A few weeks ago I found a diary in an antique shop on Route 13 in northern Massachusetts. The location isn't important, except that the shop was an unexpected stop on the way home from a history conference. I am learning to stop at small antique stores that may not look like much from the outside. I almost went right by this very non-descriptive little dilapidated building, but the treasure I found within is something I've been seeking for a year - since I began searching antique shops with purpose. I collect interesting images and other items to illustrate courses I teach, books I write and postings on this blog. I had hoped to find a diary.
I have been keeping my own diary since I was 11 years old. Soon thereafter I read my first published diary. "The Diary of Anne Frank" pulled me into an alternate world, helped me understand my family better, and showed me that little girls are basically the same on the inside, whatever their circumstances. In college I took a women's history course that taught me more about diary writing. I read "A MidWife's Tale" with interest. I sometimes come across them in repositories when I do survey work. Diaries are always on my mind as a form of personal expression and as a strong link to the past. I get excited whenever I come across one.
As an aside, about ten years ago I had a conversation with my former college advisor. I often reflect upon our discussion. She too is a diary keeper. I mentioned to her that I write in my journal with a thought in the back of my head that someone may read my words one day. I do not think that I censor myself because of this thought, but it sometimes helps me to see a bigger picture. I can get out of my own head to be a little more object about some things I might be inclined to just spit out. My advisor had an immediate negative reaction. She said that she never thinks about those who may read her words in the future. Her diary is for her alone and she felt that she couldn't be open if she thought about an audience. I found that interesting coming from an historian. I have often wondered where other diary writers stand on this and I read diaries wondering if the author has thought about an audience.
In my opinion, among the most delightful treasures of an archival repository is THE diary. This primary source form gives us a look at history in a way that no other source does. It is personal and I suspect that most diary writers do not think about their legacy while they write. (Or, at least they didn't. This is changing thanks to the Internet.) An old diary transports us to another time, place and another mind.
Here are a few excerpts that I've shared on the Facebook Life in Context page:
The diary contains many names and I've been able to narrow the location to Maine, somewhere between Biddeford, Saco and Portland. My fun summer project is to head up the Maine coast to do a little research with my daughter. We will begin searching through city directories to try to get more information. I'll search through the local papers for events. A couple of incidents stand out for me, but I am going to begin with a focus on an alleged abortion that took place. The doctor who was involved was being "investigated." I also plan to search health records to learn more about all of the illnesses and deaths that occurred that winter. In the end, I hope to identify a town and maybe even the diary's writer.
It is perhaps an unusual project for an archivist, but I'm excited to have a bit of my own historical research to do. My latest book will be wrapping up (hopefully), I'll be between consulting projects, and this will be a fun and productive diversion. We'll see where this journey takes me. For now, I am honored to be the one who gets to connect in this way with a person from the past and to share this compassionate experience with my child. May I always remember that I am here because of those who came before me.