Lydia Olsson

Documenting the daily life of a 19th-century Midwestern woman

Portrait of Lydia Olsson

Lydia Olsson (1874-1958) was a student and librarian at Augustana College and Theological Seminary in Rock Island, Illinois. She left behind five diaries that paint a vivid portrait of her life in the 1890s. The entries are rich with the details of Olsson’s everyday existence, so full of personality that she practically jumps off the page. It is as if she is sitting next to you, telling you about her day.

Olsson forged her own path. While in many respects she was a fairly ordinary, Swedish-American Midwestern woman, she also toured Europe twice, took college courses, and remained unmarried and childless. Her diaries provide critical insight into her life and how she conformed to and rejected the roles society assigned to women like her. Her papers are part of the Olof Olsson family papers held by Augustana Special Collections, Augustana College, Rock Island, IL.

My journey with Olsson began the summer before my senior year of college. I came across the diaries while working at Augustana Special Collections and quickly became absorbed in the details of her life. Reading someone’s diaries is an intimate act: it’s as if I know Lydia personally. I have written about this connection and its impact on my life more than once, and it infuses all of my writing about her.

Publications and Exhibitions

“‘The history of every life … is important’: Lydia Olsson, Growing Up Swedish American, and Midwestern Girlhood at the Turn of the Century,” 2021

A thesis I wrote for my Master of Arts degree that looks at the life of Lydia Olsson in the wider contexts of American girlhood, Swedish American culture, and the evolving roles of women at the turn of the twentieth century.

Life in Process: A Portrait of Lydia Olsson, 1892-1896, 2020

A digital exhibition exploring Lydia Olsson’s experiences on the Augustana College campus through her diaries.

Lydia’s Diaries: Uncovering Women’s History in the Archives, 2019

A reflection on my first encounter with Lydia Olsson’s diaries and how reading them led me to become a women’s historian. Written in celebration of American Archives Month. (Originally published on the Re/Visionist.)

Anna Olsson Wikipedia article, created 2014

A Wikipedia article about Anna Olsson, Lydia’s oldest sister. Olsson’s autobiography of a childhood on the Kansas prairie is considered a key work of Swedish-American literature. I also edited the Wikipedia article on Olof Olsson, Anna and Lydia’s father. Both provide more information about the Olsson family.

Women’s Diary Writing Webliography, 2012

A website featuring print and digital resources related to women’s life writing, as well as information on using primary sources and reading and transcribing handwriting. Please note that this website has not been updated with new resources since 2012.

Transcriptions of Lydia Olsson’s diaries, 2011

Original transcriptions of four of Olsson’s diaries and a revised transcription of a fifth diary. Copies of the transcriptions are held by Augustana Special Collections as part of the Olof Olsson family papers.

Augustana Sweethearts, 2011

An exhibition that highlighted early female students’ experiences at Augustana College, specifically Lydia Olsson, Ethel Pearson, and Netta Bartholomew Anderson. I curated this exhibition with two other student assistants who worked for Augustana Special Collections.

Lydia’s diaries: student life in the 1890s, 2011

An article about Lydia Olsson that I wrote for Reflecting on the Past: 150 Years of Augustana Stories, a book celebrating the sesquicentennial of Augustana College.