Archive for the ‘collecting diaries’ Category

Interview With Sally Macnamara, Collector of Handwritten Diaries

January 12, 2012

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.

Her website is:  http://www.sallysdiaries.wordpress.com  and email: macnamara@wbcable.net.  Her eBay seller name is “diaries.”

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.”

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What You Can Do to Support a National Diary Archive

April 6, 2011

“What can those of us near you in heart but not geographically do to help?”

One of my readers asked this question and I will try to answer it, based on where the archive is now in its formation progress.

First of all, tell your friends about it, especially those who keep diaries.    You never know what connections might be made. If you teach journal writing, inform your students that there may soon be an archive.  If you keep an on-line diary you could ” blog” about the archive.  Everyone who keeps a journal should think about what will eventually become of them.

Assuming you are a diarist, stipulate in your will that you would like your diaries/journals to be donated to an archive upon your death and include at what point they may be open to the public.   If you wish to protect friends and family who are still living from reading what you truly felt about them, then consider stating how many years the diaries should remain closed.  You might allow staff of the archive to prepare them by transcribing them or digitizing.   You may want them to be available only to those visiting the actual location of the archive and for research purposes.   When an archive is opened in the United States, you could specify that archive in your will.

If you keep a diary/journal, give some thought to organizing and preserving it.  (See my post on that subject: “Now Where Did I Put That?”)  At the very least, put your name in each volume and where it was written.  If possible, create an index for each volume, each year, and the sum total of your work.   This will also make it easier for you to go back and re-read, which is an important benefit of this genre… an opportunity for self-insight and depth.

For all who would like to see a national diary archive I would recommend collecting diaries.  It is an expensive hobby so you might think of asking for “handwritten diaries” as presents, as I did.    Becoming the caretaker and  conservationist of someone else’s work gives you a sense of the importance of your own writing.   It might also show you how to improve your own writing.

If you begin your own collection of handwritten diaries you could transcribe them and put them online, or allow an archive to put them online.  The actual diaries could be kept by you and donated upon your death.

If you live near this archive of the future (Fort Collins, Colorado?) you are more than welcome to volunteer your time.

And, if none of the above works for you, you could always donate money.  So, keep watching our progress.

A Criminal Act

February 17, 2011

Since, as with most baby-boomers, my life is already crowded with too much material “stuff,”  I had the brilliant idea this past holiday season to ask for one thing for future “presents”:  handwritten diaries for the archive I hope to establish.    Santy Claws fulfilled my wish with two diaries purchased through eBay.  I mentioned them briefly in a blog.  Shortly afterward, I received an email from someone who had also purchased a diary by one of these women – Josephine Conklin of Mount Morris, Livingston County, New York.

My first reaction was a happy excitement.  We could transcribe the diaries and share.   This was followed by a second reaction of slow-burning rage at the eBay seller.  Why?  Because two thoughts occurred to me.   The owner of the other diary told me that the seller had even more by the same woman.  This means that the seller took the entire collection of Josephine Conklin’s diaries and split them up, possibly figuring she would make more money that way.

I don’t know about you, but as a diarist myself I think this is about the most horrible thing someone could do.   You can take someone’s artwork and sell each piece separately because each piece is a work unto itself, but a diary kept over many years is all part of the same work.   To mutilate it in this fashion is criminal.  Would anyone tear apart a canvas and sell off the fragments?  Would anyone take a book and sell it by the chapters?   A collection of journals is a complete tapestry of someone’s life…why, why destroy it?

It is true that both of the diaries I received were part of a larger collection.

One other thing disturbs me about these eBay sellers.  So many of the ads for handwritten diaries use these phrases:  “Amazing!!,” ” one-of-a-kind,”  “fabulous piece of Americana,” ” private window into American History.”   I don’t know why, but “amazing” disturbs me the most.  Mrs. Conklin was just recording her  ordinary day-to-day  activities.  What was  amazing was her dedication to that,  a point belittled by the behavior of the seller in destroying the integrity of the work by dividing it for increased profit.

