The Prairie Diaries were four years in the making.
In 1999, two Kansans, Dorothy Kroh and Jason Wesco, created a project that they called "A Day in My Community." They decided to ask everyone in Kansas to keep a diary or write a letter describing their lives on a single day. Kroh says she wanted the project to provide "a feeling of what it's like to live in Kansas — what family life is like, (our) vocations, aspirations, and hopes for the future."
Kroh and Wesco were inspired by the work of Cornell University historian Carol Kammen, who led a similar project in Ithaca, N.Y., in 1988. Kammen is one of the best-known proponents of the community history movement — the idea that "ordinary" people, not just elected officials and professors, should have a hand in creating their own historical record. She told History News that community history gives "local residents a way to speak to the future, to tell about their own lives, to leave a document in which they have a chance to say who they are and what they do."
Kroh and Wesco enlisted teachers, businesses, local media, and post offices to spread the word about their project. Kroh is a member of a women's group called the Kansas Association for Family and Community Education, and she enlisted FCE members to collect letters in every county. With just the efforts of volunteers, and some small grants from local businesses, A Day in My Community collected about 5,000 letters from across Kansas. Schoolchildren, retired people, and adults from all walks of life participated.
Now the Kansas State Historical Society and the University Archives at Kansas State University in Manhattan are archiving the diaries. Wesco also dreams of someday publishing some of the diaries in book form. Kroh says she hopes the project "will be invaluable to families of the future, even 200 years from now."
Tips on Starting a Community History Project
If you'd like to create a similar history project in your own community, here are some tips.
Start early. Kroh and Wesco began planning two years before the date on which they wanted Kansans to write.
Get organized. Kroh was able to draw upon the resources of the Kansas Association for Family and Community Education, which has chapters and local contacts in every county in Kansas. Schools, churches, and other community networks with lots of volunteers could all spearhead a project like this.
Alert the media. Kroh and Wesco wanted to reach as many people as possible, to get a representative sample of residents. Most states and many towns have databases of media contacts — weekly neighborhood papers as well as big city dailies. Contact schools, community centers, churches, and big employers in your community — anywhere lots of people might get the message.
Get help. Kroh and Wesco worked with scores of volunteers to get the word out, distribute forms for the diaries, then copy and organize them as they came in. The Kansas State Historical Society agreed to house and archive the completed project.
And if you do organize a community history project, notify NPR at firstname.lastname@example.org. Maybe Morning Edition will put them on the air, too.