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EIU Teaching with Primary Sources

The Source

 Diaries Header

 Source Home  l   Introduction   l   Connecting to Illinois   l   Places to Go Primary Sources to See

TPS EIU Staff Pick   l  Primary Sources in the Classroom   l   l   PDF with Images

This publication is created to be a source of information and inspiration for teachers as they incorporate Library of Congress digitized primary sources and resources into instruction by Teaching with Primary Sources at Eastern Illinois University.

Diaries and Journals


People have written their thoughts, dreams and daily events in diaries and journals for centuries. Diaries often contain person information that an author never intended to share with anyone else. A diary can provide a glimpse into the life of the author and era they lived in. Although the terms are often used the same way, by definition there is a difference between diaries and journals. Journals record events and activities experienced by the author.1 Journals include information such as weather or business transactions, while diaries are personal, containing feelings and self-examination.1

During times of crisis many people express their feelings and describe events that happen through writing.newsletter Soldiers experiencing the terror of war sometimes wrote about what they saw. Bartlett Yancey Malone joined the Confederate Army in 1861, at 23 years old. His diary starts with simple facts about the weather and life as a soldier, but as Malone participates in battle his writing becomes detailed. He was captured and imprisoned at Point Lookout, Maryland in 1863 and remained there until February 24, 1865.2 His diary entries during his imprisonment gave insight into conditions endured by thousands of Confederate soldiers.Bartlett Yancey Malone never performed a heroic act that was recorded, he played no role in history that would make him known for generations but his diary gives a voice to the millions of soldiers who fought in the Civil War and were known only by family and friends.2

United States presidents have often kept diaries or journals, some were personal but most were usually on a professional level as president. George Washington began keeping a diary before he was elected president. His diary entries often show no emotion but instead are short and to the point facts. The phrase "Where and how I spent my time", is found in many of Washington's diary entries and recording these entries was important to Washington.When he traveled to Philadelphia for the Constitutional Convention, he wrote home requesting his diary be mailed to him.3 When personal events happened, Washington kept emotion out of his diary. His entry for June 19, 1773, states, "At home all day. About five oclock poor Patcy Custis Died Suddenly."3 Patcy was Washington's step-daughter who suffered from epilepsy and died in her teens.3

Advances in technology has provided us with different formats to keep diaries and journals. Blogs, Facebook and Twitter are used to keep and share information that previously would have been written down and kept by the author and perhaps never shared. These formats provide an outlet to let people share events in their lives and personal thoughts and feelings on a variety of subjects. Written diaries and journals are threatened to become extinct, along with written letters, as technology becomes more available.

Connecting to Illinois

newsletterMembers of the Latter-day Saints settled in Nauvoo, Illinois during the winter of 1838. Missouri was where the group initially tried to settle and build their temple. They were met with resistance and mobs soon targeted the Mormons, forcing them to move to Illinois. The Mormon population in Nauvoo and surrounding counties was estimated at 16,000.This population boom helped Nauvoo become one of the largest cities in Illinois at the time.Peace was not found in Nauvoo. The Latter-day Saints leaders and prophet Joseph Smith was murdered in 1844 and the Mormons began the journey west in the winter of 1846 to find their homeland. As they traveled many Mormons kept diaries of their trek to Salt Lake City, Utah.

Mormon's kept detailed diaries and journals of their life in Nauvoo. They were starting a new life, which meant building homes and businesses. This was hard work that could take weeks to accomplish. The diaries tell of everyday life, building their temple in Nauvoo, farming the land and illnesses that families suffered. William Clayton was a member of the Latter-day Saints who lived in Nauvoo. He was a friend of Joseph Smith and was active in many events in Nauvoo. In his diary he writes of the hard work to establish Nauvoo, "We continue tonewsletter labour very hard in splitting rails up to the present time. The wether now begins to be very hot almost more than we can bear. We are yet very far short of completing the fence and in danger of having the corn spoiled by cattle every day."10 Clayton also writes about sickness that plagued the Nauvoo community and the death of his infant daughter, "On the 20th our infant child Henrihetta Lucretia Patten Clayton died after being sick and having chills some time."10 In Clayton's diary you can read about the building of the Mormon Temple in Nauvoo. He also writes about church business and the issue of plural marriages. 

