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Starting Research: Analyzing a Diary


I love historical records. And it’s probably no surprise that I especially like to read, analyze, and study the records that women left behind. Even when it’s not my ancestor, it helps me to understand a different sense of place and time. And it helps me as a researcher to learn about the history of a specific place leading to additional research questions and records that the source points to.

So let’s take a look at a source and work on an initial analysis. This source is a diary I bought off of eBay. It’s a little different because it’s not written in chronological order (despite the diary have a printed chronology) and it’s not in a traditional “diary” book.

Before we get started, how would you start analyzing a source that you know little about ? Some things I would look for and describe include:

  • The provenance of the source (if known)
  • The look of the source (bound, loose papers, handwritten, typed, etc.)
  • The date(s) of the source (publication date, handwritten dates, etc.)
  • The author of the source
  • The place of the source
  • Initial observations of the content (names, topics)

What would you look for to start your analysis?

After examining the item I would take some time to transcribe or abstract the information to make it readable and easily accessible for further study and analysis. My experience is that when you transcribe/abstract you pay closer attention and notice things that you don't with just a passive read.

Looking at the cover and the title page of this item, what do you notice? Is there anything missing? What questions do you have?

Cover Titlepage

Here are a few pages from the diary. What do you notice?

Births Births2 Calendar

Diaries aren’t just a record of the owner but they include information about their FAN club. (Friends, Associates, and Neighbors). Because of this, it is a valuable community source, not just an individual family source. In this particular diary, there are some pages that include the names and events affecting other people like this one.


Finally, what research question(s) do you have? What are you curious about? 

Remember, we aren’t doing research at this point. We are simply analyzing what we see so we can go on to learning more about what the diary reveals. So we will hold off doing a search for these names until a future blog post. Once portions of the diary are transcribed we can start looking at what to research and where.

I’m interested in hearing your experience in working with historical diaries. Please share in the comments below.


Gena Philibert-Ortega is an author, instructor, and researcher. She blogs at Gena's Genealogy and Food.Family.Ephemera. You can find her presentations on the Legacy Family Tree Webinars website.



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The diary I worked on was a manuscript handed down in the family. It was chronological, but didn't include the year, just days and the month. Luckily it did give the days of the week. So I had to find years that matched it in historical calendars. and make an educated guess as to which years were most likely. It was a travel diary, and two early entries mentioned Cologne and Antwerp. A professional at an exhibition searched online for me for a fitting passenger list. It was only after I'd glanced through that and seen a familiar name that I knew which of my ancestors living in that year had made the journey.

A little off topic, perhaps, but what a magnificent tooled leather cover and fantastic clasp on the book in the first photo. I hope the contents inside are worthy of such a work of art.

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