“Reading Digitized Diaries”

My essay, “Reading Digitized Diaries: Privacy and the Digital Life-Writing Archive,” is now out at a/b: Autobiography Studies. I am really proud of this essay, which was the first scholarly writing about diaries I ever completed. It’s strange because my research in this area has really taken off and I have published a few other essays on the genre already, while this one worked its way slowly through the editorial process at a/b. While published later, this essay represents where I started. Looking at it now, I can already see how my thinking has evolved but I remain proud of the work and excited to have produced something out of this index — which I initially designed as a resource for my students, but which has really impacted my thinking about diaries and how modes of access shape our understanding of the genre. I hope you’ll check it out.

How to Make Sure Your Diaries Don’t End Up in the Trash

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Anne Lister’s Coded Diary

Part 3 in the series.

Read Part 1: “Don’t Burn your Diary! Why you shouldn’t destroy your personal writing.”

Read Part 2: “But my diary is silly or shameful. Common arguments for destroying personal writing, and why they are unconvincing.”

Disclaimer time: I am neither a lawyer nor a conservationist. You should consult a lawyer, estate planner, or conservationist to receive legal advice about your pre-death planning, including the preservation of your diaries, which I address below.

So, you’ve realized that you need to make some plans to guarantee that your diaries, journals, letters, or other private papers are disposed of the way you want them to be, upon the event of your death. But, what do you do? Standard pre-death or estate planning focuses on medical care, finances, and distribution of property; it does not typically take into consideration things like diaries. Yet, there are steps you can take to make sure your wishes regarding your diaries are recorded and respected.

Please note: my recommendations refer most directly to material diaries or journals, not digital ones. Advice regarding what to do about computer files, social media accounts, or online life writing in the event of death can be found at the Library of Congress and the New York Times. I’m more concerned with that box of diaries you’ve got shoved in the back of your bedroom closet, and that your heirs will have to decide what to do with after you’ve died.

Keep your old diaries in archival appropriate conditions. This is something you should do now. Get an acid-free storage box or boxes. Keep it in a safe, dry place. Make sure it’s properly labeled so it won’t get misplaced or thrown out by accident. Tell someone you trust where it is and what’s in it. Give your writing the value it deserves.

See also: Library of Congress: Collections Care

American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works: Taking Care of Your Treasures

Jackson, “Taking Care of Your Personal Archives” (The Atlantic, 2010)

Tell someone what you want done with your diaries. Like all pre-death planning, what’s most important is communicating your wishes to someone who will survive you, and who you can trust to implement those wishes. This may be a family member, a trusted friend, or a lawyer. Write down your wishes. A written statement carries more legal weight than an oral request. Make sure your written statement is with your other legal paperwork: your will, living will, Durable Power of Attorney, etc. Be as specific as possible about what you do or do not want done with your writing. Be reasonable in terms of what you request. Planning ahead about such materials is a kindness to your heirs, saving them from having to make difficult decisions in what may be an emotionally challenging time.

Consider donating your diaries to a library, archive, or historical society. Maybe you have friends or family members who will cherish your diaries, keep them safe, and use them as you wished. But I strongly encourage you to consider giving your diaries to a library, archive, or historical society where they can be read and studied by others. Obviously, this recommendation comes from my immense gratitude to the individuals and families who have made diaries available to me and other scholars – and who have enabled us to do the historical and literary research that is the foundation of our scholarly writing.


Stephen Tennant’s Diary 1848


To donate your papers, I recommend you follow the guidelines developed by the Society of American Archivists. Their brochure, “Donating Your Personal or Family Records to a Repository”, provides a thorough overview of the issues to consider and strategies to implement, including the need to sign a “deed of gift” (which they describe here) in order to secure the donation.

Start locally: your local library, university archive or special collections, local historical society, etc. Certain archives exist specifically to collect materials related to certain categories of identity or experience: Holocaust survivors, for example, might contact their local Holocaust museum, and so forth.

But, there are some options specifically for diarists. Although, as I have bemoaned before, there is currently no national American diary archive, there is one in Italy (the National Diary Archive Foundation in Prieve Santo Stefano in Tuscany, the so-called “City of Diaries”) and The Great Diary Project in the UK. European readers might consider either of these locations for their materials.

