Guide to Diaries Held at the American Philosophical Society

This guide covers over 1,700 journals held at the American Philosophical Society. Spanning over 300 years, these materials include daily journals, notebooks, meteorological reports, ships logs, and botanical journals. Each entry in the guide provides an overview of the diaries in the collection, information on how to locate material, extended diary notes, and selected quotations.
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Guide to the Diaries of the American Philosophical Society

Introduction by Will Fenton

Welcome to the diary research guide. This guide reflects my 11 months of research into the manuscript collections at the American Philosophical Society as the Elizabeth R. Moran Fellow (2017-18). All totaled, I examined 1,729 volumes across 115 manuscript collections spanning 340 years (1671-2011). Alongside descriptions of diaries contained in collections, the guide features more 400 new subject headings, 1,175 unique locations, and dozens of transcriptions. This introduction will outline my methodology, approach, and some of the more remarkable findings from the project.

The Diary

What is a diary and what does it do? That is, how is a diary different from, say, an autobiography? What can a diary do that an autobiography, travelogue, or commonplace book cannot?

While we might take journaling for granted, the diary is, not unlike the novel, a relatively new form. The term “diary,” derives from the Latin root diarium, a daily allowance or ration of food. The contemporary usage—a “daily record of matters effecting the writer personally”—does not appear until well into the modern period (the late-seventeenth century), according to the Oxford English Dictionary ("diary, n."). However, the requirement of daily entries would rule out many journals. Diarists self-consciously discuss their struggles with journaling—it emerges as something of a trope across the collections.

My view is that uneven record-keeping does not negate the diary-ness of a diary. In this sense, I fall into the camp of Philippe Lejeune, who argues that the single defining condition of a diary is the "dated entry" (383). Thus, a more accommodating definition might read: a personal volume containing dated entries. I use the terms "diary" and "journal" interchangeably, though I prioritize the term "journal" for records of travel, of which there are many. Finally, I use the term "volume" to refer to a sequence of entries, most of which assume the form a bound journal, but some of which appear as a folder of loose manuscript pages.

The second half of my opening question—what does it do?—is, I think, both more complicated and more interesting. How does a diarist measure her time? What events warrant documentation or interpretation? And, if a diary is a daily allowance, what sustenance does it provide, and for whom?

While all sorts of individuals maintain diaries, the genre is particular valuable as a window into women’s history. As a form of self-fashioning, a diary does not require access to print. It creates a space for daily reflections of labor—be it of the public (professional) or private (domestic) variety. Adrienne Rich has called the diary a “profoundly female, and feminist genre” (217) and Thomas Mallon has argued that the “history of women” is written in the diary, which he credits with accommodating “the texture of the everyday” (19). The audience of that history is ostensible the author herself, though the form is slippery.

Some diaries, especially those authored in the eighteenth-century, serve as a kind of semi-public authorship, or what Lynn Bloom would call “public private diaries” in which the “author creates and presents a central character, herself, as seen through a central consciousness, also herself” (28). Compare and contrast, for example, Charles Davenport’s “Introduction” to his 1881 diary, intended to remind himself of his “youthful days,” and Thomas Sullivan’s 1775-78 diary, which emulates the typological features of print and features a “Preface to a Reader.”

Thus, the who and when of journaling often informs what a diary does. I have sought to respect that diversity of genre, to take the most capacious possible approach (given the time available). In this sense, it might be appropriate to heed the counsel of Virginia Woolf, herself a diarist, on describing her approach to diary-writing:

What sort of diary should I like mine to be? Something loose knit and yet not slovenly, so elastic that it will embrace anything, solemn, slight or beautiful that comes into my mind. I should like it to resemble some deep old desk, or capacious hold-all, in which one flings a mass of odds and ends without looking them through. I should like to come back, after a year or two, and find that the collection had sorted itself and refined itself and coalesced, as such deposits so mysteriously do, into a mould, transparent enough to reflect the light of our life, and yet steady, tranquil compounds with the aloofness of a work of art. The main requirement, I think on re-reading my old volumes, is not to play the part of censor, but to write as the mood comes or of anything whatever; since I was curious to find how I went for things put in haphazard, and found the significance to lie where I never saw it at the time (20 April 1919).

