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

Screen Shot 2017-05-22 at 5.50.45 PM

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.”

How To: Diary Advice Then & Now

One of the fascinating themes in popular writing about diaries is advice on how to write a diary/journal. You can find a host of contemporary advice books on diaries — and I hope to write about them here someday. But, it is by no means a new phenomenon.

Screen Shot 2014-11-23 at 5.36.08 PM In 1860, under the title “Concerning Hurry and Leisure” the popular periodical The Living Age republished an essay that was originally published in a British magazine (following the common practice of poaching from European periodicals). The article begins by advocating keeping a diary through a memorable image: “If a man keeps no diary, the path crumbles away behind him as his feet leave it; and days gone are but little more than a blank, broken by a few distorted shadows.” After providing specific suggestions for how to write a diary (“A few lines, a few words, written at the time, suffice …”), the author continues to make his case for the rewards of diary writing:

There must be a richness about the life of a person who keeps a diary, unknown to other men … Life, to him looking back, is not a bare line, stringing together his personal identity; it is surrounded, intertwined, entangled, with thousands and thousands of slight incidents, which give it a beauty, kindliness, reality.

It is not merely a collection, an aggregate of facts, that comes back; it is something far more excellent than that; — it is the soul of a few days ago; it is the dear Auld lang syne itself!

These ideas are familiar, I think, recycling the old adage that reflecting upon one’s life gives that life more meaning. The diary is the tool for this self-reflection and memory-preservation.

Screen Shot 2014-11-23 at 6.12.54 PM

Compare this with a much more recent incarnation of the “diary advice” genre: Blogger Karen Walrond posted a wonderful version of this on the blog Lime. In her “A new way to think about journaling: a primer,” Walrond lays out her own journaling practices and encourages readers to adopt them. What makes Walrond’s journaling practices innovative is that she advocates breaking away from the conventional “diary as daily reflection” model and instead using one’s diary for a variety of purposes: as a to-do list, for “morning pages,” as a scrapbook or photo album, as a place for artistic expression, etc. Walrond’s language is, however, as promotional as the 1860s piece above:

… capturing your messy, imperfect life, with no thought about how you want the final product to look or read — the result, of course, is that you’ll have an accidentally beautiful record of your life and times.

Although Walrond’s method is different, the spirit of these advice columns remains pretty consistent: diary/journal writing is a personally transformative experience. Whether the promise is to result in a perfect recreation of one’s life (as stated in 1860) or to honor the messy imperfection of one’s life (in 2014), both authors promote the diary as the ideal mechanism for gaining a new relationship to existence.