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what makes a journal entry historically interesting?
July 2, 2013 4:49 PM   Subscribe

What things need to be present in a diary or journal to make it of interest to historians in the future?

I've been thinking a lot about journalling, and journals' usefulness to cultural historians. This made me wonder: what types of events (personal as political, more overtly political, funny, etc) would make a journal written now of interest to historians 30, 50, and a hundred years from now?

I'm asking because I'd like to make my own journalling a bit more intentional.
posted by spunweb to Writing & Language (34 answers total) 53 users marked this as a favorite
 
Become famous, either in the broader public sphere or in some prestigious cultural circle. Then your diaries and journals will be of interest to historians.
posted by shivohum at 4:58 PM on July 2, 2013 [1 favorite]


In some sense this is impossible to answer because who knows what will prove to be important in the future? Or what will last? Or who will find what?

But a better answer is probably that, realistically, unless you are a person of great note, your journal will not be of much interest to historians in the future. The journals describing the quotidian activities from ancient history are very interesting to us today because of their sheer scarcity. But with the ubiquity of mundane and quotidian journal type things today (facebook, twitter, whatever), it's doubtful that a journal will be of much use to anyone in the future. It would be interesting if, say, your life was in someway quite extremely remarkable or otherwise strange.
posted by Lutoslawski at 4:59 PM on July 2, 2013


You'd have to be an important person, involved in historic events, and privy to information not commonly known. Say, a top Presidential advisor, or a 4 star general. Cabinet secretaries probably wouldn't rate; these days the US cabinet is meaningless.

If you're just a random snowflake, the chance of your diary being historically important is negligible.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 5:00 PM on July 2, 2013


Assuming you are not famous, your best bet is to record copious amounts of information about the lives of everyone you know in the hopes that they will become famous and early, intimate information will be lacking.
posted by michaelh at 5:04 PM on July 2, 2013 [1 favorite]


I disagree with those saying an ordinary person's journal will not be of interest.

Write about your experience, whatever it is, and I think it will be of potential interest to someone.

The key, I would think, is to make your entries:
(1) regular
(2) frequent
(3) detailed
(4) honest

Many people live and die without leaving any detailed written account of themselves. Most blogs don't last very long. Twitter is just plain stupid. A detailed, long running journal even in our time is going to be a rarity.
posted by Unified Theory at 5:17 PM on July 2, 2013 [9 favorites]


Whether a journal will be of interest to future historians has nothing to do with being an important person, famous person, or hanging around with important or famous people. Ignore the advice above suggesting that.

Journals, diaries and letters of very ordinary people have been of interest to historians for many reasons. For example sometimes they can help to reconstruct what the weather conditions were, day by day, in a particular place — which can help shed light on other events. Or they help illuminate what life was like, in that place and at that time, for people at various socioeconomic levels, for women, for servants, etc. Contemporary historians or journalists often paid no attention to those things, describing instead the major political/economic/military events of the day and the lives of the "famous" people. But without knowing how the non-famous lived, we really can't understand the era, and journals are extremely valuable in that regard.

So if you want to be "intentional," write for the benefit of a future reader who is interested in how you lived, what challenges you faced, how you overcame them, who your friends were, what you ate, what your read, what places you visited, etc. Despite the amount of information now being collected and archived about our civilization, those personal patterns of living are not going to be well understood except through journals, essays, letters, memoirs and other personal records.
posted by beagle at 5:17 PM on July 2, 2013 [18 favorites]


lmao thanks for the honesty! But saying to become famous doesn't answer my question, since I'm not asking about making my journal interesting to EVERYONE. I'm asking what kinds of events and types of writing make a journal a useful and interesting thing to read *for research*, particularly for historians and writers in the future.

**Edited because I accidentally deleted part of a sentence. Don't worry, my journal is paper and pen, and involves far fewer typos.
posted by spunweb at 5:18 PM on July 2, 2013 [1 favorite]


I'm a little surprised at the responses, which I am guessing aren't coming from historians.

