Category Archives: Future

Your diary in history

In the midst of reading a diary from long ago, pause. Take a moment to imagine your own future readers—readers who will never meet you, but who will know you from your diary.

Does it make sense to keep a journal for someone fifty years from now, or in the next century? What would a 2075 historian look for in your diary?

Original diaries, even from the recent past, do serve as primary sources for research. And historians working with them occasionally express a wish that the diarist had included more information on certain topics, or had ventured personal opinions beyond just factually recounting events of the day.

Laurel Thatcher Ulrich chronicles the life of Martha Ballard in A Midwife’s Tale (1990), probably the most acclaimed work of American history ever based on a diary. Refusing to be daunted by mentors who warned her that she would find Ballard’s diary dull and scant on historical significance, Ulrich used contextual material and nuanced interpretation to write a Pulitzer-Prize-winning book that illuminates much about life in a Maine seaport town at the turn of the 19th century.

In her introduction to A Midwife’s Tale Ulrich admits that “one might wish for more detail [in the diary], for more open expressions of opinion, fuller accounts of medical remedies or obstetrical complications, more candor in describing physicians or judges, and less circumspection in recording scandal, yet for all its reticence, Martha’s diary is an unparalleled document in early American history. It is powerful in part because it is so difficult to use, so unyielding in its dailiness.” (33)

This historian’s wish indirectly offers an idea that today’s diarists might use as a road map: While future readers could appreciate the dailiness of our diaries, perhaps we could shape a life-record (and a future historical source) of heightened value. So, if we take the advice implied in Ulrich’s words, let’s make sure to incorporate explicit details about our everyday activities, candidly appraise any person in a role of authority (or fame) with whom we interact, elaborate fully on any local scandals we witness or hear about, and above all, hold forth with personal opinions on issues of the day.

Historians are cautious, though, in offering advice to diarists. With the advent of digital information storage and electronic communications, the landscape of publicly visible personal data has wildly proliferated since people in the 1790’s, or the 1970’s, kept their diaries. Far from making a trek to study the rare diary found in an attic or an archive, historians who study life in the 21st century will instead feel assaulted by tsunamis of personal information. They’ll have records of people’s purchases, tastes in entertainment, social media, political preferences, countless photos, emails, and storage folders filled with miscellaneous documents. Far more data about ourselves will live on in the contours of our electronic footprint than we could ever hope to inscribe in our diaries.

Does this mean future historians will ignore diaries? Or can diaries preserve knowledge or perspective that risks being lost among the digital ephemera, the sum of all the clicks made on our keyboards?

Historians I’ve consulted point to the reflective and (at least temporarily) private nature of traditional diaries as offering something different from raw data or even a series of public posts. Personae on social media value the instant, the first impression, the snapshot, the race to relay gossip or make a clever quip before someone else gets there first.

While sharing this acuity of perception and sense of “now,” journal-keepers take time to process an experience before sharing. Difficult thoughts and trade-offs leading up a big life decision may get recorded in a journal, while only the concrete outcome of the decision (the soft-focus photo of engagement rings, the invoice of a purchase) survives in the electronic record. This difference suggests that, as a diary keeper, one way to make your pages valuable to future readers may involve chronicling the gradual shifts in social, cultural, ideological, and linguistic evolutions currently underway.

Diarists have the chance to open a unique window into their historical age. I can plot tiny local points on the vast arc of change simply by noting “what’s new”—the arrival of the latest gadgets, trends, pastimes, customs, attitudes, role expectations, and even spoken expressions that weave their way into the everyday world of my workplace, my social groups, my neighborhood. What casual conversations did I have today, and what did they reveal?

A classic diary exercise involves making two lists: “What’s currently receding, coming to an end, a waning influence on my life?” and “What new thing appears now on the horizon, enters my life, calls out for attention?” Applying these questions on a scale just beyond the personal, you can speak directly to readers of the future, addressing their curiosity about what just arrived today in your community and beyond.


What will diaries become in the digital age? 

Screenshot of a site discussing journal-writing appsBy now, online journaling apps and sites seem like the standard way to keep a diary. People who write with pen and ink in their diaries may resemble those nostalgia-seekers who make a show of collecting phonographs, rotary telephones, or manual typewriters. But the book-diary endured for centuries, and it’s intriguing to imagine a fresh use for this form even in the age of live blogs, fake news, image blotting out text as the primary carrier of meaning, and shrunken attention spans. 

The diary, a highly adaptable structure, has fitted itself over time to many human endeavors: religious and spiritual seeking, social connections, psychotherapy, scientific data-gathering, literary experimentsand philosophical contemplation.  

Diaries can provide companionship for the solitary traveler and an attentive, non-judgmental listener at times when no other support is available.  Diaries bear witness to history on a grand scale and preserve key moments in personal or family history. Diaries open a space where the writer can rehearse her resistance to social pressures—or build up strength to take a public stance on a challenging moral issue.  

Can the digital diary—often a live blog or social media account that chronicles its author’s life by the hourserve a similar range of purposes?  Does its electronic format represent a necessary adaptation to the contemporary era, or will it kill off the aspects of the diary that offer the most value? For example, the digital diary doesn’t stay in the place where it was written. It probably won’t be discovered by chance a hundred years from now in an attic by people living in the place that the diary describes. 

But so far, print books have not become obsolete in the advent of ebooks. We need not assume that the next phase of the diary’s history will involve converting them all into digital files stored in data warehouses. Maybe the diary will live through this century and beyond while maintaining its home in the realm of paper and ink.  

If it does evolve as a primarily digital and online form, will the diary re-energize and thrive on its metamorphosis into curated collection of instantly-available quips and images, or will it—akin to the “slow foods” movement—find some way to reclaim the benefits of concentrating attention for a longer time, reflecting and exploring ideas through writing, with entries that even dare to wait a little, flirting with obsolescence, before their release to the eyes of a worldwide audience?  

The diarists of today will define the diary of tomorrow. Like the mythical figure of Proteus, the diary has shown that it can shift its shape to counter each new challenge. Let’s think about our practices and choices. What will the new shapes of diary-making mean for our personal journey, our future readers, even for history?