"I discovered that diaries in families are doomed."
November 3, 2017 6:19 AM   Subscribe

The Great Diary Project: "Diary rescuer" (and also British Museum curator) Irving Finkel, founded the Great Diary Project, a repository for any all diaries in non-digital formats by private individuals. Finkel believes that every diary is a valuable resource full of remarkable details. "All human life is there, and every entry is helpfully dated for future historians." For the sake of posterity, you can donate your own. via ALDaily.
posted by Miko (36 comments total) 41 users marked this as a favorite
I recently visited a museum started by a pair of brothers as a way to display their extensive collections, and got to talking with an interpreter about the documentation of their daily lives. He told me that one brother's diary included tons of details about minor events and cited an entry beginning with the words "Pap shat himself this morning."

Thank you for posting this, Miko--fascinating project!
posted by MonkeyToes at 6:40 AM on November 3, 2017

I would donate my terrible diary that I kept for the first two years I lived in Atlanta as a 22-year-old adult but I'd be embarrassed by the contents. My high school one has bad Goth poetry!
posted by Kitteh at 6:58 AM on November 3, 2017 [3 favorites]

Oh wow, this is amazing. I wish they could scan them and crowdsource digitizing, I would do it.
It seems like it would make sense for them to link up with the Mass Observation Archive, which collected diaries in real time during WWII (and to some extent today, I think) and has a vast collection, some of which has been published in book form.
Well-written diaries (as in, entertaining, not necessarily grammatical etc.) are as much fun to read as any given novel, I think. I hope the project works.
posted by huimangm at 7:02 AM on November 3, 2017 [1 favorite]

Good heavens. I have diaries back to when I was twelve, though I've kept them more consistently since the early 90s. I've been sporadically typing them into my computer lately as a way of reviewing them, and considering eventually choosing a few gems so that my daughter doesn't do what I had to do when my mother died, which was read through everything and get depressed.
posted by Peach at 7:12 AM on November 3, 2017 [6 favorites]

I've thought about this sort of thing before, but then I think: we live in the internet age. People's public diaries are so abundantly available. Nowadays, isn't the problem not so much "more diaries please" as it is "more people to archive the millions of publicly available diaries out there in a less technologically brittle form"?
posted by inconstant at 7:45 AM on November 3, 2017 [1 favorite]

I have my great-aunt's diary from 1941-1946, when she was a teenager. I looked up her entries from the week of Pearl Harbor and they're entirely about the boys she went on dates with. Honestly, that's kind of a running theme-- Aunt Biena was apparently a hot ticket.
posted by nonasuch at 7:45 AM on November 3, 2017 [23 favorites]

Mrs Molerats and I keep a line-a-day diary for several years now, but most of them are filled with high-larious gems like "today NMR farted so loudly the dog went and hid" so... you're welcome, future historians. The late 2010's were super farty.
posted by nakedmolerats at 8:08 AM on November 3, 2017 [12 favorites]

Nowadays, isn't the problem not so much "more diaries please" as it is "more people to archive the millions of publicly available diaries out there in a less technologically brittle form"?

The articles and videos go into some of the non-digitize-able aspects of diary study.

I have my great-aunt's diary from 1941-1946, when she was a teenager. I looked up her entries from the week of Pearl Harbor and they're entirely about the boys she went on dates with

Heh. I was trying to do some research on community activities during the Civil War years and read the entirety of a diary of a 19-yo woman in the town then, and that was pretty much all it contained, too. I chuckle, but I also get the context that deciding who you were going to marry was pretty much the single most consequential life decision any woman could make at the time, so I don't blame them for chronicling those events.

you're welcome, future historians

I love that that's exactly the kind of thing this project is seeking to preserve - the goofiest, most daily bits of life's texture that may not make it into other formats.
posted by Miko at 8:40 AM on November 3, 2017 [5 favorites]

Oh, I have a journal I kept of a high school trip to the Soviet Union in 1972! It's so embarrassing I have never let anyone read it, but I still have it. Definitely one to send along.
posted by maggiemaggie at 8:41 AM on November 3, 2017 [3 favorites]

...and yeah, the reason it's so embarrassing is because it's mostly about boys, with the occasional self-important philosophizing about the significance of the trip.
posted by maggiemaggie at 8:44 AM on November 3, 2017 [6 favorites]

Ah, I missed that the via was also an article.