Some of the most significant journals, speaking in the scholarly sense, have indeed been those of private individuals who were not famous and didn't write anything they expected to be of interest later on. Fame has very little to do with makes a journal of interest to historians. The best-known recent example is Laurel Thatcher Ulrich's A Midwife's Tale, the diary of a woman in eighteenth-century rural Maine who wrote about delivering babies, growing a garden, having visitors, the weather, and other topics people considered unremarkable for centuries. When Ulrich indicated that she wanted to write about this diary, her professors told her no, everything useful had already been gotten out of it. Boy, were they wrong. Her work on this diary revolutionized the social history of Colonial New England. Ulrich was able to reconstruct complicated agricultural/industrial changes, explore the shift from home health care to the male-dominated medical profession, delve into issues of women's lives and reproductive health, argue that women contributed as materially (or more than) the men in their households in both cash and in-kind income, document previously un-organized seasonal and homekeeping information, and plenty more. All from what seem like brief, bare-bones two- and three-line entries. It's a great read.

Fame is not that important to historians. Famous people's lives are generally well documented in sources other than a journal - newspapers, proceedings, parodies, letters, legislative records, etc. PRivate people's lives are, in fact, a lot harder to find out about and lot more interesting to people practicing history today. What we know about events like the Civil War or even World War II, life aboard an American whaleship or on the frontier, we mostly know by the writings of non-famous people who simply observed and recorded the detail of daily life.

At some level it's impossible to say what historians of the future will find important and interesting about our time, and it will change, anyway. Diaries of non-famous people were scoffed at for a long time before they began to be taken seriously as sources of historical evidence. But I think there are some general principles.

  • For one, write about things that aren't documented elsewhere. IF you're writing about major news events, don't relate the event, talk about how it impacted your thoughts and feelings, what changes it has caused in your family and friends' lives, how things are now different for you than they were before.
  • Write about hyperlocal phenomena that are not likely to be recorded in major media or social media. Observing and writing about local people and day-to-day life, controversies and debates, contentious issues and local traditions can be really important. Describe the built environment and its condition.
  • Write about the weather and wildlife. No, really. Weather data is pretty topline, and today, environmental historians have become super interested in diary mentions of particular birds and mammals and plants and the like from 18th and 19th century diaries, because it provides evidence for reconstructing changes in the climate. Tell what birds come to your feeder.
  • Consider doing a lot of inventorying. It can be really hard to understand what people actually had in the past at any one time - something may have been invented, but just because I live in the time of the iPhone 5 doesn't mean I can afford one. Historians use inventory information to figure out patterns of class, ethnicity, taste, etc.
  • Write about daily routines. How far did you range in a day? What did you do, buy, who did you talk to? How do you relate to those people, what's your relationship like? Reconstructing past networks and travel patterns is of big interest now, as we do things like trace the intellectual history of the movement of ideas, or look at invasive species and how they got where they are.
  • Write about your joys and frustrations. It is hard to determine how people felt about things and events unless they describe them. Are you happy with your house, family life, job, hobbies? IS there more you yearn for? ARe you envious of other people and what they have? Are you satisfied at having come this far? Are you thrilled to have overcome any limitations in life? Reconstructing the attitudes of past times - the stuff that moves history - is one of the most difficult things to do, and diaries are one of the most useful resources to do it with.

  • posted by Miko at 5:19 PM on July 2, 2013 [260 favorites]


    > But with the ubiquity of mundane and quotidian journal type things today (facebook, twitter, whatever), it's doubtful that a journal will be of much use to anyone in the future.

    I'm going to disagree. I bet some Mayan or Egyptian said something like that once. "Everyone has glyphs on their pyramids, why should I bother?"

    So much of our current history is stored with technology. What if the power goes out forever and people can't access it? If your journal is going to be written on paper I think that is one way it might be valuable.

    I would like to read about what everyday life is like. That is the kind of stuff I would like to know about the Egyptians and Mayans. What was a Thursday night like? What were some of their funniest jokes? What were social conventions or slang?
    posted by NoraCharles at 5:22 PM on July 2, 2013


    I disagree strongly about "you need to be famous". On the contrary - famous people aren't like "ordinary people." A historian 200 years from now reading the diary of, say, Lady Gaga, would be getting a really skewed idea about what "normal life" is like (seriously - can you imagine some historian many years hence reading her diary and getting the idea that there was a global Meat Dress craze in the early 21st century?)

