Iowa Alumni Magazine | June 2007 | Reviews

The Iowa Youth Diaries Project, a UI Old Capitol Museum Exhibit

By Jennifer Hemmingsen

Recollections of Iowa life across the centuries celebrate a place worth writing about.

Diaries Young Iowans capture days gone by in personal journals on display at the UI's Old Capitol Museum.

It's not easy to talk about what it means to come from a place. You can describe the smells, the sights, the location, and the elevation. But what about a community? The imprints it makes on your character?

The Iowa Youth Diaries Project, a collaboration between the Old Capitol Museum, the University of Iowa Libraries, the State Historical Society of Iowa, and other libraries across Iowa, delves into that elusive topic. Using diary excerpts written by young people over the last 150 years, the project based at the museum showcases thoughts about life in Iowa and what it means to be an Iowan.

The heart of the project lies in the collection of historic diaries from young Iowans dating from the 1850s to early 1900s—including a young Civil War soldier, a Meskwaki girl, a wealthy teenager from a river town, a farm boy. Thrilling tough it is to see these fragile and rare primary documents, the diaries are made even more accessible through interactive computer presentations that include a treasure trove of background material from images and biographies to definitions of archaic turns of phrase.

Also displayed are modern-day entries from local fourth-, fifth-, and sixth-graders. The contrasts between the generations are as entertaining as they are enlightening. Consider this information:

"I get up between 7 and 7:30," writes contemporary local student Nathan Metzger. "Then I put on some shorts and go downstairs. From there I take a shower. I dry off and put some clothes on. Then I watch TV with the kids my mom watches in the morning."

And compare it to this entry from Mary Griffith, a young girl growing up in western Iowa in the 1880s, who wrote during a scarlet fever epidemic:


"Three funerals this afternoon. Mrs. Davis and another one of the children were buried. That makes four out of that family in five days. There was a proclamation issued this morning, for parents to keep their children in, till the epidemic is past. Went over to see Grandma. We commenced washing about 4 p.m. Got the clothes dried and folded about nine. Tired is not a name for me."

To bring the Iowa experience full circle, museum visitors can write their own diary entries: "Iowa means being good and nice to others," writes a visitor. "Iowa is a place that is not hard to love."

Together, the diary entries create a mosaic that helps visitors think about their own position in history as well as geography -- to think about, if not to articulate, what it means to be from this place at this time.