Introducing the Dusty Diary

imgdiarytopSome of you may remember Laura Bien. Up until about a year ago, she blogged as the YpsiDixit. Well, I’m happy to report that she’s come out of retirement. Laura has launched an engaging new site dedicated to the research of local Ypsilanti history, mainly though the exploration of surviving first-person narratives. The site is called Dusty Diary, and I recently had the good fortune to ask Laura a few questions about the project.

MARK: So, what’s the Dusty Diary all about, Laura?

LAURA: Ypsilanti is a city whose residents love and have a deep interest in local history. As a volunteer in the City Archives, I see firsthand the astounding wealth of photos, diaries, maps, letters, and other amazing source materials there. The volunteer-run Archives has (understandably) limited hours, and often locals find it difficult to find time to visit, though they want to. Dusty Diary is a way of bringing the treasures of the Archives to the public with a lively, interactive blog that serializes two Ypsi womens’ diaries, takes reader suggestions for research, posts Archives photos, and profiles the history of local homes at the owner’s request.

Dusty Diary also has elements of a wiki. For example, I recently made a post about the origins of street names in the neighborhood of Allie McCullough, one of the diarists. Later I posted again about a business on one of the streets mentioned, which happened to be close to Allie’s father’s foundry. I put links within those interrelated posts so that people can explore related topics and travel from post to post. Each individual post is bite-sized, but linked together in a web like this, they provide a fuller and fuller picture of Ypsilanti history.

MARK: So, how long has it been now since you stopped working on your previous blog, YpsiDixit? And, if you don’t mind my asking, what had you learned from that experience, and how, if at all, did it influence the creation of Dusty Diary?

LAURA: It’s been about a year since I decided to retire Ypsi-Dixit. When I started blogging in 2003, it was new and novel to have a general-interest blog. They’re weren’t many out there, just a handful in Ypsilanti, and I eagerly joined them.

Now, six years later, general-interest blogs are common. I took a look around and realized that the blogs I most enjoyed reading were specialty niche blogs exploring a more narrow subject in greater depth. I thought this over and realized that my strongest interest was in local history. I’d often posted about it on Ypsi-Dixit, but I now had the chance to create my own new special-interest blog devoted to the subject.

What I learned from Ypsi-Dixit was that local folks have a deep interest in local history, and that a blog could serve as a sort of community campfire for storytelling. I’m a former teacher who always most loved creating learning games in my classroom. I saw the blog as a way to spin stories to beguile and enchant people into inadvertently learning local history, without preaching to them or writing boring, same-old history essays.

MARK: So, what’s the most interesting thing you’ve looked into thus far for the site?

LAURA: I’ve always been interested in the history of medicine, and in serializing the diaries of 1874 Ypsilanti teen Allie McCullough and 1919 Ypsi high school teacher Carrie Hardy, I get glimpses of the medical philosophies of the day.

One item of interest is that Carrie was dosed with calomel, a very popular but neurotoxic mercury compound that caused hair and tooth loss and sometimes facial and jaw deformities. Calomel had been around since the beginning of medicine in America, and was certainly popular in Allie’s day, but I’d had no idea it was still being administered as late as WWI! After her doses of calomel, Carrie entered a long period, over the summer of 1919, of debility and suffering. She was unable to teach and the handwriting in her diary becomes very shaky and indistinct. I don’t know if this was a result of her (unknown) sickness or simply mercury poisoning.

Most of the most interesting historical discoveries I’ve made via the blog are like this: inadvertent discoveries en route to something else. The byways prove more interesting and informative than whatever road of research I was pursuing at the time.

MARK: What kinds of projects are you looking for? Are there any areas in particular that you’re looking to explore, other than medical philosophies? I have one to run by you… How about looking into the local impact of the flu of 1918? I just heard a few days ago, third-hand, that Tom Dodd has indicated that he knows the site of a local mass grave from that time. I’d be curious to know how many people in Ypsi perished, and what life was like during the outbreak.

LAURA: There is a file in the Archives of the “Cholera Wars” of around 1830, and the topic you suggest is very interesting to me and will probably be explored in the course of transcribing Carrie’s diary over the next year. I try to include social and cultural notes relating to each diary to help bring them to life so that readers can imagine their respective eras. I think your idea is a really good one and would be interesting to lots of readers. I do have a file from the 1918 flu era with lots of newspaper stories, but I haven’t developed them into a blog story yet (no stories thus far about any mass grave).