    So in terms of your own diary - detail. NoraCharles has it - what'd they do when dinner was over and they were all sitting around shooting the shit? What were the funniest jokes? What kind of graffiti did people write? Why? What'd a person's brother-in-law say about the Emperor when he thought no one was listening and what was everyone's reaction when he said it? What's the new technology and did everyone use it right away or were there some people who scoffed and why?
    posted by EmpressCallipygos at 5:38 PM on July 2, 2013 [3 favorites]


    But with the ubiquity of mundane and quotidian journal type things today (facebook, twitter, whatever), it's doubtful that a journal will be of much use to anyone in the future.

    I also strongly disagree with this. Sure, a lot of twitters and facebooks are mundane and quotidian individually. But the Library of Congress is archiving all tweets, and those tweets are going to be a valuable resource in the aggregate. A future historian is presumably going to be able to search all tweets on a given day in a specific region or with a certain hashtag, and will be able to come to conclusions using the archive of those tweets in conjunction with other documents. Given Twitter and social media's demonstrated use and value in major protests and revolutionary movements, no historian can discount them as primary source archives.

    Short of you livetweeting from Tahrir Square in Cairo though, I think it's a little tough to say exactly what could make your journal interesting to future historians now, since we don't necessarily know what earth-shattering event or subtle sea change is happening or will happen that would be of interest in the future. So building up a habit of writing about things others have mentioned like weather, daily routines, your emotional life, social trends, and current events is as good a place to start as any.

    Also, are you involved in any movements or volunteer causes? Any specific social causes or groups? Are you an active member of a subculture, or ethnic or religious group? If so, write about it and your experiences specifically.

    You can also use your journal to record your own family history. Write down anecdotes and stories from your family, ask older relatives for stories about their childhoods, copy family recipes, etc.
    posted by yasaman at 5:48 PM on July 2, 2013 [5 favorites]


    In a word, objectivity.

    If you're not involved in whatever event, the best thing you can do is to be objective.

    If you are involved with the event, then be subjective.
    posted by Sphinx at 5:53 PM on July 2, 2013


    Lots of good answers, but just to add one little thing: language. Try to accurately recall real conversations you have, leave a record of the way real people use words when they're not on TV, not writing books, and not trying to be cool on Facebook or brief and clever on twitter. Just average people speaking naturally. I'm not a historian, but I read historic documents and journals for work sometimes. (Also for amusement.) And aside from the mundane details you can't find elsewhere, just reading what expressions people were using or seeing how words have changed meaning slightly over time is the most fascinating part.
    posted by DestinationUnknown at 6:33 PM on July 2, 2013 [1 favorite]


    To start, you need to write about your opinion of the events that surround you.

    In a nut shell, you are not writing for history but perhaps some descendent of yours that will find your insight interesting or better yet, a piece of themselves they can relate to. I have a journal that spans about 30 years, it started in the 3rd grade and became a end-of-the day habit.

    Over the years, I realized I was not writing for myself but for the people related to me in the future. I take current events and give them my take on what they mean to me. I've had mine in a database for about 20 years, I grab screen shots of the local paper, CNN, the weather, what I ate and any vitamins or meds I might of taken, my work outs, sexual relations, money I spent, songs I like, how I am feeling plus a vid of some event of the day. I offer up some wisdom in every entry and notes about what I want to accomplish.

    Your journal is not for history but for the people related to you that will wonder about themselves and where they came from. Write it to them and you will find yourself challenged to answer their questions... In fact, you can start by asking yourself what questions you would ask of people from long ago.

    In the end, when I kick the can, my kids can carry it on. I have also asked that my journal go to the Smithsonian Institute where it can sit till someone related to me comes looking for it.
    posted by bkeene12 at 9:08 PM on July 2, 2013 [1 favorite]


    Another historian chiming in here -- something that would be valuable for my work would be a journal where you wrote about books you read/movies you saw/plays you went to/et cetera and talked about your reactions to them. Sure, this stuff is often more of general interest if you were famous, but there are a few "nobodies" in my place and time of study who kept similar records, and they're super, super useful.
    posted by naturalog at 10:11 PM on July 2, 2013 [3 favorites]


    Also, based off of what other commenters have said, here are just a few things that classmates/colleagues/professors of mine have mentioned being of interest to them in their work:

    - reflections on political events;
    - records of the weather, especially in a more "personal" sense/talk about how you feel about the weather;
    - talk about what you do at your job and how it fits in with what other people do;
    - the things that you have and how you use them;
    - your individual religious/spiritual practices;
    - when you encounter new words/phrases/linguistic phenomena, especially if they're trendy/faddish like YOLO or whatever.
    posted by naturalog at 10:21 PM on July 2, 2013 [2 favorites]


    What a great question! Thinking of journaling as a gift to future historians might be exactly what I needed to get myself to resume my own journals...

