Letters Home | University of Nevada, Reno
'Letters Home': A native Nevadan tells the stories of Nevada through a trove of letters
By Jessica Maddox
Library Technician, University Libraries
Some say the written word is a dying art form. And maybe it is. But the written word is a window into a person-how they think, understand, experience. Letters Home, the new exhibit on display in the University Libraries Special Collections and University Archives Department on the third floor of the Mathewson-IGT Knowledge Center, uses that window to explore the history of northern Nevada.
My hope for this exhibit was to bring awareness to the fact that regular people have lived in Nevada for the entirety of its history. They've struggled, hoped, and observed just as we do today. They've shared their successes and failures. They complained about the weather and were fascinated by the landscape. Nevada is made up of everyday people, doing everyday thing in the hopes of creating a place to call home.
Nevada is in my blood. I am a fifth-generation northern Nevadan of Swiss-Italian heritage. My great-great grandmother, Marietta Conzali Canonic, was born in Genoa, Nevada in 1875. My great-great grandfather, Martin Canonic, immigrated to Genoa in 1886. When I was a child, I heard my great grandmother, Ruby Canonic Leavitt, tell stories of growing up in Genoa. She had nine brothers and a sister, and, as the seventh child and first girl, had quite a few responsibilities. She and her siblings worked hard, but were always close and always had a good time. The stories she shared with me of her experiences growing up in Nevada at the turn of the 20th century inspired me to study history.
I entered the University in the fall of 2006 with History as my declared major. I had no idea what I was going to do with a History degree, but that was something for future me to worry about. Present me was incredibly happy to be in college studying something I loved. My second semester is when I stumbled into the Special Collections Department. I was actively trying to be prepared for my class to meet the following week in the department (I didn't want to be the one lost student), so I figured out where I needed to be in advance. That decision was the best I've ever made. Once I finally found the department, I spoke to a wonderful archivist on the desk, former Photo Curator Kathy Totton, and discovered there was a student assistant position available in the department. Two weeks later, I'd landed the position and have never looked back.
I graduate with my B.A. in History in the fall semester of 2010. Two years later, I decided to pursue my Master's in Library and Information Science. I had just been hired in a staff position in the department after serving as an LOA for two years and was absolutely thrilled. I knew I was in the right place professionally as well as personally to take on the challenge of a master's program. In December 2015, I finished my degree and felt much more confident in all the knowledge that had been passed to me through first-hand experience working in an archive.
Although I wear many hats in the Special Collections and University Archives department, my favorite is accessioning and processing. These two activities help archivists not only keep track of where materials are from, but make them available for researchers to use. Both tasks require me to spend significant time with the original documents. Often times I'll have to read letters or examine ledgers so I can adequately describe the material and include the information in the record. It was during one of these times that I was sorting through a box full of letters that the thought struck me: how cool would it be to create an exhibit centered on letters? How many collections do we have that I could use? What kinds of stories could I tell? I mentally filed this away for a future exhibit.
Time passed. Projects came and went, but that idea never went away. In fact, it kept growing. Every time I looked through our online catalog, I discovered more and more amazing examples of letters written by people just living their lives. Some talked about financial worries. Others health. Still others about what livestock was best to raise in Nevada (my favorite was a letter about the Langshen chicken-the best chicken to raise in Nevada according to the author). The words that these people put on paper gives us a verbal snapshot of ordinary and extraordinary life experiences. Although we may not be able to relate fully to all of the sentiments in these letters, such as the hardships faced by pioneers crossing the Humboldt Sink, there are still aspects we can appreciate: being away from home, family, friends.
These letters show that we're all people with stories to tell. Nevadans have been writing their stories down for years. I'm thrilled to be able to share some of those stories through the exhibit Letters Home. I hope you enjoy viewing it as much as I did creating it.
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