During 1844, there was unrest between the Mormons and other Nauvoo citizens. A mob formed on June 27, 1844, outside the Carthage jail where Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum were held. Joseph and Hyrum were both shot and killed.11 Many diaries kept during that time by Mormons tell of the sorrow and anger they felt upon finding out their prophet was murdered. Four years later the Nauvoo Temple was destroyed by fire. In February 1846, Brigham Young and 3000 Mormons set out for Utah.12 There are numerous diaries that detail the long hard trip to Salt Lake City where they faced harsh weather, starving conditions, Indian encounters and death. 

Places to Go & Primary Sources to See

Illinois Answers the Call-Boys in Blue Exhibit, Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum.  The all-new "Boys in Blue" exhibit builds upon the success of the original "Boys in Blue" exhibit which ran for most of 2011 and was viewed by more than 40,000 people, a record for the Presidential Library. Original materials from the Presidential Library's vast Civil War collections cover select members from Illinois units and include original prints, lithographs, tintypes, cabinet cards, and cartes-de-visite. Original letters, sheet music, artifacts (including a cannon), diaries and sketches created by the soldiers themselves are also displayed. 

TPS EIU Staff Pick

Children often begin a diary or journal when they start school. In the classroom they keep a journal and write about what they did that day or about a topic the teacher assigns. As children grow, some continue to keep a diary and the contents become more personal.

newsletterDiaries written by children before the 1800s are very rare. Otto can Eck a Dutch boy living in the late 18th century, was required by his parents to write in a diary. His diary, one of the oldest child diaries known, was written from 1791-1797 and is over 1500 pages. Otto's diary was not his own, his parents would read his diary and often supervise the content using the diary as a learning tool. In one entry Otto writes, "This morning, when mother saw my journals of last week, she said that my way of keeping them was not to her liking, and that instead of filling them with my lessons and games, these being almost the same every day, I should rather refer to my rational behaviour and the passions that guide me"7 Otto writes about his everyday life, arguments with his sister, horseback rides and about his declining health.8 Otto van Eck died from tuberculosis, his diary was found over 200 years later.

War often shatters children's lives, not knowing what will happen from day to day or if they will even survive a diary can become a child's only outlet for what they are feeling and experiencing. Diaries can offer an escape for these children. Writing about hopes and dreams for their future while death is all around them can help a child cope with their circumstances. 

LeRoy Gresham was a teenager from Macon, Georgia during the Civil War. He was an invalid and unable tonewsletter serve in the Confederate Army. Gresham kept a diary throughout the Civil War as he experienced it through newspapers, letters and visitors.His diary entry for November 17, 1864, tells of the uncertainty felt by him and his family as General William T. Sherman's Union forces began their "March to the Sea."4 Macon was believed to be in the path of Sherman's march. Gresham writes, "We do not know what to do or think. We have no place to run to, where we could be safe, and we feel awfully about it. The town is in a furor of excitement and I fear little or nothing will be done to save the town. If Father were only here!"4 By reading this entry to Gresham's diary we can begin to understand how scared children and adults were during times of battle. LeRoy Gresham began a final diary entry on June 9, 1865, he died nine day later from unknown causes.4 

At least 1.1 million Jewish children were murdered during the Holocaust.6 Only a small percentage of these children kept a diary and an even smaller amount of these diaries survived the war.6 The experiences of these children depended on their circumstances. Whether in hiding, living in a ghetto or a refugee living with a host family in another country, children's lives were in turmoil, a diary might have been the only stability in their lives.