Consider restricting access to your diaries for a period of time. If you donate your diaries to an archive, you usually have the prerogative to designate whether they will remain restricted from public access for a period of time. This is a good idea if there is material in your diaries that you want to keep private from specific people (say, your family or someone you write about in your diary). For example, you might set a 50 year restriction stating that no one can read your diary until 50 years after you make the donation or after you die. This is something you will discuss with the librarian or archivist who acquires your materials. But remember, you are within your rights to ask for restrictions and, if your diaries are held by an archive, they have the power to enforce it (which a family member may not).


Samuel Reader’s Diary 1854

Give back. It would be appropriate for you to make a financial donation to the archive that acquires your diaries, in light of the role you are asking them to play in preserving and protecting your papers. Libraries are endangered institutions these days, when they should be valued and compensated for the services they provide us. Consider writing a financial bequest to the archive into your will at the same time you are developing your end-of-life plan for your diaries.

Above all: don’t wait until it’s too late, and someone else is obligated to make decisions on your behalf about the fate of your diaries.

Update: I recently finished reading Alexander Masters’ strange and wonderful book, A Life Discarded: 148 Diaries Found in the Trash, which I highly recommend to anyone who is not yet convinced that it’s worthwhile to make arrangements for your private writing, so that it doesn’t end up in a “skip” like the diaries Masters discovered. (Even if his discovery set off an intriguing treasure hunt.)

But my diary is silly or shameful. Common arguments for destroying personal writing, and why they are unconvincing.

Part 2 in the series. Read Part 1: “Don’t Burn your Diary! Why you shouldn’t destroy your personal writing.”

Okay, you’re still not persuaded. Let’s talk about why.

My diary is silly. I wrote it when I was young/depressed/in love and the contents are cringeworthy and have no inherent literary or historical value. Trust me! No one wants to read my diary!

I’m not going to try to persuade you that your diary is a staggering work of literary genius. There is a good chance that your diary does have silly moments – I know mine does. So, accepting that your diary is silly – that maybe there are one too many entries detailing the physical attributes of a new lover, or dwelling on how sad you are, or recounting fights in your high school clique that seemed urgently important at the time – does that still mean you should destroy it?

I don’t think so. What looks silly or childish or solipsistic to you now may be a delight to you in the future – and may be equally delightful to a future reader. You wrote what you did because that’s where you were at the time. It may be tempting to retroactively edit yourself and cover over those less-than-exceptional moments, but in doing so you deny a truth about yourself.

My diary is shameful. I wrote about some really embarrassing acts/activities, the kind of thing that I would be mortified for my kids to learn about. Or, I did some really terrible, petty things to other people, and I don’t want anyone to know what I am capable of. This is information that no one would benefit from knowing.

Once again, I am not going to try to convince you that what you did wasn’t shameful – maybe it was. Probably you are not the first to have ever done it – yes, even that sex act/activity that you don’t want anyone else to know about. But, okay, so you did something and now you’d like to make sure that no one ever reads about it.

But, consider this: you wrote about it. The impulse to record was sufficient to overcome your embarrassment. Surely that tells you something? Surely that suggests that it was important enough to you to deserve to be included in your life narrative? If you have any intention of conveying a full picture of yourself in you diary, you’ve got to include the bad alongside the good, the shameful as well as the celebratory.

And, you can control who reads it. Maybe you’re concerned about a specific audience: your partner, spouse, children, or heirs? That’s legitimate. But, there are specific steps you can take to make sure they don’t read your diary, that stop short of destroying it. Don’t give into the temptation to rewrite your life, to buff up your self-image retroactively, rather than to honor the original diaristic impulse to write it down and acknowledge the darker shades of yourself.

I wrote it for myself. Keeping a diary or journaling was always just for me, a way to process my experiences and work through my thoughts. I never intended to have an audience and even the prospect of a reader in the distant future changes my thinking about my diary/journal, so I don’t want to even consider it.

I admit I find it hard to believe that anyone writes a diary or journal without considering a possible reader. Maybe I’ve just read too many diaries in my research; it’s impossible for me to not think, however vaguely, about the possibility that someone will read my diary at some point in the future. And, so many of the diaries I’ve read have moments when the diarists betray a similar self-consciousness, acknowledging an imagined reader.


T.E. Lawrence’s diary, in which nothing appears to happen.


But, okay, let’s say you are a diarist who has a strong sense of yourself as writing in a state of isolation: in dialogue with yourself and no one else. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t consider what will happen after your death. In fact, you can take steps to make sure that your diary will remain restricted – at least for a period of time and from the readers you most do not want to have access to your writing.

