Reflections on Sources and the Publication of My First Book

Jodey Nurse

University of Waterloo

The publication of my first monograph, Cultivating Community: Women and Agricultural Fairs in Ontario, has been an exciting and rewarding experience. I completed the research for this book during my Ph.D., but after receiving my doctorate in 2016, I embarked on new scholarly projects which I have since continued. However, my commitment to this earlier work never stalled, only slowed, and the release of my book is now a time of celebration–if also trepidation–for the chance to share it with a wider audience.

Since the launch of the book in recent weeks, I’ve had the chance to reflect on the importance of this work and its deep personal meaning. I’ve remarked that my and my family’s involvement in agricultural fairs has shaped the book and noted my feelings of gratitude towards an institution that ushered in my existence (my parents met while exhibiting cattle at the Canadian National Exhibition).

I’ve also discussed the deficit of academic literature I discovered about women’s experiences at township and county fairs when I began researching these events, and how I hoped my work would help fill the void in that scholarship by highlighting how women’s involvement became critical to agricultural fairs’ growth and prosperity, but also how and why women’s experiences at fairs changed over time.

And similar to other historians of women’s history, I observed the challenges of finding women’s voices in the archives and other written records. Although I spent a great deal of time researching and utilizing written sources, such as government reports, agricultural society membership lists, prize lists, annual reports, and newspaper accounts, it was the information I garnered from other sources–material and oral–that gave me deeper insight into women’s lives. It is this aspect of the work, the use of oral history and material cultural history, that I wish to write about here.

Artifacts were a defining feature of my chapter on women’s domestic manufactures, fancywork, and fine art. These items, unlike perishable goods exhibited in other categories of fair competition, could be kept and maintained long after the fair was over. Indeed, I discovered clothing, textile, craft, and art work that was exhibited in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. These items were kept by their creators and their families and later donated to regional museums for posterity. By situating these objects in their historical context, I discovered deeper stories that allowed me to better understand the social, cultural, and economic environments in which their creators lived. The artifacts also allowed me to consider new questions for my work, including what they represented about their makers’ values, beliefs, and identities.

Oral history was very important for this research as well. When I decided to extend my study into the postwar period, the opportunity to use oral history was both exciting and intimidating. Exciting because of oral history’s ability to reveal stories not recorded elsewhere, but also intimidating because of a historian’s responsibility to an interviewee for successfully communicating those stories. The interview process had a profound impact on me because it reinforced the idea, which other rural women’s scholars have long encouraged, that we must listen to women and how they tell their own stories when writing their history.

It is my sincerest desire that what I learned about women’s involvement in agricultural fairs is clearly conveyed to and appreciated by those who read my book. But I also hope this work provides further evidence for the need to include many types of sources when writing history. Historians understand that one should never rely on only a few written records to discover meaningful patterns and observations. But searching out greater kinds of source materials, be that oral testimony or material things, is also important for interpreting the past.

I admit there are still missing stories that need to be told about this topic; certainly not all women’s experiences have been represented in one monograph. But through the range of sources I did use, I am content that meaningful insights into rural women’s lives were made and a more complex story of the agricultural fair was achieved.

Jodey Nurse is a research assistant professor in the Department of History, University of Waterloo. Nurse is also the RWSA International Membership and Communication Coordinator for Canada. Her research includes a range of topics related to rural communities and agricultural policy. Her first monograph, Cultivating Community: Women and Agricultural Fairs in Ontario was published by McGill-Queen’s University Press in February 2022.

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