    Anyway, you have some great suggestions already, to which I'd like to add relationships - how did you come to meet your friends? Are you friends with your coworkers? Your neighbors? How often are you interacting with your family - and sense of distance - what types of transportation do you use regularly? How far are you willing to go for leisure? etc.

    But those are just topics that happen to be of interest to me personally as a historian, and we come in many different stripes! Most importantly, I want to reiterate that fame has nothing to do with it - often, famous people's lives are recorded in huge amounts of detail and it's frustrating because they're so removed from ordinary, representative lives.

    A final thought: people upthread are right to suggest that social media documents a lot of things historians would be interested in. But that crucial matter of intent is missing. You might tweet that you're eating hot dogs for the third time this week. But is it because hot dogs are cheap, because you were feeling nostalgic for something, or because they're all you know how to make? Journaling gives us a window into how people make their decisions, something it's a lot harder to establish from, say, quantitative information. I'd urge you to examine the motives behind the things in your day to day life - your purchases, friends, food, media choices, whatever - even if they seem obvious. As a bonus, I bet that would help spark insightful entries that would be more interesting for you to write, too.
    posted by estlin at 10:36 PM on July 2, 2013 [7 favorites]


    My grandfather collected military covers, which were relevant because of their documented presence at sites or moments of history. That's the kind of thing that could make a journal relevant -- documented connections.
    posted by Cool Papa Bell at 11:28 PM on July 2, 2013


    Miko is totally right, in addition to writing about what is unusual and interesting to you, write about what is so totally boring and mundane that no one else would write about it for how normal it is. To be of real interest to historians in the future include the unspoken assumptions that everyone just takes for granted. Make a habit of taking jokes, both topical and non-topical, and explaining them in absolutely lethal detail, write about things related to your family or friends or sex life or financial situation that would not be covered by a census or other survey, how much stuff you have and what kinds of stuff, how you feel about current events and how they impact you, your perspectives on past events and how you feel they impacted you, and how empowered you feel in daily life and what you feel hinders you.
    posted by Blasdelb at 12:57 AM on July 3, 2013 [2 favorites]


    Something pretty helpful that doesn't seem to be getting much mention: the journal should be a ripping good read! Make it something you would want to read.

    You know how some people can mention a minor thing that happened to them today and talk about it in the most riveting way? While others can make the most exciting thing tedious?

    Write the journal as something intended for a reader. Let it be rich and entertaining and insightful and shocking and humorous and playful and wry and and naked as/when effective.

    Bonus: If you do this, then in the worst case scenario where the only person who ever reads it is you, at least you're going to have a blast. Wait ten years and you'll find yourself riveted with delight in reading about the life you've lead (but mostly forgotten).
    posted by anonymisc at 1:13 AM on July 3, 2013 [2 favorites]


    Also, from another perspective, you might consider keeping a more scientifically oriented laboratory or field notebook according to what you are interested in. Amateur input is invaluable to quite a few sciences, is especially valuable to scientists looking back, and it all involves what is essentially just a more formal kind of journaling.
    Do you like astronomy? Learn how to use a telescope, get interested in a specific kind of field within astronomy, and just start looking up at night - or during the day if solar stuff ends up interesting you. If you keep careful records, particularly if they are well indexed by date, future astronomers may have interest.

    How about botany or zoology? Future biologists will have a lot fewer species to study than we do now and will no doubt be very interested in the ones that disappear. I'd bet more than interested enough to go through the rigorously maintained field notebooks of amateurs looking for clues to their questions. Go outside and find species of whatever wherever you live, photograph them, key them out, and write notes about what you see.