Anne Frank's diary is the most widely known child's diary in the world. Anne began her diary before she and her family went into hiding from the Nazis. While in hiding, Anne wrote in her diary nearly everyday. Forced to be quiet and confined to a small annex was difficult for Anne. She confided in her diary as if it were her best friend. She wrote of the tension, of feeling trapped never able to escape and the frustration with the people around her. Anne didn't write only about her experiences in the annex, she wrote short stories and a "book of beautiful sentences."5 She began to hope that after the war her diary would be turned into a novel and published. Anne Frank didn't live to see her dream become reality. The annex was compromised and the Nazis arrested Anne, her family and the others hiding with them. Anne never finished her diary but her father, the only member of Anne's family to survive the Holocaust, had her diary published. 

Primary Sources in the Classroom

newsletterThe Teacher's Page. The Library of Congress offers classroom materials and professional development to help teacher effectively use primary sources from the Library's vast digital collections in their teaching.

Themed Resources. One-stop access to the Library's best exhibitions, activities, primary sources, and lesson plans on popular curricular themes.

newsletterThe Lewis and Clark Expedition. Read about Meriwether Lewis, William Clark, and their explorations in their letters and journals. Study the role of Congress in the Louisiana Purchase
as well as Thomas Jefferson's commitment to westward expansion. Examine maps created by
                       the expedition and compare them to more recent maps.

Primary Source Sets. Sets of selected primary sources on specific topics, available as easy-to-print PDF's. Also, background information, teaching ideas, and tools to guide student analysis. 

newsletterVeterans' Stories: The Veterans History Project. The personal stories of American war veterans and civilian workers who supported them, as recorded in interviews, diaries, letters, photographs, and drawings. 

Presentations and Activities: Presentations and Activities offer media-rich historical context or interactive opportunities for exploration to both teachers and students.

newsletterPages from Her Story. Read women's perceptions of historic times and events in the reflections, hopes and dreams they recorded in diaries, journals, memoirs, reminiscences, letters, and speeches. 


Collection Connections. Historical context and ideas for teaching with specific Library of Congress primary source collections.

"California as I Saw It": First Person Narratives of California's Early Years, 1849-1900.


First Person Narratives of the American South, 1860-1920.



Trails to Utah and the Pacific: Diaries and Letters, 1846-1869.



Washington During the Civil War: The Diary of Horatio Nelson Taft, 1861-1865.



Westward by Sea: A Maritime Perspective on American Expansion, 1820-1890.



The Wilbur and Orville Wright Papers at the Library of Congress.

newsletterAmerican Memory. American Memory provides free and open access through the internet to written and spoken words, sound recordings, still and moving images, prints, maps, and sheet music that documents the collections of the Library of Congress and other institutions, chronicle historical events, people, places and ideas that continue to shape America, serving the public as a resource for education and lifelong learning.

 newsletter"California as I Saw It": First Person Narratives of California's Early Years, 1849-1900. This collection consists of the full texts and illustrations of 190 works documenting the formative era of California's history through eyewitness accounts. The collection covers the dramatic decades between the Gold Rush and the turn of the twentieth century. It captures the pioneer experience; encounters between Anglo-Americans and the diverse peoples who had
                       preceded them.

newsletterGeorge Washington Papers at the Library of Congress, 1741-1799. The complete George Washington Papers collection from the Manuscript Division at the Library of Congress consists of approximately 65,000 documents. This is the largest collection of original Washington documents in the world. Document types in the collection as a whole include correspondence, letter books, commonplace books, diaries, journals, financial account books, military records,
                       reports, and notes accumulated by Washington from 1741 through 1799.

newsletter"I Do Solemnly Swear" Presidential Inaugurations. This collection contains approximately 400 items or 2,000 digital files relating to inaugurations from George Washington's in 1789 to Barack Obama's inauguration of 2009. This presentation includes diaries and letters of presidents and of those who witnessed inaugurations, handwritten drafts of inaugural addresses, broadsides, inaugural tickets and programs, prints, photographs, and sheet music.

