This is a guest post by Jennifer Evers, a Senior Book Conservator in the Conservation Division.
As a book conservator at the Library of Congress, I have the privilege of seeing, handling, and working with a large variety of rare materials in the Library’s collections. It is a spectacular honor to be able to experience such a palpable connection with our shared material history and culture on a daily basis. Some of my favorite items to work with are diaries from the Veteran’s History Project (VHP) collections. Although they are typically plain, modest bindings, it is easy to imagine a soldier carefully safeguarding his diary as a prized possession, and pouring his thoughts and experiences onto the pages during a time when everything else in his life seemed unstable, unfamiliar, and frightening. These individual accounts describing the experiences of regular people during extraordinary circumstances– written perhaps for posterity, but probably not for wider dissemination – are utterly compelling. They make the past feel tangible and accessible.
One such diary that recently came across my bench is that of Irving W. Greenwald (the story of the diary’s acquisition can be found in this blog post by Megan Harris, a Senior Reference Specialist for VHP).
In 1917, Greenwald was a young printer with a print shop located just a few blocks from where the World Trade Center would later be erected. He was newly married when he was drafted into the US Army, and was initially posted at Camp Upton, Long Island (during the same time period as Irving Berlin, the famous songwriter, who penned an extremely relatable tune entitled “Oh! How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning” about the early wake-up calls at the camp). Greenwald kept a very detailed account of his experiences as an army private in a tiny leather gilt-edged pocket diary that is only 5 inches in height. His handwriting, which is executed in a number of different colors of ink and graphite, is positively miniscule – many pages are difficult or even impossible to read without the use of magnification. On some pages, five lines of his writing fill just a single line of ruling. It is hard to imagine how he was able to write so minutely, particularly during the often harsh conditions he experienced while stationed on the Western Front, and the handwriting size only decreases as the diary progresses.
At the beginning of his diary, Greenwald is bored, homesick, and missing his pregnant wife. Each day opens with a description of the weather and his health. He also notes in great detail the contents of every one of his meals, which is strangely fascinating, and he continues this meticulous catalogue of food throughout the entire diary. A typical description of a meal is as follows (from Wednesday, January 19, 1918):
“Serve supper. Cold roast beef, potato salad, pickles, apple butter, coffee. We run out of meat for our own supper. We have steaks and tinned bully beef which I see for the first time. I also learn there is such a thing as evaporated eggs.”
Although Greenwald was able to return home on passes quite frequently during the four months that he was stationed at Camp Upton, he was shipped off to Europe only four days after his wife gave birth, without having been given leave to meet his infant daughter. He spent the next few months marching around the French countryside, awaiting his impending engagement in battle and trying to avoid shelling, shrapnel, and tear gas while simultaneously worrying about his family back home. He was wounded in action while serving in the Lost Battalion, which fell under siege by German troops during the Battle of Argonne, but eventually made it back safely to his family.
The pages of the diary are pre-printed with the dates and days of the week, beginning with January 1918, and he writes every single day (with one notable exception – a span of over three weeks during which he began a period of convalescence after being wounded in battle). However, Greenwald started his diary in late 1917, when he was first drafted into the army. In order to accommodate the proper chronology of events and maintain the record in a single volume, he physically moved several sections from the back of the diary to the front of the diary. Some of these pages are printed with dates from December 1918, while others are blank memo pages. He cleverly secured them in place near the beginning of the text block with a new sewing thread – perhaps using rudimentary binding skills that he previously employed in his print shop – and a now-brittle and yellowing adhesive, and renumbered them with their new dates. Although the diary held up remarkably well over the intervening century, many pages and gatherings had come loose from the binding – particularly in the sections where the gatherings had been reorganized – and were in danger of being damaged, lost, or misplaced during handling.
In addition, the leather cover was only loosely attached at the back of the text block. The leather was also significantly damaged along the spine, which in turn exposed the paper spine of the text block.
After much consultation with the curators, we decided that it would be impossible to properly stabilize the diary without taking it apart. This is not a decision that was taken lightly: the signs of use and obvious repair are part of the intrinsic history of the item, and were carefully considered before undertaking the conservation treatment. However, there were so many loose leaves that the condition issues could not be adequately addressed without disbinding the text block.
Stay tuned for part two of this blog post for details on the conservation treatment of the diary, and more fascinating details about Greenwald’s life in the army!
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Dear Ms. Evers, you write that the diary has already been transcribed; is the transcription available online?
The transcription, completed by Greenwald’s sister and daughter, is available here on the Library’s website! Be sure to tune back in soon for the next installment of the diary’s conservation here on the blog.