I don't see anything specifically addressing my concern, though, which is that for the purpose of information preservation, it seems that the modern need for more permanent archival of digital-only diary materials -- of which there is a huge preponderance -- is not met by soliciting diary donations from individuals.
posted by inconstant at 8:49 AM on November 3, 2017

Great to see this here. We had the GDP's Stefan Dickers talk at an event I helped organize last year. He talked about some his favourite diaries from the collection, was incredibly entertaining and informative, and we all had an absolute blast.
posted by Sonny Jim at 8:51 AM on November 3, 2017 [1 favorite]

One of the saddest things about my teen and early 20s journals is how much it is about current love interests. Seems like a waste of energy now, even if developmentally reasonable.

the modern need for more permanent archival of digital-only diary material

This collecting policy says they do accept digital content, and this description of the exhibition (from the European Journal of Life Writing!) deals quite a bit with the transformation of diaries in the digital era. It does seem that a key focus of interest is the hard-copy document rescue project, which I can get behind, having discovered a few troves of journals put out with people's trash or at yard sales over the years. Also, they make for interesting material and visual culture to put on exhibit - not surprising for a curatorially driven project.
posted by Miko at 9:01 AM on November 3, 2017

I have my diary from 1993-97, preserved through several changes of Apple and PC word format. Every so often I pull it out with the idea of publishing a little something, maybe writing a memoir piece or two. The voice in it is certainly a bright and lively one. The trouble is that it belongs to a teenager, and as an adult, I want to strangle her with my bare hands. Or call the police on her boyfriends. Or both. Still, if I stripped out the identifying information, it might be of note to them.
posted by Countess Elena at 9:17 AM on November 3, 2017 [3 favorites]

If you read mine you would learn in minute detail about wounds I sustained after the sins of my various boyfriends and my subsequent attempts to anesthetize myself with bagels and M&Ms and NOTHING ELSE EVER about life's texture. Should Pap have shat himself, there'd be dick about it in my diaries. Yet I hold onto them. Year after year after year. There is a dusty reef of them slumped against a wall in my house. Maybe I can shellac them together and make a really uncomfortable chair that I can sit in every time I think maybe I should keep a diary.
posted by Don Pepino at 9:19 AM on November 3, 2017 [6 favorites]

yeah, you'd learn about Usenet drama from mine, and tabletop gaming characters, but not about the '90s, unless it was that the '90s were apparently a really safe time to be an idiot child
posted by Countess Elena at 9:26 AM on November 3, 2017 [2 favorites]

I recently read Silicon Valley Girl, an unedited diary collection offering "a deeply personal look at the emotional life of a teenager of color trying to make sense of race, class, and sexuality," and by gosh if most of it isn't about boys. On the other hand, there's certainly talk of the social structures and events at which those boys are met.
posted by one for the books at 9:38 AM on November 3, 2017 [2 favorites]

I just started up a journal again, and one of my reasons for doing so is that I typically only keep one and write in it when I'm depressed. So my old journals paint a much bleaker picture of my life than is really accurate. I decided I needed to make sure I left a record of when I'm happy, too, so that if my loved ones read them after I die, they won't be super bummed out.
posted by showbiz_liz at 9:51 AM on November 3, 2017 [4 favorites]

(None of my early 20s ones are about boys, they're more freeform anxiety spirals)
posted by showbiz_liz at 9:52 AM on November 3, 2017 [1 favorite]

I'm comforted to read that so many other people, dating back to the Civil War times and beyond, used to write almost exclusively about love interests. Probably 95% of my life's journal entries, of which there are a lot, are about people I was dating or crushed out on.

And it makes sense--as much as I should have been writing about 9/11 when it happened, I figured that topic was pretty well covered by everyone else. What I needed to write about in the fall of 2001, to externalize and process it, was an analysis of my social life and my mom's unreasonable curfews and refusal to let me carry a cell phone.

Another is that I tend not to journal when I'm happy. Like, at all. I wrote about two lines when I got married, but a few months prior I filled four pages with scrawly rants about toxic friendships and an ex-boyfriend. It's not really a true representation of my actual life. A future reader may assume I lived my life in a tormented state of constant rage and frustration, and that I was maybe a sex addict or otherwise had severe attachment issues. So that will be embarrassing, but whatareyougonnado?!
posted by witchen at 10:16 AM on November 3, 2017 [2 favorites]

one of my early 20s ones are about boys, they're more freeform anxiety spirals

I re-read my diaries from my teens and early 20s a few years ago, and I was expecting some stupid, cringe-y teen girl stuff and was astonished to find they were actually a pretty clear record of how being a geeky girl in a small, sexist rural western area had shaped me into a rolling ball of anxiety, and how much that anxiety dissipated as soon as I left for college. There was hardly anything about boys or friends until college - it's clear how lonely I was, which makes me sad, but also clear the reasons why - but, for archival purposes, they're actually a pretty good record of the social structures/pressures of the time, particularly sexism, and how they produced a ceaseless struggle on my part against them, without having any clue of what was happening.

