September 6, 2012

Unearthing old stories: a year in the archives

For senior Adrienne Wagner, history is best learned through the words of those who lived it. Since her junior year, Wagner has worked with original documents in the Knox College Special Collections and Archives, ranging from diaries from the Oregon Trail to love letters from a former Knox president. Two weeks before she will graduate with a double major in history and creative writing, Wagner sat down with The Knox Student to share her story in her own words.

TKS: You’ve spent a lot of time in the archives over the past year. What have you been doing there?

Adrienne Wagner: It was for [Professor of History] Penny Gold’s History of Religion in Europe and American [course] … at that time, I was really interested in the American West and in women’s history. I’ve always been very interested in women’s history and how a lot of it goes untold a lot of the time. … It turns out we have several original diaries of women who made the journey west, and a lot of them had to do with their religion and how they tried to use their religion and implement their religion on the trail and when they settled. …

That had to have been really difficult because they couldn’t observe the Sabbath on the trail. They were going through areas that didn’t always have churches or meeting houses to have their services in. There was a lot of uncouth behavior and profanity that these women were not accustomed to. Ultimately, when they got to their place of destination, they tried to either create new organizations or recreate old organizations that they had had in the East. That was their outlet: to try to civilize the West as the men tried to settle it.

TKS: What did you find in the diaries that’s stuck with you?

AW: I remember there was one woman who was passing through a city and there was a couple that … asked if they could take her children to the theater, and her diary was like, “I expressly forbade that,” because she felt like that was a worldly influence that would have been detrimental to her children’s religious upbringing. So it was interesting to see how very careful they were about what they felt were good vs. bad influences.

TKS: You’ve also done an independent study with primary sources from the archives. What did that involve?

AW: Knox has a letter collection from a former president, Newton Bateman, so I looked at the letters between his to-be wife, Sarah, and him, and so I transcribed letters from when they met up until when they got married. … The subtleties of the courtship were very, very fascinating to read [and] how she expressed herself in her letters. It’s like a dance in letter form. It was all about propriety, and she wanted to express herself to him fully but not feel like she was overstepping her own sense of what was proper for her to do. And then in the later letters, she just gushes at him all of the time.

TKS: What’s next for you?

AW: This summer, I’m actually going to be working here. I have a job in the library, and I’m doing an internship with the Carl Sandburg Historical Society. Next year, I am going to pursue a double master’s in library science and history at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. I kind of want to do something either with academic librarianship with a focus on history or something with archives and preservation.

TKS: How have your research projects at Knox affected your future plans?

AW: I really hadn’t thought about going specifically into library science until this past summer. I was just trying to think, “What do I want to do with my life? What have I had the most fun with here at Knox?” It was ultimately working in the library, and definitely working with materials … in the archives has had an influence on me.

Anna Meier


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