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.