An ongoing and necessarily interrupted project, the diary enables the diarist to revisit the past and reconstruct it from the present—the recursive nature of diary-writing is not unlike memory itself. And, without the formal constraints of the novel or the epistle, the diary is almost endlessly malleable. While I have delimited this project such that it can be, feasibly, accomplished within a year (as I discuss in the next section), I have also sought to respect the diary’s multiplicity and to celebrate the surprises contained in this capacious hold-all.

This Diary Guide

While it is likely that I have missed volumes and even perhaps some collections containing diaries, my hope is that this guide serves as a valuable resource for researchers and a foundation for future efforts, should the opportunity arise.

For the purposes of this project, a diary is:

  • manuscript material owned by APS
  • dated life writing that records events as they happened
  • bound and unbound, manuscripts
  • typed fragments, excerpts, or diary scraps (with dates)
  • daily journals, notebooks, meteorological reports, ships logs, botanical journals
  • life writing interspersed with ephemeral content and photographs (some of which could qualify as scrapbooks)
By the same token, a diary is not:
  • material not owned by APS
  • microfilmed, printed, published, or photocopied journals
  • autobiographies, account books, correspondence, commonplace books, field notes, ledgers, letterbooks, memoirs, memoranda, scrapbooks of only photographs, news clippings, and/or ephemera

Included in my survey are many volumes that tax the definition of “diary.” For example, the Thomas Lloyd journal (1789-1796) is something between diary, commonplace book, and a letterbook. The Harriet Verena Evans diary (1827-44) blends a woman’s spiritual diary with commonplace book, interweaving homage to son, scripture, religious self-assessment, and collected poetry. And Baruch Blumberg’s journals (1942-2011) often take on the appearance of scrapbooks, packed with business cards, conference programs, photographs, and various other ephemera. In each instance, I have adopted the most capacious approach in the hopes that more researchers will discover and use these rich collections.

Searching across this guide underscores the strength and diversity of the APS manuscript collections. At the top of any researcher's list ought to be the institution’s prodigious family papers. For example, the Vaux family papers feature 160 volumes of diaries traversing two centuries of American history, and the Smith-Houston-Morris-Ogden family papers contain at least 179 volumes spanning multiple generations of multiple families. With volumes ranging from 1671-2011, the American Philosophical Society has diaries that predate the colony of Pennsylvania and postdate the 2008 economic crisis. Although APS is well-known for its early American history and history of science holdings, diaries underscore specific areas of strength.

Early Americanists will be richly rewarded. Fully three-quarters of the collections I examined predate the twentieth century. Digging into the data, one finds that the institution’s early American collections are exceptionally well-suited to support scholars researching the diary in particular. If the nineteenth-century was the “golden age” of the diary (Gay 61-2), the APS diary collections are an embarrassment of riches. Of the collections I examined, a plurality were maintained in the nineteenth century:

  • 34% were authored between 1671-1800 (39 collections)
  • 41% were authored between 1801-1900 (47 collections)
  • 25% were authored between 1901-2011 (29 collections)

Multilingual scholars will also find their competencies rewarded by collections. Although most diaries are maintained in English, volumes are also kept in Cherokee, German, French, Italian, Latin, and Russian. For example, Theodosius Dobzhansky switches between English and Russian in his lengthy series of diaries (1934-75). He writes, “I am switching to English, in other than my child would find it easier to accompany her father’s experiences, is she wants to accompany them” (16 February 1952). Meanwhile, the Muhlenberg meteorological diaries are maintained in German and Latin. While I was only able to perform the most superficial readings of such entries, researchers with such backgrounds will gain new insights into these collections.

About 15% of the collections (16) were partially or fully maintained by women, and about the same number (15) offer early accounts of Native America. Many of these historically marginalized figures might remain in the archival shadows if they had not maintained diaries. For example, Margaretta Smith was a nineteenth-century homemaker; however, her earliest diaries (1861-65) offer a textured insight into the events of the American Civil War and the modes by which news circulated. Although many researchers have attended to the archaeological career of Theodore Davis, Emma B. Andrews, who served as his assistant, records detailed accounts of 20 years of expeditions (1889-1913), including illustrations of hieroglyphics and descriptions of Egypt under English colonialism. Scholars working in Native American Studies will also find that this research guide offers a narrow, though useful supplement to the Indigenous Subject Guide.

Using the Guide

I have modeled my approach to this guide on two existing, but equally formidable, antecedents: the Early American History Guide and the Indigenous Subject Guide.