    Would you be interested in building and maintaining a climate station? Waking up every morning and recording the temperature and pressure, or water level, or glacial movement, or whatever you live near? EVERY morning?
    posted by Blasdelb at 1:19 AM on July 3, 2013 [1 favorite]


    The book that revolutionized my journal keeping was the Metafilter-recommended What It Is by Lynda Barry. There are also cracking good exercises to go along with the book on her blog.

    There's a video floating around the internet of a talk by Lynda Barry describing why most journals are boring to read: they're full of feelings, but devoid of images. This phenomenon she likens to looking at a bunch of photos taken at the Battle of Waterloo by a monkey: lots of shots of bananas, no shots of Napoleon. If you write your journal solely according to what feels important to you, you will likely end up with a journal full of banana shots. Learning to focus on images -- to look, listen and record what's there -- will give your journals the kind of accidental detail that stands a chance of being interesting and informative to someone reading them later.

    Tell It Slant also has a lot of fantastic tips on writing concretely and in images and prompts for re-examining your life for details and stories of interest to an outside reader.
    posted by stuck on an island at 2:24 AM on July 3, 2013 [9 favorites]


    My great-great-grandfather kept a journal. And so, his daughter (my great-granny) did, too. Now my mother does it.

    We live in a small rural area and gg-grandpa's journal is filled with the weather for that day, who married who, who had kids on what day and what they named them, and little stories about places around town and how they came to be. I cannot tell you what an absolute joy that thing is to read and how helpful it's been in my genealogy research.

    Great-granny's journal is filled with tales of their travel (how much gas cost, where they stayed), stories from when they lived on a big farm, tales about their animals, and little bits about when we came to stay with her and how happy that made her. Later in life my mother asked her to update the journal with long-winded stories from her childhood -- they were poor and the stories in that journal are amazing.

    And now mom does the same. Stories about the kids and our kids. Pictures attached every third page or so. Vacations, random mundane daily stuff, flower clippings from her garden. Stuff like that. I assume that one day her gg-grandchildren will read it and love it just as much as I have my family's.

    The point is, just write about life. If the intent here is to leave something interesting for your family or just those around you when you're gone, it doesn't have to be overthought. Hell, I get excited reading about how gas was 9 cents in 1972!

    As another aside, I work at a non-profit and my executive director's parents ran a mission in Kansas City. They kept journals and the cornerstone of our meetings every Wednesday is usually something they've written. Just goes to show that it might seem, right now, that you're only writing things relevant to you but in the years to come, your journals will take on a life of their own and can become a part of many people's lives...
    posted by youandiandaflame at 5:05 AM on July 3, 2013


    what makes a journal entry historically interesting?

    If that's your goal, write for future historians. When they dig you up (by digging up your journal), answer all the questions we would ask Tollund Man if we could: what did you do, why did you do it, and exactly what was your life like up until they tossed you into the bog. What happened to you? How do you feel, Tollund Man? Tell them everything and then tell them again the next day and the day after that. Give details down to the weight and piece count and milk content of that bowl of Cheerios you're about to consume, and then do it again tomorrow and the next day. Tell them about your bodily functions. Get your weekly shopping receipt and decode it line by line. Tell them about your day at work, but remember you are talking to people who don't know what the hell you're talking about, so describe everything like you're talking to Martians. Don't worry about being repetitive or creative. What they want to know is what you ate every day, what you watched every day, where you went every day, what you wore every day, what you did at work every day.

    If you can, also put together an evidence box, a time capsule that can be added to. Snip some hair and nail samples and stick them in a box with your identification and the date. Stick copies of medical records in there. Find the flimsiest, most ephemeral everyday things related to you and put them in the box, because those will be rarest in a hundred years. Label everything so there's no mystery about when things happened. Your check stubs or pay slips or whatever it is people get these days.

    Walk or drive down the street, around the block, and take photos and video of everything as you go. All the store fronts, the cars, the people on the sidewalk. Do that every day. Store the photos and video somewhere you hope will last forever. (A tricky thing to do.)

    But also be gossipy. People will get a lot out of what you have to say, even if what you say is completely pointless rambling about your favorite hobbies or rants about what you saw on television. If you're in love, say it. Assume no one today is going to read it. There is no such thing as embarrassment here. It's all for the future, when you are dead and your children are dead and your grandchildren are dead. It's personal and cultural DNA for bringing an unknown bog person back to life.

