Not long ago I started corresponding with Sally Macnamara Ivey who has collected and sold diaries since about 1987. She accepted my invitation to be interviewed for the National Diary Archive blog.
I found some of her answers to be very moving. She expresses beautifully exactly what I feel about the importance of preserving old diaries. I especially agree with her comments that real life is more exciting and rewarding than fiction and that everyone has a story to tell and something to offer.
Here is the interview:
First of all, are you a diarist and, if so, for how long? What form of diary/journal do you keep? (Notebook, bound book, large or small pages.)
I started my first diary at the age of 10. Most of those entries were one liner’s like “went to school” or “went to choir” etc. Later on through my high school years my diary entries became much longer and I wrote on every available space the page would allow. I am now 55 years old and have kept a diary for many of the years of my life. I would say I have over 50 diaries but have never counted them as they are all over my house in trunks, on shelves, in drawers, etc. As far as what form of diary I keep it’s really a variety of different types of journals; notebooks, 5 year diaries and sometimes just loose pieces of paper. I must say a beautiful cover really draws me in and I have several blank journals that I purchased because I couldn’t pass them up (because of their beauty) and they are just waiting to be filled.
If you keep a diary, what are your plans for it after you die?
I have four children (the two younger ones are step children although I consider them my own). Bret is 30, Cass is 28, Reese is 27 and Kera is 25. Although all of the children are so precious to me, my diaries will go to my two biological children because most of my personal diaries have to do with my life before I married my second husband Kevin. I believe Cass is the one who knows her moms deepest thoughts and because she is also keeping a diary, I feel she would cherish and understand them the most.
What would you say is the purpose of your writing?
I’ve always had this deep desire and need to write down my thoughts and a few years back I had an epiphany about my journaling. I seem to write more often during my times of difficulty and sorrow. Sadly my life has been very difficult since I was a little girl and without getting too deep (and too long winded) my childhood was that of neglect (putting it lightly). Then my 1st marriage, which was to a rock musician, was that of unfaithfulness on his part, then my divorce from that 14 year marriage, the recovery and finally my 2nd marriage to Kevin, who in my eyes was the most amazing man in the world. Then his tragic sudden death 3 years ago. I have diaries for most of the years in my life except the 14 years I was married to Kevin; my happy and content years. These last 3 years, because of his death, I’ve done more writing in a diary then ever before in my life.
What subjects do you write about?
My subjects are about anything and everything but mostly my deepest feelings. I also love writing about my travels, my precious children, daily events, etc. But mostly my thoughts and feelings.
Do you include anything other than writing in your journals?
Very little although that’s one of my favorite things to find when collecting other peoples diaries. When I find bits of ephemera (such as photos, tickets stubs, drawings, letters, notes, etc.) between the pages, it is such an added bonus when reading the authors story. I’ve never done that and I don’t know why but I think it’s because I’m so busing writing that I forget. However that leads me to your next question…
Has anyone else in your family kept a diary?
My daughter Cass keeps a diary and the pages of her diaries are stuffed with all kinds of ephemera and drawings. She’s also a big traveler and she’ll put mementoes of her trips inside her diaries representing all the places she’s been. In fact when my husband died she gathered leaves from the trees and also from many of the flower bouquets we got and pressed them for me. I have pressed flowers all over the house now. I do however have several drawers full of ephemera that I am keeping that I one day hope to put in my diaries; don’t know why I haven’t done it yet. An interesting thing for me to ponder.
What made you want to start collecting other people’s diaries? Did you begin with the idea that you wanted to sell them or did that happen later as you acquired a large collection?
When I was little my mother use to take me “dump diving” or so I called it. I found an old paper check stub and was amazed that it lasted as long as it did. We would also sneak into old abandon houses, or rather she would mostly, and she would tell me the stories of what she found. I was so amazed. Her stories staid with me and coupled with the fact that I wrote in my own diary, I guess one day I thought why wouldn’t old antique diaries survive. That began my interest in searching for and eventually finding “other people’s diaries.” EBay really got me going too because it opened up a whole world, literally, of diaries and they were right at my finger tips.
Are the diaries you have collected historic? Which ones are most interesting and why? And do these diaries go into depth of either emotion or experience? Describe a favorite selection from one of the diaries.
