Archive for March, 2010

Are Old Diaries Worth Saving?

March 25, 2010

There are many reasons why all diaries are worth saving…not just the diaries of the famous. 

Have you ever wondered what someone else was really thinking or feeling?  Have you ever thought how intriguing it would be to know what was going on in someone else’s life, to tear away the masks we wear?  What is it like to be someone the same as you, or someone completely different – of the opposite sex, a different race or a different period of history?   What might it be like to be a mother, a single-parent, a handicapped person, a soldier, to have cancer, to be raped, or to be so angry you would take a gun to school?    

There are many voyeuristic fascinations in reading a person’s diary.   We want to peek, we want to know what it was really like. Dr. Irving Finkel, who has collected 1,000 diaries to begin a British diary archive, says we all have something of a “beastly sneak” inside us.    We want to see the naked truth that most of us suspect is not available in newspapers or public media, or in history books, or even in buffed up autobiographies.  

Old diaries are an alluring glimpse into the past.   What  were the triumphs and tragedies and even the mundane details and concerns of everyday life?  What did people do before television, computers, and cell phones?  We might not think our diaries are very interesting, but given one hundred years even the commonplace acquires a mystique.  

For a point of view that is unavailable in a standard history text, I love reading excerpts from diaries written about a historic event.  After all, history is usually written by the winners who distort things to illuminate their own brilliance.   A diary, however, is uncensored.   

Whether we should preserve diaries may become a personal decision when you are the diarist.   If you are like me, you never intended to write so much.  I began my diary when I was 16.  I just kept on writing and suddenly it was 46 years later.  At my age it is time to answer questions about what should happen to all of my stuff when I die.  Because I write with complete honesty, and often use the diary as a catharsis, I would not want the members of my family or my friends to read it when I die.   At the same time, since I have put so many hours of work into these journals, I would hate to throw them away just as much as I would be devastated today if they were destroyed in fire or flood.  

Offering them to an archive is a way to preserve my life’s work.  I would be giving them to future generations, for whatever purpose emerges, in all of their ragged uselessness or hopeful value.  I think it’s a bit  like donating your body to science, only in this case it’s like donating your soul.  

One never knows if it will end up on the anatomy table or in the woods of a forensic body farm.  That’s a chance I’m willing to take.    

To my future unknown readers: “Salut!”


We need a national diary archive!

March 3, 2010

 In an age where blogging is de rigueur for the young, and we baby boomers are approaching the end of the road, we are in danger of losing an important part of our cultural history: the diaries, journals and letters of the common person. 

As I write this I imagine hundreds of such treasures are being sent off to ignoble graves in the landfills of America, flung in the trash by unappreciative or overwhelmed heirs exclaiming: “look at all this junk Mom and Dad collected!” 

 Many people before me have envisioned a National Diary Archive – a safekeeping place where all those “common” folk (those of us who are not famous) might bequeath their diaries for the benefit or entertainment of unknown readers and researchers of the future.  Who, how and where are the major challenges.    

 Besides acquiring funding it will be necessary to find a location safe from natural disasters, accessible to the public, and suitable for long-term storage.  The archive must be capable of storing the diaries unopened until all persons in them are dead and will no longer be hurt by the diarist’s blunt honesty.  There will be a need for someone to work on cataloging and referencing these diaries for research when released to the public and possibly publishing them on the internet. 

 As you might have guessed, I have a personal connection with this cause and do shamelessly present myself for the position.  I began writing a diary in 1964 and have kept one (not always religiously) ever since then. The more than 50 volumes comprise a large part of my life’s work.  No, they are not great literature.  Neither do I want them to end up as compost. 

 I have arbitrarily chosen Fort Collins, Colorado, my hometown, as the ideal location in the heart of the country, for a national diary archive.  We seem basically disaster free and have a dry climate.

 I believe there is enough interest in old diaries and journals to support establishing an archive.  Recently on eBay a policeman’s log book from 1941 and a teen-ager’s diary from 1905 sold for over $50 each.  A schoolteacher’s uniquely “emotional” journal from 1872 – describing whippings and discipline problems – sold for $378.  One thing to remember is that what is commonplace today will in a hundred years or less become intriguingly, charmingly vintage. 

 Ultimately, we cannot imagine what use these diaries and letters will have in a distant time or what impact the small tidbits or deeply examined lives will have on future generations.  But if we don’t save them now, we will never know.

For comments, ideas, or donations of diaries and journals, contact Cynthia at

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