As an early Americanist, I have relied first-hand upon the Early American History guide. With this guide, I have tried to think about my own subject headings—415 and counting—as keywords. (Each of those subject headings, keyed to Library of Congress “Authorized Headings,” will eventually be integrated into the Indexed Terms of relevant finding aids). Keywords are not only valuable for identifying resources, but for making connections among collections. For example, the “American Philosophical Society” subject heading, with which I tag collections that explicitly mention the institution, surfaces 19 disparate collections. (Had I tagged every collection authored by an APS member, nearly every collection would carry the tag.) Included in those results are the journals of William Billings, John Louis Haney, and John Clark Slater. That a nineteenth-century ship captain, an early-twentieth-century English professor, and a twentieth-century physicist each passed through the APS attests to the diversity of useful knowledge.

Similar to the EAH guide, I have created Abstracts to provide an overview of the diaries contained in each collection—and the researchers for whom they might prove most enticing. (Those notes will also be integrated into relevant finding aids, under Collection Information.) Where this diary guide departs from its predecessors is in its level of detail. Given the quantity and diversity of diaries canvassed, I often found than a paragraph or two simply was not sufficient to account for the range of available material. Thus, I have also included extended abstracts for about 40% of the collections surveyed (47). While the extended notes are entirely option, they allow researchers to tunnel into collections, telescope specific volumes, and excerpt noteworthy passages. Extended notes are only available from the diary research guide, though they can be accessed in one of two ways, as an expandable accordion (not unlike the headers in the finding aids) or as a pop-out window. Researchers might find that some extended notes, such as the 3,200-word overview for the Blumberg diaries, might be easier to access in a standalone window to which they can refer as necessary.

Relatedly, more than half of the collections (61) include Selected Quotations, which appear immediately after the diary notes. These quotations are intended to give a sense of the content and texture of diary entries. Again, they are only accessible from the diary guide, but their text is fully-searchable.

Of course, even with extended diary notes and quotations, this guide can only gesture to the rich materiality of these collections. For example, while I note that Robert Cushman Murphy encloses the skin of a sperm whale in his journal from one of the last North Atlantic whaling voyages (1912-13), that description simply does little justice to it; researchers will need to page materials and see for themselves.

Finally, the diary research guide leverages a mapping feature originally developed for the Indigenous Subject Guide. Although diaries are concentrated in and around Philadelphia, diarists travel widely. Nearly two-thirds of the diaries in the collections (73), are partially- or fully-devoted to travel. Moreover, the content of those records is remarkable. Victor Heister travels through Italy during the rise of Mussolini; Richard Joel Russell travels through Germany and Austria in 1938; and George Gaylord Simpson tours Catalonia under Franco. Given their professional prominence, many diarists achieved truly global professional networks, mingling with statesmen, policymakers, and business leaders and recording in real-time the formative events of the twentieth-century. I have captured a representative, but by no means comprehensive, sample of those travels (1,175 locations). Recorded as both place names and geospatial coordinates, researchers can choose to search for a place name, or browse an interactive map. My hope is that this location data will enable scholars to draw new connections across the collection. For example, if a researcher were considering U.S. colonial policy in the Philippines, they might see which diarists visit Manila, and consider if and how their travels might intersect.

My expedition into the APS diary collections was necessarily compressed, and I cannot wait to see the discoveries researchers make using these tools.

I would be remiss, however, if I did not take a moment to acknowledge all of the invisible labor that supported my whirlwind expedition through the APS manuscript collections. Foremost was the support of David Gary, whose curatorial, editorial, and project management expertise I tested at every turn. I am also indebted to Patrick Spero, Charles Greifenstein, Valerie-Ann Lutz, Michael Miller, Tracey deJong, and Estelle Markel-Joyet, who shared their vast knowledge of collections with uncommon generosity. Whenever I encountered mold in diaries, Renée Wolcott and Anne Downey were quick to remediate volumes and keep me on schedule.

Finally, as an online guide, this project would not be available today without the tireless efforts of Rich Shrake and Bayard Miller, both of whom indulged my whims with charity and boundless patience. Perhaps the finest example of this overarching sense of service is a digital exhibit that I created with Bayard Miller. Devoted to a serendipitous discovery in the George Harrison Shull Papers, Americanization: Then and Now would not exist today without his web design savvy and commitment to the APS collections.