Writing in Code

A Long Life in Shorthand: Florence Julie Lillibridge
Florence Julie Lillibridge, high-school graduation photograph, 1937, Vermillion, South Dakota. Lillibridge collection at the Schlesinger LibraryFlorence Julie Lillibridge, high-school graduation photograph, 1937, Vermillion, South Dakota. Lillibridge collection at the Schlesinger Library
By Kathryn Allamong Jacob, Johanna-Maria Fraenkel Curator of Manuscripts at the Schlesinger Library


While colleagues will say that I’ve never met a diary that I didn’t want for the library, not every diary we encounter is truly right for us. Whether a diary is donated or we encounter it on eBay, I must ask several questions to determine if it is a good fit for our collection.

One woman’s diary, the gift of her widower, arrived under particularly unusual circumstances.

In early 2000, I got a call from Don Lillibridge, a professor emeritus of history at Chico State University in California. He was then 82, and his wife of 56 years, Florence Julie Lillibridge, had recently died at age 80. Florence, who had been an English teacher and then the dean of girls at a high school, had kept a diary for more than 30 years—from 1967 to 1998—writing entries in big red American Express daybooks. Would the Schlesinger Library like to have them?

Shorthand text from a diary in the Lillibridge collection at the Schlesinger LibraryShorthand text from a diary in the Lillibridge collection at the Schlesinger Library

I asked Don Lillibridge if he could tell me something about the entries. “Don’t have a clue,” he said. “Flo wrote them in Gregg shorthand, but I’m willing to pay for transcriptions if you can find someone to do it.”

It is, we discovered, very difficult to find anyone who can read and transcribe Gregg shorthand. Staff members at several Katharine Gibbs schools just laughed at the inquiry. Finally an ad in the Harvard University Retirees Association newsletter drew encouraging responses from several retired department secretaries, and Don’s posting to a similar organization for University of California retirees identified several others. As a first step, Don photocopied a few entries from each decade, and I sent them off to potential transcribers as a test—I was concerned that Flo’s shorthand might have become so idiosyncratic over time that no one else could read it.

Don and Florence Lillibridge, 1962. Lillibridge collection at the Schlesinger LibraryDon and Florence Lillibridge, 1962. Lillibridge collection at the Schlesinger Library

The women sent back the entries and reported that all were legible. In one entry from New Year’s Day in the early 1990s, Flo recounted having gone to a party the night before, drinking a few martinis, and coming home: “Went to bed. Made love for the first time in a long time. It was grand!!!!!” Don called as soon as he received these transcribed pages. “I hope this didn’t shock you,” he said. “Are you still interested?” No—and yes. The entries were long, detailed, and introspective. Flo was an articulate chronicler and assessor of her own life, of her family and her marriage, and of the world around her: she wrote of diets, disappointments, joys, aging, and illness.

Don took charge of farming out all 32 volumes to more than a dozen transcribers across the country—11 women and the members of the Oakland County Chapter of the International Association of Administrative Professionals in Royal Oak, Michigan—and the project began. One woman transcribed 12 volumes; another, 8. Don introduced them to one another via e-mail so that they could solve problems together, and in no time, these women began calling themselves the FOF (Friends of Flo). They read the books Flo read and cooked the recipes she jotted down. They sent Don birthday gifts and Christmas cards. They wrote to tell me how much being a part of this project, of helping Flo find her voice, meant to them.

Florence Julie Lillibridge, ca. 1923, Omaha, Nebraska. Lillibridge collection at the Schlesinger LibraryFlorence Julie Lillibridge, ca. 1923, Omaha, Nebraska. Lillibridge collection at the Schlesinger LibraryDon found much of this surprising, but most surprising to me was this: He had the FOF send their completed transcriptions and the original diaries directly to me. Although he spent nearly $10,000 to have them transcribed, he had no interest in reading them. He trusted that Flo loved him until the end (she did); he was happy to let her speak for herself; and he hoped he was doing the right thing by placing her diaries in an archive. He was delighted and relieved when we shared with him an entry from another New Year’s Day, in which Flo wrote: “Well, another year, another diary. I don’t know why I keep it up. But I hope someday someone will read them and have a sense of who I am and what I did.”

After the last of the diaries and transcriptions arrived, our correspondence with Don gradually ended, but not before he wrote to tell us he was happily remarried. This January two cartons arrived out of the blue from California. Inside were24 of Don’s diaries—written in legible English—covering 1988 through May 2012. He had died in December, and his widow wrote that he’d hoped we might want to add his voice to Flo’s. Indeed we do—although their diaries are closed for several years, out of Don’s concern for the privacy of his children and grandchildren.

There is a decade of overlap between Don’s and Flo’s diaries: 10 years during which they each reflected on current events, on their children, on each other, on their joint efforts to stop smoking; 10 years during which each offered her/his personal perspective on their long marriage and their shared lives. What a remarkable gift to future researchers.

 

 

Search Year: 
2013