Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Life Stories

History is made up of life stories. Learning about and analyzing others' lives helps us define who we are and who we want to be. It helps us understand how society functions, why events happen, and how we can change situations. History helps foster compassion, allowing us to compare other life stories to our own, encouraging us to try to put ourselves in another person's circumstance. The study of individual stories helps us plan our actions with an awareness of how similar situations played out when certain procedures were followed.

Much has been written about the importance of history, but the idea of individual life stories is often given less significance. There is a focus on the role of events themselves, groups, or institutions. The individual stories collected by genealogists, oral historians, and others offer much evidence about the functions of society. These stories should be cherished by the archivist and the idea of the value of individual stories should be presented to our audiences.

Much of what people think and act upon is never recorded. Documented history is often based on what is found and this includes materials created during day-to-day activities that often exhibit surface details - who was involved, what was the event, and what was the product. Many times the information about why decisions were made, how many concepts were rejected until the solution was accepted, and how individuals dealt with conflict are not recorded. These details relate directly to individual stories that can be gathered for history through supplementary oral histories, as well as writing projects. Much is being done by institutions in the oral history department, but not so much in the journaling arena.

Diaries are a boon to the historian when they are found, but people often do not keep journals. Can and should an archivist encourage local community members to record their own personal life stories to boost the evidence we can leave for posterity? I think that encouraging journal writing (or the creation of personal recordings for those who don't like to "put pen to paper") can be an integral part of an archives program. Individual stories that are recorded when a person is comfortable can help individuals bring out information about themselves that they cannot access in other ways. Whether one likes to silently contemplate, listen to music, be among a group of other writers, sit outdoors, or in one's room, the act of sitting and recording one's thoughts can bring out ideas that are not expressed in other ways or in other circumstances.

For motivation to start your own journaling projects to promote community documentation, the following links are useful. Please add more links if you have some or comment to promote your own diary documentation projects

written on the margins: Girls’ Diary Writing as Cultural Production
National Diary Archive
Library and Archives of Canada:Behind the Diary, Introduction: Life Writing
The Online Diary History Project
Do History: Martha Ballard's Diary online


  1. Absolutely Melissa. As an Oral Historian I am passionate about preserving the spoken word because nothing conveys the expression of emotion as directly as listening to a story keeper tell that story. You can really get the essence of the story mcuh quicker than a written account alone. perhaps it's because we have spent centurioes being oral story tellers and less time writing?

    I do, however, believe that for the future we also need to look at online "journaling" such as facebook for example which is much more likely a place for the younger generations to share their stories. I am concerned about the transient nature and the fact that although it is of the individual the space is out of the control of the individual in that how can it be preserved. there are other options though and surprisingly I just wrote a blog post today abpout how modern life is impacting our story keeping in today's world.

  2. I think online "journaling" can show a differing side than that of a private journal. I wonder how many people censor their thoughts because they are writing for an audience rather than themselves?

    I see a few sites are encouraging people to tell their stories, but it is an archivist's challenge to figure out how to gather the stories on diverse sites so that they are accessible in the future. When you throw technology issues on top of privacy issues, individual documentation is much more complicated. The sites I mention above encourage writers to give their stories directly to their sites. I wonder if it's possible to create an online archive that pulls together "journals" from multiple sites.

    I enjoyed your article Greg! Anyone who is looking for more about keeping personal stories, check out