But, I also think it may be time for you to acknowledge to yourself that by virtue of writing your thoughts down, you’ve made them available to others – and that an audience (even an imaginary or distant one) may be more formative to your thinking than you’ve admitted to yourself. No one is an island, as the saying goes, and considering the diary as a more social or communicative form of writing is one way of exploring the ways in which your individual life story is bound up with many, many others.

I am not important. My life is really ordinary and my diary reflects the mundane nature of my day-to-day life. It would be incredibly boring for anyone else to read. Really, no one would be interested!

You’d be amazed at what readers and, especially, scholars find interesting. In her research on an eighteenth-century midwife’s diary, Harvard historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich discovered an unparalleled record of early American life. I am sure the midwife, Martha Ballard, did not think she was historically significant; she certainly didn’t write a diary with the intention of making it entertaining or scintillating to anyone else. And, as a result, to many readers, her diary was boring and unreadable. Under Ulrich’s careful and respectful analysis, however, it was revealed to be a treasure trove of historical information.


A page of Martha Ballard’s diary

So, you never know whether what you write will be important. What looks ordinary or boring to you may end up being the kind of clue that enables a descendant or historian to piece together the essence of your life or your moment in time.

I’ve never thought about what would happen to my personal writing after I die and I don’t want to now.

Okay, I get it. Pre-death planning is a bummer. But, not planning guarantees that someone else will decide for you – and it almost certainly means that your papers will not be preserved with care or with archival skill. Plus, I’ve written this, which will make planning incredibly easy: Part 3: “How to Make Sure Your Diary Doesn’t End Up in the Trash.”

Don’t Burn your Diary!

Whenever I teach Emily Dickinson’s poetry I tell the story of how, shortly before she died, Dickinson instructed her sister Lavinia to burn her private papers after her death. Yet, when Lavinia found a chest full of handwritten poems in Emily’s bedroom, she made the radical (for the time) decision to reject her sister’s instruction and she did not burn the poems. Basically, we have Lavinia to thank for the fact that Emily Dickinson’s poems are available to us.


Dickinson’s “Safe in their Alabaster Chambers,” manuscript version

When I tell this story, my students often gasp in horror at the thought of how close Dickinson’s poems came to being lost to us forever.

But when I ask my students – often the same ones who have poured over Dickinson’s manuscripts with awe and incredible care – about their own personal papers, they frequently say they don’t want their own writing to be preserved. Many of them talk about burning or destroying – or having someone else destroy – their diaries, journals, notebooks, letters, and so forth. (In my experience, they are pretty blasé about outliving their electronic records – blogs, emails, Facebook accounts – because they believe them to be inherently ephemeral due to digital obsolesence.)

I ask my students: But what if you are the next Emily Dickinson? She didn’t know she was a towering figure in American literary history. She didn’t know that people would devote their lives to the study of her poems. How do you know your writing isn’t valuable to the next generation or for generations to come?

Although Dickinson was a poet, the story of how close her poems came to being destroyed has, in my opinion, a parallel to the question that every diarist faces: What will happen to your diaries upon the event of your death?

Please, whatever you do: Don’t destroy your diaries, or plan to have someone else do so!

Here’s my case for why you should preserve, protect, and cherish your diaries, journals, or other personal writing.

° Save them for your family or descendants. You never know why your writing may be important in the future, or what kind of lasting impact your writing might have – and this is particularly true for people who have a familial or genealogical link to you. How would you feel if you came upon a diary kept by a great-grandparent, for example? I suspect you would find it fascinating and meaningful, and maybe especially because of what it tells you about your heritage. Think of all the questions you have about your ancestors, and what you could learn by even a partial glimpse of their personal lives. Someday someone will have similar questions about you. Leaving your diaries is one way of extending a hand to a future generation that you cannot even conceive of, and may never know directly. What an amazing gift!

° Save them for posterity. I am a scholar who spends my days pouring over historical materials in dusty archives so I am acutely aware of how much of what we know about our history is based on what gets saved – and what doesn’t. What gets saved gets studied and incorporated into scholarly knowledge. What gets lost or destroyed leaves a gap in the historical record that can be irrecoverable – and that can result in distorted or incomplete understandings of the past. This is particularly true of writing by or about “ordinary” people. Famous or important people usually have their papers saved (it’s one of the perks of fame and social significance). Ordinary people are the ones whose lives go undocumented. Historians and literary critics are acutely aware of this issue and actively seek out and revere the life stories of ordinary people because they provide a corrective, an invaluable insight that re-balances our perspective on the past. So, even if you think you aren’t historically significant, your diary may end up being exactly that.