MARK: So, what else would you like for people to know about the Dusty Diary, Laura?

LAURA: It is interactive; there’s a “suggestion box” widget in the sidebar where people can suggest topics they’d like me to research. One reader suggested writing about her parents meeting at the Leland tuberculosis sanitarium north of town, and it turned out to be a fascinating story. I’m interested in collecting more oral history stories and family reminiscences–those are fascinating and valuable… Oh, and it’s on Twitter too – at “dustydiary” – so you can keep track of new posts there if you like.

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  1. Mark H.
    Posted July 7, 2009 at 9:42 pm | Permalink

    Dusty Diary sounds terrifically interesting, and i quite agree that so often it’s the byways of research that prove most interesting. Thanks for posting this, Mark. But did i stupidly overlook the link to the new blog, or was it not provided? Thanks!

  2. Posted July 7, 2009 at 9:58 pm | Permalink

    I’m so glad to see she’s back! I tend to worry (I’m such a worrywart sometimes!) when bloggers (or anyone) just disappears…so I’m so glad to see she is back and doing well :) Yay!!

  3. Posted July 8, 2009 at 1:03 am | Permalink

    Mark, it is very kind of you to not only mention my site but take the time to interview me–thank you very much!

    I hope readers enjoy it. Just posted a li’l story on the (long!) history of chicken husbandry in the city which includes tidbits about the Prospect Park Poultry Farm and the Ypsi Poultry Fanciers’ Association.

    Thanks again to Mark & visitors!

  4. Posted July 8, 2009 at 5:55 am | Permalink

    Mark, if you go up to the first paragraph, you’ll find the link to the Dusty Diary site. It’s blue, and says “Dusty Diary.”

    And it was a pleasure, Laura. Best of luck on the new enterprise.

    Oh, and I should have pointed out that the image used in this post was borrowed from the Dusty Diary site.

  5. Jules
    Posted July 8, 2009 at 8:00 am | Permalink

    Wow, nice interview, Mark. Thanks for bringing this to our attention and to you, Laura, I love it! I’ll be returning again and again. The poultry stuff was great!

  6. Klez
    Posted July 8, 2009 at 9:42 am | Permalink

    I’d like to know more about the “little people” we hear about who supposedly worked at the bomber plant during WWII. I’d like to know if they documented their time together in any way. I imagine that, for many of them, it was their first time with other little people. I imagine it must have been wild for the. Like in the movie Under the Rainbow, which was about the orgies behind the scenes of the Wizard of Oz.

  7. Hot Buttered Toast
    Posted July 8, 2009 at 9:45 am | Permalink

    It brings me some degree of pleasure thinking that in the future Mark will be dead and someone will be transcribing his blog posts into some futuristic format, trying to figure out what in the hell happened in Ypsitucky.

  8. Jim
    Posted July 8, 2009 at 12:30 pm | Permalink

    It’s great to hear from Laura! I’ve started working through my Dusty Diary backlog.

  9. Carol
    Posted July 8, 2009 at 12:54 pm | Permalink

    subhead: Woman Loses Battle Against Blogging Addiction

  10. Linda
    Posted July 8, 2009 at 3:40 pm | Permalink

    Glad to hear Laura is back. Looking forward to Dusty Diary..

  11. Posted July 8, 2009 at 8:53 pm | Permalink

    Very cool…and terrific looking site. Another good interview, Mark.

    Kleiz, about the “little people”, I could be way off, but I think they had a dancehall in Dixboro, above where the general store is now. I think I read that in the “Dixboro: Lest we forget” book.

  12. Posted July 9, 2009 at 7:42 am | Permalink

    This one has eclipsed all other blogs for me — I love to know all the stories about my home. Where was the pigeon farm? Who planted these trees? When was this house built? Where was the local brewery? Where did people go berrying? How long has this been here? What about those six springs that once fed the Ypsilanti Water System? Where are they buried? ETC!

  13. Posted July 9, 2009 at 10:05 am | Permalink

    The historical posts were my favorite part of Ypsi~Dixit, so I’m happy to see that more will be coming soon! Thanks for posting this, Mark, and yay Laura!

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