    And assume that at least one of these future archaeologists will be a direct descendant of yours, so throw in a family tree with as much detail as you can.

    And throw in a copy of your autobiography up to this point, or work it into your ongoing journal, so today you are writing about today and about a certain day in your past, and both are being read by the people with orange shovels in the future.
    posted by pracowity at 5:51 AM on July 3, 2013 [2 favorites]


    I enjoy reading journals and personal accounts from the Civil War era. I don't give a hoot about the battles, I like the mundane day-to-day stuff. What their jobs were, daily routines, neighborly interactions, food, clothes, and a little current affairs. This is the stuff that has changed dramatically and will keep changing. I can read about the Cold War anywhere. but knowing my Dad went from the horse and buggy to the age of personal computers, well, its that stuff and how folks adapt is the best.
    posted by PJMoore at 8:01 AM on July 3, 2013 [1 favorite]


    I have also asked that my journal go to the Smithsonian Institute where it can sit till someone related to me comes looking for it.

    It would be a good idea to have some backup plans for Plan B, C, and D as far as this goes. I say this for you and anyone else who hopes for their journal to live in posterity. Museums can't take everything they're offered, and usually have fairly strict collecting guidelines and a committee process for accessioning stuff. It would be a good idea to identify local and state libraries and archives for whom your life and interests already have some relevance and put them on your list as well, in case the Smithsonian gives it a pass. For instance, my mom found herself holding an archive of a longtime friend who was active in covering the women's movement in local media in the 60s, 70s, and 80s. When she died she gave it to a women's history archive in the state library - which is also the first place someone interested in the content would go looking for resources, so that enhances the chance it will be found, seen, and used. Your work actually may stand a better chance of having lasting value in a smaller, more specialized archive than in a big, sprawling collection where it might get "lost" amid all the other hetereogenous stuff and just not be known to scholars.

    It is a good idea to identify some of these places and write them down in your will or estate documents, because without my mom being there it would have been tossed in the trash by the house cleaner-outer (the family didn't see any value). That kind of thing happens a lot - diaries get sold at estate sales or put out with the trash, losing some of their context. Make your wishes explicit and give them a few ideas of potential homes for your work.
    posted by Miko at 10:09 AM on July 3, 2013 [5 favorites]


    I'm a little surprised at the responses, which I am guessing aren't coming from historians

    I guess part of what I meant is that the historians of the future will have a significantly different collection of data to work with, making today's journals of an entirely different value than the journals from pre-internet centuries. I don't think it makes much sense to look at the type of information historians value in 19th century journals and extrapolate what they will find interesting in the future. There is something sort of hermeneutically flawed in that logic. It makes no sense to say, "the mundane stuff in journals has been very important historically to historians, therefore it will continue to be so." Because we have an extreme overabundance of information on the mundane these days as it is.

    Weather data? What people owned? Daily routines? All of that will be available from non-personal journal sources, making journals of perhaps little interest to anyone. If future historians have all-access passes to historical information, you can assume they could get all of this information from credit card statements, amazon and facebook and instagram accounts, text messages, etc. You can see how some movie lover felt about every movie they watched by checking their Netflix account. I actually don't think there is much hyper-local information that isn't being documented already, via social media at least.

    In many ways, I think the journals of remarkable people will become more interesting in the future as the tables of privacy turn, and privacy becomes a luxury to the well-off and well-connected, and so we will know less about people of means, which is the opposite of how things have been historically.

    I didn't mean to say you ought to try and become famous, only that I think there is a flaw in the premise of keeping a journal in our current age with an eye toward future historical significance.
    posted by Lutoslawski at 10:25 AM on July 3, 2013 [2 favorites]


    I disagree with you, Lutoslawski, in that I think there are particular types of reactions and responses that social media doesn't get at. For example, I'm a military spouse whose husband has deployed multiple times, and been injured more than once. I know others in the same boat, and can tell you that the experience of waiting to hear whether this is the time he's died is not once you tweet about... in part because of OPSEC but also because it's personal. I also don't talk publicly about on my FB or Twitter about my experiences with racism and classism as a military spouse because that's just not the done thing, particularly when you're an overeducated liberal woman on a conservative military post whose (also nonwhite) husband is hustling for a promotion. Plus, other posters are offering concrete examples above of the kinds of ephemera and ephemeral reactions that get lost as underfunded political and social movements move on. Even the academic journal I work for struggles to maintain an archive of its founding, less than 10 years out, because people lose data, lose funding for website maintenance, or just because no one who is on staff remembers the password to whatever our FB page was a few years ago. I don't expect you to know about me and how I'm totally fascinating, lol, but I'd hoped for less of a "why should people care about you??" response and more of a "this is what makes a personal narrative historically interesting to read and why" response.

