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The Daily Genealogist Note from the Editor: More on Diaries

(A Note from the Editor) Permanent link
Lynn Betlock

Lynn Betlock

Our diaries survey has prompted more email on this topic. Several writers emphasized the importance of placing copies of original diaries with historical organizations, and making the diarists’ words accessible.

Sheila Spencer Stover of Bunn, North Carolina:
I own the diary of my great-great-grandmother, Frances Bertha (Haight) Noxon, and transcribed and published it in the 1980s. More importantly, I donated a copy to the Tompkins County, N.Y., GenWeb site; the full transcript appears online. Frances was NOT the least bit careful as to what she wrote, or who she commented on. (The surnames mentioned include Breckinridge, Carpenter, Haight, Noxon, and Farrington.)

Charles Walker:
Some members of my extended family have inherited various portions of the family history, and keep it close to their chests. If you take a trip to Oregon or Tennessee, you will be permitted to see it, but otherwise it is unavailable. Please, I plead with you, give such documents to a university or historical society (with well-protected archives) that will promise to make it available. You may call it “keeping it in the family,” but we call it an inability to share. With so many threats (tornado, flood, fungus, mice, hurricane and fire), it makes sense to put originals where they can be accessed by all and content yourself with copies at home.

Debbi Wilmes of Haddam, Connecticut:
I have a year-long calendar book kept by my great-grandfather, who lived in Vermont. Most days he made a brief note about weather, crops, or purchases. Partway through the year, the handwriting changes. We know he lost part of his hand in a silage accident, but don’t know when it happened. I’ve often wondered if the change in handwriting indicates when the accident occurred.

John Tew of Purcellville, Virginia:
I have my paternal grandfather’s leather-bound, "A Line A Day" diary from his years at Phillips Andover in 1911–1914. I transcribed the entire diary — although more than a few pages are missing due to my grandmother's later expurgation of some of the rather bawdy writings of a hormone-driven teenage boy. Nonetheless, the diary gives a lot of insight into the teenage slang of the era, and mentions places and things I could research and use to annotate the diary with photos. One particularly special entry described how my grandfather took a photo with his Kodak "vest pocket camera" of his niece while on Prudence Island [R.I.]. He described her as standing tall with all her two years in a dress on the stern seat of the rowboat. The description rang a bell and, sure enough, I found the very photo he took 100 years ago! It was thrilling and a bit eerie to read his diary entry while looking at the photo. I also have the diary my maternal great-grandmother kept while her son was serving in Europe during WWI. The diaries are among my most treasured family genealogy items. (Oh, and, in my case, I am next to positive I have the diaries because I come from good New England packrat stock on both sides!)

Diaries at NEHGS

We can’t end our focus on diaries without a look at the NEHGS diary collection. Within the R. Stanton Avery Special Collections are the writings of more than 332 diarists in over 1,200 volumes, covering more than 150,000 pages. (This number includes copies as well as original diaries.) The diaries at NEHGS are kept in secure archival storage, and they are made available in a variety of ways. They can be viewed in person at NEHGS in Boston; some can be viewed and/or searched on; and excerpts of others can be read in the regular “Diaries at NEHGS” column in American Ancestors magazine. A guide to the NEHGS diary collection was published in 2008.

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