Here’s the part I could go on and on about. Many of the diaries (and letters as I collect handwritten manuscripts too) in my collection are historic but I never purchased them for that reason. When I buy a diary I can usually tell with the first few minutes if it’s going to stay in my collection or if I’m going to sell it. The actual feel of the journal itself, the emotion and depth of the writing, sometimes the amount of writing but not always and sometimes the subject are key factors in my collecting. Date doesn’t really matter as I have diaries from the early 1800’s and as late as the 1970’s. I also have a particular passion for shipping, (as in the sea) diaries. The 1st one in my collection that comes to mind as far as historic or interesting was written by a young immigrant girl named Olga whose parents didn’t have enough money to raise her and so when she was in her late teens she was placed in a home for “wayward girls” run by a very strict religious group. The diary starts out in the early 1900’s and opens up with Olga’s best friend laying in her lap dying. The friend has taken poison in an attempt to kill herself and sadly she does die. Olga’s entries are so deep and she holds nothing back. It really reads like a movie script. I also have an amazing diary from a young lady who attends the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair Exposition and it’s full of drawings, ephemera and detailed accounts of her trip. And possibly my most historical diary was written by George Eaton who in 1912 was with Hiram Bingham discovering and uncoveringMachu Picchu inPeru. The diary is from that discovery. Then there’s the 2,000+ handwritten letters (and photos) I have from one family that read like a diary. They represent the years spanning 1870-1940 and they are from anOregon family who owned a stage coach line and also telegraph company. I could go on and on and as you can see I’m obsessed with my collection and other people’s diaries. I would say I have over 250 diaries (maybe more) not counting letter collections.
How do you feel when you read someone else’s innermost thoughts? Was that part of the attraction of reading diaries? How have you benefited from knowing the truth of someone else’s life? What have you learned?
First of all I have the highest respect for any and all of the authors I have ever read or will read when it comes to their entries. And what have I learned? Oh my goodness. The most important thing I would say is that real life is so much more exciting and rewarding to read about then any story anyone could make up. And that, no matter who you are, every life, every true story, has fascinating aspects to it and that we all have a story to tell. So many people think they have nothing to share, nothing to teach, nothing that’s worthwhile in their life but that is so untrue. After reading thousands of other people’s diaries, honestly all of them are amazing in their own right.
How do you feel about dividing up all the diaries written by someone over many years? What is your position on that and why?
I hate it. I know that’s a strong word but it just breaks my heart to see a persons life, a person who spent years and years writing down their most cherished thoughts, and then having those manuscripts being split up for monetary reasons. And I say monetary because I can think of no other reason for this to even happen. I go broke trying to keep lots together too. My main goal for selling diaries is not for the money (although it does help of course so I can buy more for my collection) but the reason I sell and share them is so people can feel the way I do when they read them. I could share so many instances where the diaries I sell have gone to wonderful homes and many times even back to the original families. In fact I want to share an email here from a college I’ve sold to for several years now, and I quote….. “We’ve had an incredibly busy fall with classes coming to use our collections, often for assignments. When I first came to the college, we had six class sessions in the fall semester. This fall, we’ve had sixty-seven and a few more still to come, with more than 1,500 students. We’re getting so well-known on campus that faculty come to us now rather than us having to go beg them to come. So the stuff you’ve sold us is getting lots of use!”
I just love knowing that the students and faculty in this college are able to use the diaries I’ve sold as a form of study and I can’t imagine giving them just “part” of the story to study with. When you split up diary lots its like taking a limb from your body, taking a memory out of your mind, the story is broken and historically and ethically it is so wrong to me.
How do you find diaries?
EBay is my main source of diaries now although there seem to be less and less of them out there. I also find them at antique shows and fairs, paper shows, estate sales (rarely) and also have people who know I collect them and occasionally they come to me with one.
Why do you think we should attempt to save the diaries/journals written by the common person?
The internet has taken over the way we live. Not as many people write in journals anymore and “deleting” our thoughts is so easy and they are forever lost. To hold a handwritten diary in your hand, to be able to preserve it for future generations, to experience someone else’s life through their own writing, is so very important in this day where books, paper and the pen are becoming extinct. Reading other peoples diaries, to me, is the closest thing you can get to time travel. Sounds a little goofy I know but believe me, after reading all the diaries I have read in the last 25 years, all of them have taken me back to a place where I long to be. People I would have loved to have met and visited with, traveled with, cried with, laughed with. Diaries allow me to do that. Diaries are who we were, who we are and who we will become hopefully never to be “deleted.”