I love reading old diaries and letters. There’s nothing that makes for a great research day like reading what other people experienced 50, 100, even 200 years ago. Give me the opportunity to research women’s letters or diaries describing their life experiences and I am one happy researcher.
As family historians, we are passionate about the past. But for future genealogists, we need to leave something about our own lives. Letters and diaries provide historians a look at what everyday life was like generations ago. It provides important historical context no matter who is leaving that legacy of personal writings. I always hear people lament that their ancestor didn’t leave a journal behind so why wouldn’t we? Don’t we want that for the family historians of the future?
Believe Me, My Diaries Are Not Great Literature
I kept a diary off and on through my teen and young adult years. The other day I came across one that I kept when I was 14 to 16 years old. I didn’t write every day so there are huge gaps. But one thing is certain as I re-read those passages.
I was a nincompoop.
Really. I’m serious. It’s embarrassing. Most of the passages deal with whatever boy I had a crush on at that moment. And there were a lot. I think about my sons finding those diaries when I’m gone and my first thought is that I need to burn them ASAP.
I’ll admit I feel cognitive dissonance knowing that personal history needs to be preserved and feeling really embarrassed at my over the top teen angst. I’ve always been a believer in journal keeping and I hate to destroy the evidence of a younger me, but it feels like it would be for the best. Let’s just say that those journals don’t house the thoughts of a great thinker or my higher level musings on saving the world.
But as I contemplate by diary bonfire, I wonder how many of those letter writers and diary keepers that I’ve read and learned from felt the same way? How many times have I winced at hearing about someone destroying all of their or their families personal writings?
Have you felt this way? What is a solution to leaving a legacy even if what you have written isn’t what you want people to see?
What is you considered curating your papers? Maybe leaving everything feels uncomfortable. What if instead you did an annotated or even an excerpted version of your personal papers? That way you could later destroy them if you don’t want your descendants to read about those youthful indiscretion?
As I read through my teenage diary I noticed it mentioned some genealogically relevant information that would be important for my descendants, sprinkled between all the embarrassing crush-of-the-month mentions. Some of the following information could be used to create a timeline for my life or add social history to my life events, such as:
- My paternal grandfather’s heart condition
- My paternal grandmother’s hospitalization and death
- The names of maternal aunts and uncles
- Cousins’ names
- My hire date at my first job
- The amount of my first paycheck
- Getting my driver’s license at age 16
I could create a timeline or individual narratives involving quotes from my diary augmented with my memories of that time, biographical information (names and dates for my paternal grandfather and grandmother), and even newspaper clippings. I could also take these excerpts and add them to the facts in my genealogical database.
I may not want my descendants to read my teenage diaries but I can use them to enhance my life story and information about the “ancestors” I knew.
How Will You Document Your Life?
No diary or journal? What about emails? Have you considered taking information from emails you have sent or received from family and friends to create a “journal.” I have a friend I email almost every day and in those emails we talk about family, and what’s going on with work and home. My intention is to take passages from those emails and create a journal (including information about living through a pandemic).
So will I eventually destroy those diaries? Maybe. I think it is important for future generations to understand that their ancestors were real life people with some of the same thoughts and issues as they have. However, I’m not so sure they need to learn that from my writings. I will wait to decide what to do with those diaries but in the meantime, I will work on taking the best of that information to augment my family history.
You are important. You will be immensely important to those who will be part of your family in the future. They too will want to know about your life and your experiences. Chances are you you tell stories to your kids and grandkids about growing up, why not leave something more permanent?