In this age of electronic communication, the practice of keeping a journal or diary has largely fallen by the wayside, as has the art of letter writing. But in past centuries, keeping a diary was the only means of creating a written record of one’s life, the only way to look back at one’s personal past. In bygone days, farmers may have recorded observations about crops, livestock, and weather in a journal. Soldiers recorded strife,while ordinary men and women simply recorded the simple details of their daily lives. And written correspondence was the primary method for maintaining long-distance relationships.
Looking back at these documents can give us tremendous insight into the aspects of life that history books often omit. They may reveal facts about the diet, customs, or etiquette of the time period. They sometimes shed light on genealogy and local history. Journals and correspondence may even reveal the real motivations behind historic events or explain the nuanced relationships among important individuals.
Tips for Collecting Diaries, Journals, and Correspondence
For many collectors, diaries and journals are appealing because each volume is an absolutely unique manuscript. Such a document is quite a treasure, indeed. Collectors should keep a few tips and hints in mind.
- Look for complete sets, rather than individual volumes of journals and diaries. Faithful diarists will often have produced a number of volumes over the course of their lifetimes. Stay away from individual volumes that have most likely been removed from a set.
- Decide whether you’ll digitize your collection. This will require the assistance of a skilled archivist or conservator. Digitizing these items is an investment, but it will enhance your ability to enjoy the content of your collection–and to share it with scholars if the content proves significant.
- Be gentle! Old paper can be quite brittle, while covers may be fragile. Handle them with care, and consider professional conservation or preservation to extend the life of your collection.
- Don’t overlook ephemera. Journals frequently contain extra items, which can range from dried flowers to vacation souvenirs. These items damage the pages on either side. A conservator may recommend carefully documenting each item’s location and storing it separately in an archival envelope.
- If correspondence is still contained in the original envelopes, consult a conservator about the best means to preserve both the envelopes and the letters inside. Chemical interactions between materials–even between two sheets of the same or similar papers–can hasten breakdown.
A Selection of Diaries and Journals
Journal Across the Atlantic
Original mss journals such as this are quite rare in commerce. An unidentified male passenger recorded the details of his 1785 transatlantic journey from London to Philadelphia. He records the names and nationalities of the crew and passengers, along with the daily minutiae of life aboard the ship. Events include the sighting of a “grampus whale,” an encounter with a Spanish ship, and a lively debate over how moths and butterflies came to be aboard the ship. Details>>
Notes from Lectures of Professor Alonzo Clarke for 1848-1849
Almon Mitchell Orcutt attended the College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York. The first 136 pages of his journal consist of notes he took during the lectures of Alonzo Clarke, a noted physician and professor at the college. Clarke was often quoted in medical journals and association reports. He famously said, “All of our curative agents are poisons; and, as a consequence, every dose diminishes the vitality.” He was correct, indeed, given the “medicines” and treatments commonly used at the time. John Harvey Kellogg quotes Clarke in his Home Hand-Book of Domestic Hygiene (volume 2, 1880) in a discussion of the smallpox vaccination. Orcutt’s notes include the semester’s lectures, while the last 68 pages contain financial records. Details>>
Department of the Interior, US Geological Survey
This workbook started out as a record of levels and other data, kept by Allen T Paine, the survey crew levelman. But Paine also used the book as a photo journal. Many of the photographs are captioned. While many show family, friends, and colleagues, a good number also document the buildings of Concord, New Hampshire, along with the survey crew’s work and environs. Details>>
Family Trip Photo Diary/Journal
This period photo journal of a visit to the 1915 Panama Pacific Exposition in San Francisco begins in Albuquerque, New Mexico. It includes 45 images, eight of which clearly depict portions of the journey to San Francisco. One image, for example, shows part of the Salt Lake; another, the Grand Canyon. Fourteen of the images have handwritten captions. Details>>
Archive of Shuman Family Letter Correspondence, August 1862-September 1866
John Shuman was in his early twenties when he volunteered for service in the 88th Regiment of the Indiana Volunteers to fight for the Union in the American Civil War. His letters illustrate his confidence in the decision and that he believed the war would be short-lived. It lasted longer than Shuman expected, and he lost his life in battle, not due to wounds, but due to dysentery. The Shumans’ correspondence offers a unique snapshot of a soldier’s life during the war. Details>>
Eleven Manuscript Diaries
The author of these diaries, William Antrim Flowers, was born on March 21, 1832 in Champaign County, Ohio. He begins his memoir with his birth and then goes back to the birth of his father in 1804. The memoir is a rich storehouse of family genealogy and history, following his family and relatives as they moved abou tthe Midwest in the early nineteenth century. Flowers also documents his own life, during which he worked variously as a teamster, a wagon driver, a teacher, and a dairy farmer. He saw the first McCormick reaper in 1855 and enlisted to serve in the Civil War. Flowers records descriptions of his own experiences in the war, along with a description of the 114th Colored Regiment Infantry and the 44th Colored Regiment; and the death of Abraham Lincoln. Details>>
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