    Anyways, imo social media is ubiquitious but misses out on the type of extended reflection journaling gets at because it's both short, immediate, and often really performative, in that you are typically updating and tweeting as a character. Isn't that why one of the AskMe axioms about breaking up is to get off their social media feed? Or to not be so envious of the joy and happiness others portray on their FB, because it's not necessarily real or true or representative of their consistent emotional state?

    Finally, my real problem w. your initial answer was that it didn't answer my question. This new response did, because it's suggesting that a discussion of privacy and its meaning might be neat to journal about. That's kind of cool, because privacy as it's understood now is really historically specific, but isn't something it would have occurred to me to write about.
    posted by spunweb at 12:18 PM on July 3, 2013 [12 favorites]


    Weather data? What people owned? Daily routines? All of that will be available from non-personal journal sources,

    Such as what? What source would you examine if I asked you, right now, to catalog a complete inventory of my home? Also, would it get you the stories behind those objects, why I wanted them, why I chose them, how I worked to pay for them, how I used them, what they meant to me?

    I disagree that something like "what people owned" will be as easy to reconstruct as you think. A magazine does not reflect what people really own. Amazon.com order histories do not reflect things people were given or inherited or bought elsewhere. We no longer have probate inventories. People don't take pictures of their homes which serve as perfect documentary evidence. Speaking as a museum person, I can say that one of the absolute hardest tasks, even for mid and late-20th century interpretation, is to arrive at a reasonable estimate of what actual objects a person of their gender, age, family structure, ethnicity, class, occupation, and location would own.

    As for weather, you can get temperature and precipitation data and things like that, but a very hard thing to get is phenology. What is the year-by-year change in, say, the date you first see lion's mane jellyfish on the beach, to bring up a locally important example. That level of granular, local, evidence-based data is very hard to collect even today, despite the advent of citizen-science social media.

    Daily routines, if well described, are excellent at revealing network relationships and consumption patterns which are otherwise invisible. Some people religiously "check in" using social media, but I'd argue that (a) they are not widely representative of the population as a whole and (b) they are picking and choosing which elements of their routines to share. Even in contemporary society, anthropologists are making careful study of these things precisely because they are largely undocumented and considered unimportant, obvious, "regular" and boring by most people as they do them.

    Finally, the complex causation stuff is very hard to get at. Why did so-and-so get elected President? We can understand that at the macro level, but at the micro level, knowing the kinds of personal views, values, relationships, messages, and thoughts someone is having about something like an election can reveal causation that just isn't visible outwardly.

    Spunweb makes a very good point about social media. First of all, it's not especially inclusive. It is easy to think that "everyone" is documenting hyperlocal phenomena, until you live somewhere where that is just unimportant to people due to their age, background, habits, or income levels. The saturation rate remains fairly low. Some people use it a lot, some very haphazardly/rarely, or not at all. But more important is the notion that it's performative rather than reflective. Social media is information presented for an audience. There are many, many things I choose not to share on social media. Private, personal things, things about my relationships, political things, reservations about decisions, things I may perceive to be boring to others, etc. That is the kind of private and internal content that underlies behavior but is absolutely not well captured in public social media.

    Social media will certainly be interesting as a tool for future historians. But I think the very fact that it is not private will mean that the challenge for future historians will be in large part reconstructing the individual, internal mindset, views and values that underlie decisionmaking and outward actions. This is the dimension that will become harder and harder to see.
    posted by Miko at 1:44 PM on July 3, 2013 [10 favorites]


    I transcribed a daily work diary from two law librarians from the 1930s and 40s in grad school. Most of it was tedious boring things like who owed what fines and which freshmen were banned from the library for being "rowdy".

