Thursday, May 12, 2016

Read My Diary and I'll Have to Kill You!

In that box of heirlooms, forgotten letters, award certificates, teenage diaries, and theater programs, you may have some real bomb shells. Or, at the very least, some mortifying expressions of love and angst. If you are looking for fodder for a personal history, or just want to declutter, you may face a real dilemma: What to save? What to recycle? And what to absolutely destroy—burn, bury, obliterate for all time!

A long-time friend of mine posed this very dilemma to me recently. What do people do with their old journals, especially if some of them contain embarrassing information? As a personal historian, I am loathe to advise anyone to purge without taking the time to evaluate things. As embarrassing as something might be to us at the time, some accounts could have lasting value for those who come after us.

As I told my friend, we can imagine someone from past generations destroying all evidence of an unintended pregnancy and a child offered for adoption. To avoid scandal and to salvage relationships, things like that may have been carefully guarded family secrets. But what about that child, or the child’s children who seek to find their roots, who want to know their true biological and genetic heritage? We also know that times change, and we can  imagine the ache of never knowing the truth and the decisions that played into it.

Sometimes painful incidents that we may not want to revisit or reveal could humanize us and create inter-generational connections. In an old family photo album, there is a snapshot of my grandmother at about age 18. The sad and lonely expression on her youthful face is heartbreaking. In real life, I can’t remember ever seeing her look so plaintive. When I asked why she looked that way, her answer was coy, “Oh, someone I liked went away.” And then she changed the subject. I wanted to know more, but I was too shy—or polite—to press her. To this day, I wish I knew who that someone was. A boyfriend? FiancĂ©? Close friend? Some unrequited love? If only there were a journal or diary in which my grandmother had laid out her soul. Knowing the tale, however innocuous, would only add a new human dimension to the woman I knew only as an elder.

Amid the boring drivel in my old journals—and there are a crate full—there is plenty of pretty silly and slightly embarrassing stuff: like the letter I wrote to Michael Landon in hopes of winning a contest to be his date, the vow to my steady that nothing would ever separate us, my description of the first time I kissed a man with a beard. In fact, some people’s childhood writings make good comedy. If you think you have embarrassing stuff tucked away, check

out Mortified, a live forum where adults read the hilarious things they committed to paper as children and teens! Podcasts from the live show are available, as well as a movie on Netflix. So before you toss that embarrassing tale, it just may be your 15-minutes of fame, if you can bear to “share the shame.”


Bottom line: there are two steps to the question of what to do with old journals.
First, decide what is worth keeping. Is there positive value in the writings? Do they add something important to your legacy? Do they illuminate for future generations the time in which you lived or something about you as a person? Do you need the writing to understand and remember something that happened? Do they tell a good story that others would enjoy reading or could learn from? Yes? Then keep them. On the other hand, are there entries that would be hurtful to others? Do they contain vitriol from a breakup or loss that serves no purpose and that you have moved beyond? Do they lack any positive value, historic or otherwise? Then let them go. Remember, you can always decided to keep only part of a diary—the most interesting, funniest, helpful, enlightening parts—and throw away the rest.

The second step is to decide how you want to preserve the journals you decide to keep. Archivists agree that things we want to save should be preserved in multiple ways and in multiple places. Actual journals and diaries written in bound books or notebooks should be stored in acid-free archival boxes in a cool, dry place such as an interior closet. You can digitize the contents by scanning pages and combining into pdf files. Alternatively, you can hire a transcriptionist to input the writing into an electronic document. Digital files should be stored on multiple devices, your computer hard drive, an external storage device, or on a cloud service. Sorting and storing your journals by chronologically, and adding an index of significant events would be helpful. Your descendants will thank you. 

For more information on preserving your things, see Preservation Week, a project of the American Library Association.

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