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Diary of Samuel Pepys and EyeWitness

By Tom Regancsmonitor.com / December 18, 2003



HALIFAX, NOVA SCOTIA

Thanks to weblogs, online forums and personal websites, future historians (near future, anyway) are likely to have access to an overabundance of first-hand accounts of the mundanities of daily life - as well as world-changing events. Of course, there's no reason that the same tools can't be adapted to serve observations made before the invention of the Internet -or moveable type, for that matter- and the following examples make a compelling argument that oldies often remain goodies

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Our first case is a site which will almost certainly become the most comprehensive example of the first-person historical account available on the Web. Webmaster Phil Gyford has taken The Diary of Samuel Pepys -a diary that spans 10 years of the 17th century- and set himself the task of presenting it over the next 10 years as a Weblog. The first great modern bureaucrat, founder of the professional navy, and through his diary, one of history's greatest unintentional historians, Pepys was a friend to such contemporaries as Isaac Newton and Christopher Wren, and even spent a bit of time in the Tower of London. (But then again, who didn't?) His diary's entries -beginning on January 1st of 1660- include such day-to-day routines as government committees, parliamentary debates, and river outings, as well as such historic events as the coronation of Charles II after the dissolution of the Commonwealth, the "Black Death" of 1665, and the Great Fire of London in 1666.

While the diary is already available online in bulk form (enter "Pepys" into the search engine at Project Gutenberg), few would have the stamina to plow through even significant chunks of a 10-year diary at a single sitting. In the weblog format, the work is infinitely more digestible, and also gives visitors the chance to experience the entries in 'real-time' (or should that be 'shifted-time?') - reading a February 1 entry on February 1.

But unlike the typical weblog, which is created for public consumption, Pepys never expected anyone to read his writings (at least while he was alive) - so the work is entirely free of self-censorship, and includes all the author's petty jealousies, insecurities, and infidelities. (This candid honesty in part contributed to the fact that the diary was only published in its entirety in 1970 - as it took a few hundred years for some of the author's more 'adult' entries to be considered fit for public consumption).

Not content to simply copy and paste an existing work into his website, Gyford has also complemented the original content with abundant hyperlinks to more detailed information - so, if in your explorations, you come across, but can't quite place, the name "Greatorex," a linked page will introduce him as a prominent mathematical instrument maker. Mentions of geographic locations are linked to an interactive map of London at Streetmap.co.uk.

Each day's entry also has its own URL (so you can quickly pick up where you left off) and a collection of Annotations added by site visitors - offering general comments, additional historical titbits, and occasional reader-suggested links to more detailed information. A "TrackBack" feature collects more reader-suggested links, and the entire diary to date is available through an onsite archive. The only question now is, can you commit to 10 years of regular visits?

(If you like the idea of 'real-time' historic weblogs, you might also want to check out Count Emmanuel de Las Cases' accounts of Napoleon's exile on Saint Helena at NapoleonLive.com.)

Less comprehensive, but definitely covering more historical territory is EyeWitness - history through the eyes of those who lived it.

A production of Ibis Communications (a publisher of educational CD-ROMs), EyeWitness includes close to100 first-person accounts, ranging from a description of a typical day in ancient Greece (as told by a student of Socrates), through a Japanese account of the Battle of Midway, to Justice Department transcripts recounting the payment of kickbacks to then US Vice-President Spiro Agnew. Each entry includes an introduction, quick links to related stories and a few relevant images, while the home page offers events pertinent to the current month, a Photo of the Week, and Spotlight features.

In addition to the main collection, EyeWitness also offers a smaller assortment of "Voices Of The 20th Century," with RealAudio streams of events which include the Explosion of the Hindenburg and the D Day landings, while "SnapShots" uses a handful of interactive photographs to lead visitors to brief history lessons. The entries at EyeWitness are brief, but vivid, and provide a welcome counterpart to the standard third-person approach of history texts.

The Diary of Samuel Pepys can be found at http://www.pepysdiary.com/, and EyeWitness at http://www.ibiscom.com/.

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