately caught my attention as I knew that such a gift would have only been given if there was a possible romantic attachment between the two. However, the inclusion of this occurrence was void of all detail and was scribbled onto the very bottom of the page, almost as if it was an afterthought, and I found no later mentions of this photograph. Curiosity got the better of me and I looked up John’s biographic information on the website and found that he had married a Jennie Boyle, not Ms. Sarah Snell. I will have to keep transcribing if I hope to (possibly) learn the details of these events.

As I continue my transcribing, I have become aware of asking questions of my diary as I read in the hopes of deepening my understanding and analysis. Can I tease meaning from the diary by counting, mapping or otherwise using the dry details in new ways beyond simply reading them? What is left out and what is emphasized? Just as I needed patience to first comprehend John’s writing, I also need patience when it comes to content. John shares more details, observations and opinions than most diarists but there are still moments of vagueness and places where I greedily wish for more details. This is when you have to read between the lines, trust the character of your diarist, and do your best to fill in the blanks.

Transcriptions are important – they are about preserving our rural history – but they are also about engaging in history in a way that is fun. Through the Rural Diary Archive, genealogists and local historians, for example, will be able to quickly search for people and places from the comfort of their homes. Scholars can search specific themes and do qualitative, quantitative and spatial analysis. Viewers can enlarge images and use assistive technology for their reading pleasure. These rural diaries are an unmatched window into the daily lives of rural Ontarians like John Ferguson. It is fitting that their stories, so rooted in community, are being made public through the creation of a community of readers and transcribers.

Erin Schuurs is a PhD candidate in history at the University of Guelph.

*This website would not be possible without the generous financial support of the Francis and Ruth Redelmeier Professorship in Rural History. If you have any interest in trying your hand at transcribing or know of any diaries that need a safe home, please visit the Rural Diary Archive, or contact Catharine Wilson at cawilson@uoguelph.ca.

2 thoughts on “Engaging the Past through a Community of Transcribers: The Rural Diary Archive

  1. Bonnie Huskins

    Hi Erin: I am so pleased to see you working with diaries like John Fergusson’s. Transcribing can be a time consuming and frustrating business, but rewarding in the end. Michael Boudreau and I have been working with the diaries of a working-class homemaker named Ida Martin from Saint John, New Brunswick, who left behind a series of diaries which run from 1945-1992. When analyzing the diaries, we became aware of the need to understand the convention of diary-writing used by writer, the significance of handwriting, the use of punctuation, and decoding phrases like “Just the usual work” or “Allan [her husband] is bad today.” Ida’s diaries are an example of “intensive writing.” She only had four lines to work with every day, so it is interesting to see what she decided to write about. Michael and I have written a research note on some of the interpretive issues we have been working with: “`Daily allowances’: literary conventions and daily life in the diaries of Ida Louise Martin (nee Friars), Saint John, New Brunswick, 1945-1992″, Acadiensis, XXXIV, 2 (Spring 2005). I think you might find it interesting….And you are right: working with these diaries is a lot of fun! 🙂

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