    However, after Pearl Harbor and the young law students began joining up in earnest, the entries got a little odd. One or two simple names on a page, no notation, no remark about fines, no real clear indication of why the librarian felt the need to write "Mr. John Wilson, 2nd yr" in the diary. Every few days a list of one or two names and what year they were.

    And then one entry it got extremely personal, something along the lines of "We were taken up sharp today. 19 lost." and then the ubiquitous list of names. 19 of them. That's when I realized that it was a listing of the students that had died in combat. This was a relatively small university and the law communtiy was very tight knit and these women knew almost every single one of their students. Buried amongst the fines and book orders was the daily toll that war took on a community of academics.

    I don't know if anyone ever did anything with those transcribed journals, but I'll never forget the starkness and the open honesty in those clear lines.
    posted by teleri025 at 2:25 PM on July 3, 2013 [11 favorites]


    What things need to be present in a diary or journal to make it of interest to historians in the future?...I'm asking because I'd like to make my own journalling a bit more intentional.

    While I agree with what Miko and other historians here have said, my general response is: we just don't know. Laurel Thatcher Ulrich's professors would have told you to write about anything but the domestic sphere, or women's experience, or hyperlocal weather, because none of those things interest historians. And here's the thing: they would have been entirely correct, because until Ulrich and Joan Scott and other historians like them came along, historians were not interested in those things. Now they are, and history is a better discipline for it.

    But the lesson to take from this isn't "write about things that Laurel Thatcher Ulrich would be interested in;" it's that tastes change, including the tastes of professional historians, and we can't predict what those tastes will be in 30, 50, 100 years. If Martha Ballard had intentionally written diaries with a view to what historians 100 years hence would find important, we probably wouldn't have the rich, detailed record we do have.

    So, with all due respect, I think the effort to intentionally write a diary of interest to future historians will make it unnecessarily forced and artificial. If you don't care about hyperlocal weather patterns or what birds visit your birdbath, then don't set yourself the chore of writing about that stuff. Instead, write about what interests you most and what you think is worth writing about. That, more than trying to preemptively interest future historians, will make it worth reading.
    posted by googly at 1:46 PM on July 4, 2013 [2 favorites]


    One more historian's two cents: I'm an ancient historian, and I am very, very jealous of my colleagues who have journals to work with. Miko covers many of the reasons why journals are so great as material. Cicero's letters are the closest thing available in my field-- but because there's nothing comparable, all we can really learn from them are Cicero's daily habits, Cicero's household economy, Cicero's friendships. Having a pool of journals written by different people gives you more data points, lets you see the period you study from different perspectives so that you can inch closer to reality. When you work on a society with high literacy and a journaling culture, like the Anglophone world in the 19th century, you can write a very different kind of history than I can.

    As for your own journaling: just witness your own life. Your emotional reactions to current events, the foods you like to eat, your financial worries, your friendships and relationships -- all of these are things impossible to find in sources like newspapers or government archives.
    posted by oinopaponton at 6:13 PM on July 4, 2013 [2 favorites]


    Miko: "What we know about events like the Civil War or even World War II, life aboard an American whaleship or on the frontier, we mostly know by the writings of non-famous people who simply observed and recorded the detail of daily life."

    I'm not sure if the WWII stuff is in the public domain yet, but the American Civil War must be one of the most obsessively-documented periods in history. Apart from the meticulously-detailed records of the war itself, we have records containing the full life stories of almost every soldier who fought and survived. To qualify for a war pension, the soldiers were required to explain their background, and a detailed account of what they did during the war, in writing. Most records also had a few details about the lives that the soldiers settled down into after the war.

    We still have most of those records (and odds are, they're available on microfilm at a local public library!). There have been various efforts to transcribe and digitize these records (I remember doing a few in High School for extra-credit... the handwriting and spelling was appalling).

    It's a huge, fascinating, and painfully boring record of American life in the mid-19th century.
    posted by schmod at 6:51 AM on July 10, 2013


    Well, that's true. I had forgotten about pension records.

    I was thinking more of the personal reflections, journals, etc. that describe people's inner worlds - the things one won't learn from official documentation.
    posted by Miko at 2:16 PM on July 10, 2013


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