E.S. “Gordon” Lacey Diary 1917

° Save it because you just never know. Okay, I’m going to get existential here. My first two points imagine a specific future reader: a descendant or a scholar. But, I think it’s possible that there are future uses of your diary that neither you nor I can imagine. Who knows what the future holds? On particularly dark days, I think about all the threats to survival on this planet and I wonder what will end up being the last surviving evidence of human culture on Earth. Maybe some alien life in a very distant future will pour over your diary and learn something of what it was like to be a human living now, in this time and place. And maybe that will be significant in ways that far exceed our understanding.

Right now, you’re either thinking of all the reasons why you should still not save your diaries – in which case, you should read Part 2: “But my diary is silly or shameful. Common arguments for destroying personal writing, and why they are unconvincing.”

Or, you are thinking, “Okay! I’m on board. But … how? What do I do next?” In which case, you should read Part 3: “How to Make Sure Your Diary Doesn’t End Up in the Trash.”

All Access, No Index

One of the early rallying cries for Digital Humanities was “access.” Finally, everything will be accessible. No longer will materials be held in specialized archives that are geographically remote to many, attached to elite educational institutions, and restrictive about who can read or handle their most precious documents. Instead, such materials would be available to everyone – openly, freely, democratically – thanks to the magic of digital technology.

While we haven’t quite reached the promised nirvana of universal access (as many people have before me pointed out — far more than I can cite), there are certainly more materials accessible now than in the past. Numerous DH projects have and continue to serve the basic purpose of providing a wide audience access to documents that would otherwise be difficult if not impossible to gain access to (manuscripts, codex, limited editions, etc.).

But, how are you supposed to find those projects?

If you happen to be a teacher, scholar, or general reader interested in William Blake, you can Google “William Blake” and pretty soon you’ll be perusing The William Blake Archive and looking at his line illustrations or paging through his manuscripts.

If, however, you happen to be a teacher, scholar, or general reader interested in African American life writing before the U.S. Civil War, you can Google a variety of search terms and never arrive at The Emilie Davis Diary. Unless you happen to have a serendipitous lead, there is a good chance that this resource will remain unknown to you because there is no good, reliable way of finding it.

Or take my research for example. I am interested in diaries; I want to say something meaningful about the diary as a genre but it is notoriously difficult to generalize about diaries. Diaries are as individual and idiosyncratic as their authors. The best way to prepare to address the diary as a genre is to read lots of different diaries by different people in different time periods, etc. DH would appear to be a salvation in this situation: I can read widely across the genre thanks to the digitization efforts of librarians, archivists, and literary critics. But only if I can find them. If you Google any combination of the terms “diary,” “journal,” “digital,” or “digitization,” you will get some interesting results — while missing almost everything you’re looking for. I can generally only find a source if I search by the author’s name, but that presumes I know he or she authored a diary in the first place.

One issue here is canonicity and the fact that DH is in danger of replicating and reinforcing the old canon. It makes sense: institutions and funding agencies are most likely to provide the resources to support a DH project that is anchored by a well-known historical or literary figure. There is a reason that John Adams’ papers are digitized and the Walt Whitman Archive continues to add more and more materials. These are amazing resources but let us not be blind to the fact that famous white male political figures and authors are the beneficiaries (when their papers were in no danger of being neglected) whereas so many other individuals remain hidden in the archives (if their papers were not lost already). Additionally, if your DH project is built around a well-known person, it is also more likely to become known and used. You’ll get traffic because Google will direct the right audience to your site.

So the canon issue leads us back to the issue I’m interested in, which is indexical: There is no index of Digital Humanities projects and Google (which pretends to be a comprehensive index of the internet) does not always serve us well. Of course there is no index of DH projects — there can be no index of DH because DH exceeds and disrupts the notion of what humanities work can be, and because not all DH projects are open-access websites. But, many are, and surely we want people to find those projects? If you build it but no one can find it or use it, does the project fulfill the basic premise of DH work?