newsletterFirst Person Narratives of the American South, 1860-1920. This collection documents the American South from the viewpoint of Southerners, the collection includes over one hundred diaries, autobiographies, memoirs, travel accounts, and ex-slave narratives published during and after the Civil War. Southerners comprise one third of the U.S. population, but only in recent decades have scholars and the general public begun to explore fully the richness and
                      diversity of Southern experience. These first-person narratives describe Southern life between
                      1860 and 1920, a period of enormous change.

newsletterTrails to Utah and the Pacific: Diaries and Letters, 1846-1869. This collection incorporates 49 diaries, in 59 volumes, of pioneers trekking westward across America to Utah, Montana, and the Pacific between 1847 and the meeting of the rails in 1869. Stories of persistence and pain, birth and death, God and gold, trail dust and debris, learning, love and laughter can be found in these original "on the trail" accounts. The collection tells the stories of Mormon
                      families and other who ere part of the national western movement, sharing trail experiences
                      common to hundreds of thousands of westward migrants.

newsletterThe Diary of Horatio Nelson Taft, 1861-1865. Washington during the Civil War The Diary of Horatio Nelson Taft, 1861-1865 presents three manuscript volumes, totaling 1,240 digital images, that document daily life in Washington, D.C., through the eyes of Horatio Nelson Taft (1806-1888), an examiner for the U.S. Patent Office. The diary details events in Washington during the Civil War years including Taft's connection with Abraham Lincoln and his family. Of
                       special interest is Taft;s description of Lincoln's assassination, based on the accounts of his
                       friends and his son, who was one of the attending physicians at Ford's Theatre the night
                       Lincoln was shot, April 14, 1865.

newsletterWestward by Sea: A Maritime Perspective on American Expansion, 1820-1890. This selection of items from Mystic Seaport's archival collections includes logbooks, diaries, letters, business papers, and published narratives of voyages and travels. The unique maritime perspective of these materials offers a rich look at the events, culture, beliefs, and personal experiences associated with the settlement of California, Alaska, Hawaii, Texas, and the Pacific

newsletterThe Wilbur and Orville Wright Papers at the Library of Congress. The online presentation of The Wilbur and Orville Wright papers at the Library of Congress, consists of about 10,121 library items or approximately 49,084 digital images, documenting the lives of Wilbur and Orville Wright and highlights their pioneering work which led to the world's first powered, controlled and sustained flight, included  in the collection are correspondence, diaries and
                    notebooks, scrapbooks, drawings, printed matter, and other documents, as well as the Wrights'
                     collection of glass-plate photographic negatives. The Wright papers span the years 1881 to
                     1952 but largely cover 1900 to 1940.

newsletterPrints and Photographs. The collection for the Prints and Photographs Division include photographs, fine and popular prints and drawings, posters, architectural and engineering drawings.


newsletterGroups of Images. More than 13,000 groups of photographs, prints, drawings, and other visual material offer access to 1.5 million items dating primarily from the 1800s through the present. The groups, called "LOTs", gather images related to one anther by provenance, creator, subject, or format into manageable sets. When we visualize diaries what comes to our mind is usually the written word, but, a search for diary in this collection will result in diaries in photographs. Instead of a diary's words telling the story these images tell the story of the daily lives of people living in various countries.

Webcasts. Streaming video presentations on all sorts o subjects from book talks by authors, scientific breakthroughs in preservation, and historical footage form the dawn of film.

Rosamond Pinchot: The Loveliest Woman in America. Rosamond Pinchot was dubbed "the loveliest woman in America" at 23, yet 10 years later she was dead by her own hand. An acclaimed actress, socialite and sportswoman, she was the toast of Broadway and Hollywood during the 1920s and 1930s. Bibi Gaston, Rosamond's granddaughter speaks of her remarkable journey to discover the truth about her forgotten grandmother through her diary.

James Polk Papers and Diary. Marvin Kranz is an American History Specialist in the Manuscript Division. Kranz discussed the papers and diary of President James Polk.

