Write the history of your own time

Scholars are grateful for what journals record

I don't want to set down a series of bald facts in a diary like most people do, but I want this diary itself to be my friend.

- Anne Frank, June 20, 1942

When Anne Frank received a diary for her 13th birthday, she knew it would hold a special place in her life. What she didn't know was that it would be special to others, too. It has sold more than 25 million copies in 50 languages. What made her diary so famous? What makes any personal journal valuable?

Diaries and journals tell about people's lives in a unique way. The people writing them can't know what will happen next.

"When you're looking at [diaries] as history, they are rooted in time," says Eric Sandeen. Dr. Sandeen is the director of American Studies at the University of Wyoming in Laramie. "With autobiographies, the writer looks back over a span of time. With journals, the writer is reacting to what's going on around him or her right then. They're much more immediate."

Diary writers don't have to become famous or live during times of crisis for their diaries to be useful. "When you look back on your life," Sandeen says, "your journal helps you remember. Your understanding of who you were as a 10-year-old may change throughout your life as your outlook changes."

Whether you're writing for yourself or history, three tips will make your journal more valuable.


Ancient Greeks kept daily records of the movement of the planets. Following their example, Romans kept regular records, but added personal comments. By the time of Jesus Christ, this was the model for journal-keepers.

Among the best-known journals in the United States are those of pioneers who traveled the Overland Trail to Oregon and California in the 1800s. Most of these pioneers related daily events. One girl kept a record of every animal she saw. Others counted graves, Indians, plants, or geological features. The most interesting journals are those that recorded both events and the traveler's feelings.

Sallie Hester, 14, went to California with her family in 1849. Twenty-five thousand people left for California that year because gold had been found there. Two journals kept by women have been found.

After Sallie and her family arrived in California, only 13 of the group's 50 wagons remained. She described their temporary shelter for the winter.

New Year's, January 1, 1850.

It's gloomy old New Year's for us all. What will this year bring forth?

January 11.

Raining. The river is very high. Six inches will bring it over the whole town.

January 12.

Water over the banks of the river, all over town except in a few places. Our house has escaped, though it's all around us. Mother has planted a garden in the rear of [our] lot and that has been swept away. Nearly everybody is up to their knees in mud and water. Some have boots. As far as the eye can reach you see nothing but water. It's horrible. Wish I was back in Indiana. Snakes are plenty. They come down the river, crawl under our beds and everywhere.


Samuel Pepys (say "peeps") wrote one of the world's most famous diaries. Even though it was written in the shorthand of its day, the diary is still 3,012 pages long. It follows his daily life in London from 1660 to 1669. Pepys was a government official who helped develop Britain's navy.

When Pepys died, he left the diary to his college, but the masterpiece lay there unread until the 1800s. By then, the shorthand he'd used was centuries out of date and no one could read it! It took three years to decode. It was published in 1825. Pepys's daily entries tell of London's Great Fire (1666), the Puritan Revolution (1640-60), and the bubonic plague.

Pepys's diary is famous not only for the big events, but also for the small things he wrote about. Here's what he said about a new Shakespeare play:

29 September 1662

To the King's Theater, where we saw Midsummers Night Dreame, which I have never seen before, nor shall ever again, for it is the most insipid ridiculous play that ever I saw in my life. I saw, I confess, some good dancing and some handsome women, which was all my pleasure.

Diary writers should follow Pepys' example: record the date of the entry, write regularly, and write in ink.

Here's an excerpt from a more recent diarist:

Rochester, New York

January 1, 1864

It's 5 degrees below zero and we had oyesters and company today. The oyesters were good. Played a game of uker [cards] on the sly. I am going to keep this diary this year or bust. Last year I stopped in March. I have got it locked in a box in my room. A diary aint much good unless you keep it.

- James H. Thompson, age 10

('The Real Diary of a Rochester Boy,' Rochester, N.Y., N.P., 1917)


Lewis and Clark kept detailed journals of what they saw and experienced in their journey across the American wilderness in the early 1800s. One of the most famous artists who ever lived, Leonardo da Vinci, wrote journals filled with drawings, sketches, and notes. Louisa May Alcott, author of "Little Women" (1868), published her childhood diaries, but carefully destroyed the parts she didn't want anyone else to see! E.B. White, the author of "Charlotte's Web" (1952) and other books for children, used his childhood diary to remind him of how he felt as a boy.

Memorable diaries include vivid details in the writing. Details help the reader understand what the writer experienced and how he or she felt.

Between 1834 and 1843, Osborne Russell kept a journal that is considered the best account of the life of a fur trapper in the Rocky Mountains. In this journal entry, he describes the rainy night spent after killing a buffalo:

After supper we spread the Bull skin down in the mud in the dryest place we could find and laid down upon it. Our fire was immediately put out by the rain and all was Egyptian darkness. We lay tolerably comfortable whilst the skin retained its animal warmth and remained above the surface but the mud being soft the weight of our bodies sunk it by degrees below the water level which ran under us on the skin but we concluded it was best to lie still and keep the water warm that was about us for if we stirred we let in the cold water and if we removed our bed we were more likely to find a worse instead of a better place as it rained very hard all night.

Detail-filled diaries help us experience the past. They also reveal that the feelings and events of ordinary, daily lives can speak across time.

Exeter, New Hampshire

December 7, 1868

Got sent to bed last nite for smoking hayseed cigars and can't go with Beany any more. It is funny, my father won't let me go with Beany because he is tuf, and Pewt's father won't let Pewt go with me because I'm tuf, and Beany's father says if he catches me or Pewt in his yard he will lick time out of us. Rainy today.

- Henry Augustus Shute, age 12

('The Real Diary of a Real Boy,' reprinted by R.R. Smith Co., 1967)

Wednesday, 8 July, 1942

... Years seem to have passed between Sunday and now. So much has happened, it is just as if the whole world had turned upside down. But I am still alive ... and that is the main thing, Daddy says.

- Anne Frank, age 13

Honestly written journal pages illuminate the past, whether the lives shared belong to others or are our own.

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