and also how much I loved R.E.M.
posted by barchan at 10:17 AM on November 3, 2017 [7 favorites]

On preview: what showbiz_liz said. Only I probably won't do much to correct it.
posted by witchen at 10:17 AM on November 3, 2017

I'm not saying "why don't they accept digital donations just like they do paper diaries", I'm saying that the preservation needs of paper diaries are different from the preservation needs of digital diaries.

Paper diaries:
-typically private
-typically destroyed or passed to family after writer's death
-once preserved, remain readable regardless of technological changes or advances

Electronic diaries and diary-like data:
-typically public
-typically remain accessible to general public even after writer's death
-once preserved, may become unreadable due to technological changes or advances
posted by inconstant at 10:37 AM on November 3, 2017 [2 favorites]

(For given values of public/private, of course. But the social nuances of "public" and "private" would be a whole other conversation!)
posted by inconstant at 10:39 AM on November 3, 2017

In defense of our self-absorbed diaries, they gave us the strength to process private issues, not public ones. Even teenagers knew that if they had serious opinions, they could present them in class arguments, essays, or (the big guns) letters to the editor. Then came the blog, then social media, collapsing the distinction between the venting journal, the observational journal, and the public essay.

I’ve given myself the challenge of observing and recording one unrelated event in the outside world every day: a remarkable passerby, an unusual gathering of birds, a good dog. It’s not much, and I don’t often do it, but it roots me.
posted by Countess Elena at 10:44 AM on November 3, 2017 [5 favorites]

When I was in my late teens, my grandfather had a massive heart attack that resulted in a quintuple bypass. As he was recovering, he started thinking about how he'd almost died, and he had all these stories and events that most of the other family members had never heard. He ended up filling up most of a notepad with all those stories, starting in his childhood (in the 1910's and 20's) all the way through his life, scrawled in pencil. Eventually another family member transcribed them, printed them out, and distributed copies to everyone in neat little 3-ring binders with a picture of him on the front. I still have mine stashed somewhere and I pull it out to read it every so often. There are some real doozies in there.
posted by Greg_Ace at 10:51 AM on November 3, 2017 [2 favorites]

Oh man, this is awesome! If there’s any one job I could have, it would be transcribing old diaries. Do you all remember the diary from ~1800 that was posted here maybe last year? I’m on my phone so it’s hard for me to look up, but that’s still probably my favorite post on this site.

There is something voyeuristic about reading a diary, but really it’s a view of history that is so much more humanizing than you ever get elsewhere.

We have my great uncle’s diary from WWII. He died in the South Pacific. It’s full of stuff about how he’s a dreamer, and how when he gets back he wants to roam around and see the world and its people. It’s all so relatable, and it makes me really wish I could have met him.
posted by shapes that haunt the dusk at 1:20 PM on November 3, 2017 [3 favorites]

If there’s any one job I could have, it would be transcribing old diaries.
Well, you won't get paid for it -- it's a volunteer initiative -- but there is https://anno.tate.org.uk/ which focuses on artists' diaries.
posted by inconstant at 1:35 PM on November 3, 2017 [2 favorites]

When my mother went into Hospice in the 90s, they gave her a journal to write in. My dad died a couple of years ago and in cleaning out the house and sorting through things I found it. I glanced at it, enough to know that she wrote some entries but didn't fill it up, but I can't imagine that I will ever be comfortable reading it. Sending it some place like this (someday) sounds kind of appealing.
posted by dilettante at 3:47 PM on November 3, 2017 [1 favorite]

I was given a sentence a day diary. I should restart it- it's quite easy to write down a few words about the day, rather than pages of prose.
posted by freethefeet at 5:36 PM on November 3, 2017

I found the diary I kept as a 13 to 14 year old a few years ago. Very cringy. The best thing, though, was that I had completely forgotten how much 'sick' was used as a pejorative. Nowadays (or a little while ago) something being 'fully sick' actually meant awesome, but in the early 80's it was all 'Dad is so sick, he won't let me do anything!' and 'school was so sick today, I hate Kelly!' Also, I too would like to have a word with a few guys who really shouldn't have been anywhere near me, although at the time that was about the only thing I didn't think was sick, ironically.
posted by h00py at 6:00 PM on November 3, 2017 [1 favorite]