Blogs. Personal voices from the Library of Congress: compelling stories and fascinating facts.

newsletterLibrary of Congress Blog


Dear Diary

newsletterTeaching with the Library of Congress. Discover and discuss the most effective techniques or using sources, lesson plans, teacher resources, and current thinking on effective classroom practice are all open for discussion.

The Person behind the Presidency: Humanizing History.

Lincoln's Assassination from a Friend's Diary: A Primary Source Starter.

Exhibitions. Discover exhibitions that bring the world's largest collection of knowledge, culture, and creativity to life through dynamic displays of artifacts enhanced by interactivity.

newsletterThe Dream of Flight. On December 17, 1903, Wilbur and Orville Wright made the world's first sustained, powered, and controlled flight in a heavier-than-air flying machine, thereby realizing one of mankind's oldest and most persistent aspirations - human flight. The Dream of Flight honors that achievement, using the Library's rarest and most significant materials to explore the notion that flight, whether fanciful or actual, has inspired and occupied a central place in most cultures.

newsletterMargaret Mead: Human Nature and the Power of Culture. This exhibit documents Mead's life, her career as an anthropologist, and the critical reception of her work by drawing upon the 500,000 item Mead Collection, one of the Library's largest collections for a single individual. The collection includes manuscripts, diaries, letters, field notes, drawings, prints, photographs, sound records, and film.

newsletterRivers, Edens and Empires Lewis and Clark and the Revealing of America. On April 7, 1805, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark left Fort Mandan for points west, beginning the process of "filling in the canvas" of America. This exhibit contains the Escalante Expedition diary, copied by a lieutenant of the Spanish Royal Corp of Engineers, the diary includes the expedition conducted by Franciscan priests Silvestre Valez de Escalante and Francisco Dominguez. Notes form Lewis' journal on the animals they encountered with hand drawn sketches are also found in this collection.

America's Library. Created for children, the Library of Congress, America's Story wants you to have fun with history while learning at the same time through interactive games and stories.

Jump Back in Time. Take a trip to an era in American history.

February 3, 1880: Theodore Roosevelt Wrote in his Diary. Do you keep a diary or journal? Do you remember any entries that stand out?

Wise Guide. From 2002 to 2011, the Wise Guide to highlighted new, interesting or undiscovered treasures from the vast online resources of the Library of Congress via short, fun stories filled with fascinating facts.

August 2003: Go West Young Man. The diaries and maps that Lewis and Clark brought back with them on their expedition west, revealed much about the American West, including the fact that an uninterrupted waterway passage form St. Louis to the western edge of North America did not exist.


1. History Works, Journals & Diaries, by Stacia Kuceyeski, Accessed 11.12.12

2. Documenting the American South, The Diary of Bartlett Yancey Malone, Accessed 11.12.12

3. Library of Congress, Introduction to the Diaries of George Washington, Accessed 11.13.12

4. Library of Congress, Library of Congress Blog, Dear Diary, by Erin Allen, October 24, 2012, Accessed

5. Anne, Anne Frank the Writer, Accessed 11.14.12

6. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Children's Diaries during the Holocaust, Accessed 11.14.12

7. Radio Netherlands Worldwise, Classic Dox-The Diary of Otto van Eck, Accessed 11.15.12

8. The American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies, The Cultural Universe of A Dutch Child: Otto van Eck
    and his Literature, by Arianne Baggerman, Accessed 11.16.12

9. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Nauvoo, Illinois: 1839-1846, Accessed 11.16.12

10. Book of Abraham Project, William Clayton's Nauvoo Diaries, by William Clayton, Accessed 11.19.12

11. Public Broadcasting System, American Prophet, The Story of Joseph Smith, The Martyrdom, edited by
     Daniel H. Ludlow, Accessed 11.19.12

12. National park Service, Mormon Pioneer, The 1846 Trek, Accessed 11.19.12











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