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What makes a journal entry historically interesting?

Page 66 - Orchid specimen, article on Dr. Chapin's missionPage 66 - Orchid specimen, article on Dr. Chapin's mission by Smithsonian Institution

Fame is not that important to historians. Famous people's lives are generally well documented in sources other than a journal - newspapers, proceedings, parodies, letters, legislative records, etc. PRivate people's lives are, in fact, a lot harder to find out about and lot more interesting to people practicing history today. What we know about events like the Civil War or even World War II, life aboard an American whaleship or on the frontier, we mostly know by the writings of non-famous people who simply observed and recorded the detail of daily life.

At some level it's impossible to say what historians of the future will find important and interesting about our time, and it will change, anyway. Diaries of non-famous people were scoffed at for a long time before they began to be taken seriously as sources of historical evidence. But I think there are some general principles.

Miko gives an in-depth answer from a historians perspective.

07/03/13
by jessamyn

On journaling

GRCA 20819 Powell Expedition JournalGRCA 20819 Powell Expedition Journal by Grand Canyon NPS (cc by)

I am no longer simply the kid who wrote those things, did those things. I am that person with years, layers of experience and judgement added to the mix. Something like looking into the mirror, but your image doesn't behave the way you'd like it to behave. Anyhow, my memory needed to be tweaked, and I'm glad I did it.

Several things stand out. I was shocked to see things (written there) that I thought I'd never forget, but had. Also, some of the memories I carried never happened to me--they were things someone else told me, and I had internalized them. More subtle slippage, in that sometimes I wrote several page of bullshit--not lies, just circumscriptions, soldierly evasions, using standard war-story phrases--while trying to say something, and that something never quite made the trip from my mind to the paper. Yet thirty years later I could see between the lines. I know what I couldn't say then. It it truly wierd how we are able to store little packets of reality without knowing it, and when the right stimulus comes along, all the little itches and aromas, textures and sensations waft up to command the senses, like a fugue, if you please.

Mostly, though, when I read that journal I was surprised, as if I were seeing the kid who wrote it in person for the first time. All these years I'd thought him to be an asshole, but looking back at him now, he wasn't all that bad, just young, and without much of a perspective with which to deal with the impossible things he was witnessing. Doing. He was better at his job than I remember.

02/03/13
by jessamyn

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