Mrs Molerats and I keep a line-a-day diary for several years now, but most of them are filled with high-larious gems like "today NMR farted so loudly the dog went and hid" so... you're welcome, future historians. The late 2010's were super farty.
"In fact, naked mole rats can survive for five hours at oxygen levels so low a human would die in minutes, ..."
posted by sebastienbailard at 6:54 PM on November 3, 2017

I love the concept of keeping diaries and journaling, but always seem to fail in the execution. The longest I've managed to keep a daily one going consistently is about three months—not very impressive.

However, the one time I did manage to keep it going for three months was through the winter of 2001, and the most interesting things in retrospect are the summaries of the news—I was in a particularly news-hound-y mood at the time, coming off of the election season and Inauguration, I guess. I remember thinking that they were a waste of space at the time (as though I'd fill the book, ha), but it's sort of interesting to read them and compare what I thought was important at the time, to what actually turned out to be important. Most of the time the important stuff turns out to be the offhand, marginal comments. (I am particularly proud-yet-embarrassed of one from Feb 18, 2001: "Watched Exodus on TCM, switched chan to CNN and saw rpt that US precision bombed radar instls. nr. Baghdad. A little 'hello' from the new adm? [...] Doesn't take Tom Clancy to show how easily a war could start there!") The stuff I thought would be interesting, whether at the national or intensely personal level, rarely is.

It's the jarringness of the disconnect between how we remember the past and how we thought we'd want to remember it—the exposure to the past without the retrospective filtering—that makes diaries interesting to read, I think.
posted by Kadin2048 at 9:39 PM on November 3, 2017 [2 favorites]

Thanks for this. I might donate my grandmother's holiday diaries, if the rest of the family agrees. She was a social researcher and I think she'd like her diaries being in a collection like this.
posted by paduasoy at 9:25 AM on November 4, 2017 [2 favorites]

Kadin2018, you remind me of something fascinating: The Challenger memory experiment, in which a psychologist recorded the accounts of students who witnessed the Challenger explosion on TV immediately afterward, and then again only 2.5 years later. After even that short time, their memories had significantly changed, and not one person remembered it with full accuracy.

It would be interesting to compare memories with diary accounts. I'd do it myself, but you can only do it once on yourself I'd think, since as soon as you read the diary you'll have the memory of what was in the diary starting to overwrite the memory generated in your mind.
posted by Miko at 11:00 AM on November 4, 2017 [1 favorite]

I love that idea; I think it can sort of work if you write down what you remember after some time has passed, then compare the two entries — the "immediate" one and the "memory" one. It's imperfect, of course, and once you've done it you can't really do it again, but it's something. I am too bad at doing diaries regularly to actually do it myself, but I suspect someone who was more dedicated could certainly learn a lot about themselves.

The closest I've come was inadvertently doing it with my recollections of 9/11; a while back (after a Metafilter thread, actually), I went back and looked at my sent emails from late 2001—which are intriguingly diary-like without requiring any distinct effort, at least if you are a prolific email-user like I was back before the text-message age arrived—and it was surprising how much of the sequence of events (not just the actual morning, but the weeks and months afterwards, with the run-up to the GWOT) I didn't remember correctly. I had most of the highlights, but the timeline I would have laid out (and probably did lay out in a few comments here or on Reddit, although I'm too embarrassed to go looking now) would have been horrendously wrong. And until I saw the old paper journal that the quote in my other comment came from, I would never have remembered the US bombing of Iraq in February of that year. It just didn't seem important at the time so it never managed to make it into long-term storage, I guess.

The other thing that we always tend to edit out of our recollections is the boredom and long periods of uncertainty, of just tabling a particular topic and ignoring it while waiting for more information to emerge. This makes sense—it's boring, and I think we're primed to want to cut to the chase when retelling a story, even just in our own heads—but it means that memories tend to be a whole lot more exciting and fast-paced than the actual events were. Sometimes I wonder if this is why every adolescent generation feels like it's getting the shaft compared to their parents: when all you have to compare to are other people's recollections, versus your own reality, reality—with its irritating lack of montages and jump cuts—doesn't stand a chance.
posted by Kadin2048 at 4:02 PM on November 13, 2017 [1 favorite]

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