Those advertising slogans remind me of circus barkers.  They cheapen the hallowed recording of someone’s life story.   “One of a kind” is also a lie when there is a box-full by the same diarist which are about to be torn apart.  Have these profiteers no conscience?

Searching for Handwritten Diaries

January 21, 2011

I think now that anyone searching for old diaries might have better luck in heading for eBay than estate sales, although the price tag may be drastically different.  I have searched garage sales for 28 years and never found any diaries.   For my solstice/birthday present this year I asked for original handwritten diaries and low and behold I now have two more.

Prior to the holidays I scanned the items for sale on eBay and my hopes plunged as common things were bid over $50.

There was a set of diaries from a Michigan woman, late 1800s-early 1900s.  She visited Detroit (where I grew up) and Belle Isle and other locations I would be familiar with.  I thought it spoiled the historic value for the seller to divide them up.

There were diaries from New York from the 1800s.   The best of those was the diary of a housewife who was something of a busybody, but that trait made for great reading as she seemed to know everything that was going on.  The bidding rose to $180 and then I lost track of it.

Those diaries from the late 1800s and early 1900s vividly depicted how close life and death were back then.  Once a week, a death to report from accidents, childbirth and disease.   Sometimes Death just ran through a whole family.

I was also stunned to read about a horrific murder where someone broke into an old couple’s home and killed them, cut them to pieces, then set their house on fire.  I just didn’t think that kind of crime  happened back then.

I read parts of a diary from WW II — a soldier with a low opinion of the military who was offended by drunken soldiers, swearing, prostitution (especially a married commander sleeping with a girl), and appalling warnings about syphilis.

There was a sketchbook/journal from the Civil War.

There was a 1936 diary written by a 16 year old girl who had an insider’s view into the world of British diplomacy and the roots of terrorism in the Middle East.   The bidding on that one was up to $435,000 when I quit my search.  Obviously she had a reporter’s sense of history.  When I assume that there are enough people writing about local, national and international events I forget the value of an insider story.   I once had the chance to record a social phenomenon I was a part of and did not have the sense to do it.

The new diaries I was given will become a part of the diary archive.  The first was written in 1880 by Josephine Conklin of  Mount Morris, Livingston, New York.  She was born in 1850.  It is only 3 by 5 inches.  There is a lovely tintype and a photo with the diary.  The second diary was presumably written by Mrs. Herbert Abbott of Coloma, Michigan in 1934.  It is nearly 4 by 6 inches.

A Hound Dog on the Wrong Trail?

May 14, 2010

                                A Hound Dog on the Wrong Trail?

Of all people, you’d think I would have a treasure trove of old diaries.  After all, I’ve been a book dealer for 27 years.  The number of boxes of books I have pawed through numbers in the thousands.  How many diaries and journals have I found?   None!  Nada.  Zero.  (Not counting the inchoate diary I pulled out of the trash once.)

I am usually at a book sale when “the starting gun” goes off.  As a book hound I’ve been on my hands and knees crawling under tables.   I’ve sniffed through book collections dragged out of basements and attics.  I’ve even tried willing diaries to come to me. 

Like a near-sighted person trying to find a contact lens on the floor, am I looking in the wrong places?  Perhaps I should attend more auctions and estate sales.   Where exactly do you find these elusive things?   Anyone want to share their secrets?

It has seemed to me that there has been a steady interest in journal writing since the seventies.  Art stores and bookstores often have dazzling displays of blank books …even today when I would expect the popularity of handwritten journals to decline as the computer takes over and a new generation of writers is pained by the turtle speed and physical effort of producing readable handwriting.  (Do they even teach handwriting anymore?)   

With all these journals being written – where are they?  Maybe the problem is that we are not dead yet.   We baby boomer diarists are still plodding along happily filling up our blank books.    If we have neglected writing a will with instructions for the cremation or burial of our diaries is it because we are in denial of the inevitability of our death? 

Years ago there was a book dealer who specialized in handwritten diaries and journals.  Today you can buy diaries on eBay.  Obviously, creating a national diary archive will require either a generous budget or some ingenuity in finding the lost diaries of America.  Anyone willing to tell the tale of how they found a diary?


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