In an essay in the Journal of  Digital Humanities, Trevor Muñoz argues that “data curation” should be considered a legitimate form of scholarly work. He writes:

The work of data curation—“active and on-going management of data through its lifecycle of interest and usefulness to scholarship, science, and education; … activities [which] enable data discovery and retrieval, maintain quality, add value, and provide for re-use over time” (Cragin et al. 2007) —should be legible as “publishing” work for libraries and scholars to do in much the same way that well-understood tasks related to preparing and circulating monographs or journals are already legible as publishing work.

I’m using this blog to host a modest data curation project, in the form of an index of digitized diaries. In the course of my research, I’ve stumbled across a host of amazing digitized diary projects and a recent query to the Society for the History of Authorship, History, and Publishing listserv yielded numerous more. The result is interesting cross-section of resources, indexed in this case by genre.

Data curation has its own limitations, particularly as practiced here: It requires maintenance and frequent updating to remain current, to make sure that the links remain active, etc. I can’t promise to give that kind of sustained attention to my Digitized Diary list – I simply don’t have the time – but I hope it serves others even as it furthers my own research goals.

I will be speaking about digitized diaries at the Texas Digital Humanities Conference in a few weeks, and thinking more about how good, reliable indexes of DH projects might serve as a kind of intellectual work — or, in my case, a step in a larger intellectual project.

Updated: See also the following resources:

Aisling D’Art’s “Historical Journals and Diaries Online”

About.com’s “Historical Diaries and Journals Online”

Patrick Sahle’s “Scholarly Digital Editions Catalog”

Paul K. Lyons’ “The Diary Junction”

Archiving the Modern Diary

What is the best way to preserve a diary for later readers? It’s a question I think about a great deal. As a scholar who works on historic diaries, I am painfully aware that the materials that I study only exist because someone along the way — a family member, an archivist, a librarian — decided that, rather than throw a diary in the trash, it was worth keeping. When I want to make myself crazy, I think about all the diaries (and other paper ephemera) that weren’t preserved but which found their way into middens, garbage heaps, or fireplaces … decaying into compost or flying up the chimney in the form of ash, and the author’s voice lost forever.

This isn’t just a question relevant to historic diaries, but to modern diaries and journals as well. If you are a diarist, what will happen to your diary after you die? Have you made arrangements? If you are in possession of someone else’s diary, what are you going to do with it? I plan to post some guidelines here for diary preservation and donation (I’m working on those now) but in the meanwhile, I want to introduce two really remarkable efforts to collect and preserve modern diaries:

The National Diary Archive Foundation (link to Italian language site) in Prieve Santo Stefano in Tuscany, Italy collects diaries, memoirs, and letters written by ordinary people and is reported to have over 7,000 items in its collection. The Foundation has an open donation policy — diary authors can simply send their diaries to archive — as well as an annual contest; diary authors can submit their work to be reviewed by a panel of readers that selects the Premio Prieve Saverio Tutino winner. From what I can tell, the Foundation appears to primarily collect materials by Italians — though their donation practices suggests the archive could ultimately end up with a large, multinational collection.

The Great Diary Project is a similar effort based in the UK. As the website states, “The work of the Great Diary Project is to rescue diaries like these from skips and bonfires and look after them for the future as important items of everyone’s history.” The collection now contains 2,000 items. The GDP Deposit Form does an excellent job of guiding the submission process: for example, you have the option of embargoing the diary for a few years, in order to assuage concerns about privacy. The GDP is affiliated with Bishopsgate Institute in London, which is a significant detail in my opinion; the GDP’s connection with a institution of higher education with a public library means that the collection has a greater chance for survival — and of remaining an open, accessible archive for scholars and readers.

To the best of my knowledge, there is no equivalent effort underway in the United States to collect and preserve diaries. Needless to say, I think there should be. Local libraries and historical organizations are obvious sites for donating diaries, but they are governed by their own individual concerns about space, subject matter, accessibility, and so forth. In other words, I don’t think you can always count on a local library or historical organization to accept and accurately preserve a diary. Ideally, there would a specialized archive with an open submission policy to guarantee that the voices of ordinary Americans were saved from obscurity. If I had a million dollars, I would found and fund such an organization but, in light of the fact that I don’t, I call upon librarians, scholars, and diary authors to advocate for the creation of such an archive. Imagine it! The Great American Diary Archive. The press release positively writes itself.