The Great Diary Project Is Preserving Hundreds Of Years’ Worth Of Angsty Teenagers’ Thoughts

Did you keep a diary as a teenager? Does the thought of reading it now make you want to cringe with embarrassment or would you jump at the change to gain some perspective on the course of your life so far?

Dr. Irving Finkel of London, a self-proclaimed diary rescuer, has it made it his personal mission to preserve, archive and exhibit as many long lost diaries as possible. By day, Finkel works at the British Museum, but in his off hours, he’s slowly amassing a museum of his own with his Great Diary Project and receives regular donations of families’ old journals. His reasoning, he says, is that:

Diaries are among our most precious items of heritage. People in all walks of life have confided and often still confide their thoughts and experiences to the written page, and the result is a unique record of what happens to an individual over months, or even years, as seen through their eyes. No other kind of document offers such a wealth of information about daily life and the ups and downs of human existence. The Project’s idea is to collect as many diaries as possible from now on for long-term preservation. In the future these diaries will be a precious indication of what life, in our own time, was really like…All human life, in fact, is there, packed into small pages where every entry – for the future historian – is accurately dated.

I’m thinking again about those high school diaries (which, more often than not for my generation, is just a slew of embarrassing deactivated LiveJournal accounts). I don’t know think reading my 16-year-old view of life would be too profound for anyone but me, but 100 years of now it certainly might. When I was younger, I would sometimes start writing a diary and then stop in a panic because hello, what if I suddently died and then someone found it and read all the details of my 8th grade crushes!? That exact fear is coming true for the former owners of these diaries, but many of them have been gone for so many generations that their stories are hardly an issue of privacy anymore.

Most people who keep lifelong diaries never think to leave a record of what they’d like to happen to those diaries once they’ve passed away. The people who inherit them after the writer is gone often throw them out or destroy them, either by mistake or because they think it’s the most dignified method. The Great Diary Project’s hope is to stop this from happening and use the books as a historical record. The diaries have a permanent home with the Project, and Finkel currently has over 2000 of them in his collection. The contents of the diaries are available to researchers and curious readers, and some of the books that once belonged to young people are currently on display at London’s V&A Museum of Childhood.

It’s pretty amazing that other archivists seemingly haven’t given a lot of thought to diaries before. They offer up such raw, honest views on a person’s everyday life. In the age of the Internet, we can read endless first-hand accounts of people’s lives, but rarely with the same kind of candidness that’s reserved for a private notebook. I wonder whether, as diaries become more and more digital, it will become harder or easier to preserve them? What will 2050’s teenagers use to gush about their feelings?

[Independent UK]
[The Great Diary Project]
[Daily Mail UK]