DoHistoryArchive site maptech helpabout sitesearch

What to Do with a Diary You Have Found

If you are lucky enough to find an old diary, here are some tips for what you could do next:

Gather evidence as if you were a detective.
Handle the diary as you would handle a fragile object of great value.
Look inside the diary for evidence.
Build a context for the diary and its writer.
Put together what you have found.


From the very beginning, gather your evidence as if you were a detective.

Look at the diary as an object from the past that has a story to tell. Perhaps you can figure out that story.

  1. Note where the diary is found and how it is packed. Note articles around or with it - what they are, who they belonged to, and their dates. This information may be helpful later in dating the diary and figuring out how it came to you.
  2. Keep careful records. These could be organized according to, for instance, topic, date, person, or source. Your purpose will be to figure out answers to the questions who, what, when, where, why, and how for the diary and its contents.
top of page  

Handle the diary as you would handle a fragile object of great value.

The diary you have found is unique. Perhaps it contains a story that has never before been told.

  1. Handle the diary carefully. Pages, bindings, and wrappings can rip easily, especially in old diaries with fragile pages. For maximum protection of the diary, handle it with cotton or plastic gloves rather than bare hands, which can leave acid and other substances on the paper.
  2. Do not write in the diary.
  3. Do not rip or cut anything from the diary.
  4. If the diary is soiled, note what kind of dirt or stain it is. The type of soiling may be significant. For instance, is it from prairie dust, sawdust, ink stains, fingerprints, pressed flowers found only in one location? If removing the dirt or stain will change the pages in any way, do not clean the diary yourself. Seek the advice of a knowledgeable professional in a library or historical archive.
  5. If the diary is damp or wet, do not store it until it has dried. Get professional advice from an archivist or historical society if you need help doing this. Mildew can cause damage and must be controlled.
  6. Protect the diary from sunlight, which can fade certain types of ink and be harmful to cloth, papers, and photos.
  7. If you decide to try to photocopy the diary, be very careful, especially if it is fragile. Photocopying (or microfilming) can save wear and tear on the original. If necessary, use a copy machine that has a sloped left side so that the diary does not have to be forced wide open in order to copy the pages.
  8. Obtain acid-free, archivally safe storage envelopes or boxes to store what you find, if you are interested in keeping your discoveries in good shape for the future. Storage materials can usually be ordered through libraries, historical societies, or museums.
  9. When at a stopping point in your research, reorganize your records and documents for storage. Make duplicates of these.
  10. Store the original diary in a dry, cool, clean place in addition to using archival storage materials. Store originals of all documents separate from duplicates. That way, if articles from one group are lost or destroyed, the others will survive.
  11. Get help from a historian or archivist if you need it. Often such a person can suggest where to go for research, make estimates of historical or monetary significance, and offer advice about archiving. Please remember, however, that if a diary is valuable to you, it doesn’t matter if it is or is not valuable to anyone else.
top of page  

Look inside the diary for evidence.

A diary tells its story in many obvious and not-so-obvious ways.

  1. Note where you find any loose enclosures tucked into the diary and how they are placed. These too may be useful in figuring out particular entries or sequences of events later. Leave enclosures and inserts intact or store them safely in a separate envelope or container.
  2. To date the diary, examine it for dates written inside or out. Other clues are the type of paper it is written on, who wrote it, the type of ink and writing instrument used, the style of writing, and events talked about in the entries.
  3. To figure out who wrote the diary, look for a name written on the inside or outside of the cover. Events or the names and relationships of people mentioned in the entries might also give you hints about the identity of the writer.
  4. Examine the materials out of which the diary is made. What are they? Are they expensive or inexpensive? Old or new? Feminine or masculine? Store-bought or home-made? Is the layout like that of a business journal, a personal calendar, an almanac? Were the dates pre-written or did they start out blank?
  5. What was used as a writing instrument? For instance, quill pens make marks and lines different from those made by mechanical pencils or metal-tipped pens. Different inks fade at different rates. This can help date the diary. Call on an expert if you need help.
  6. What does the hand-writing look like? In what language is it written? Is the style typical of a particular time or place? Is it neat and orderly or uneven? Does it contain many spelling and grammatical irregularities or is it very standard? What does the writing tell you about the writer?
  7. Figure out why the diary was written. Look to see what kinds of information and events are included. What is it about? Is the content businesslike? Sparse? Full of emotional detail? Devoid of emotion? Personal? Impersonal? Kept daily? Kept sporadically? Does it appear to have been written for the person’s own use or for an audience?
  8. Read between the lines. What isn’t said in the diary? What related sequences of events are noted through time? What events that don’t seem related could be connected with more research and thought?
  9. Consider transcribing. Transcription of a hand-written diary often makes the entries more readable. Transcribing with a computer and a word-processing program makes the work go faster and allows easy editing, duplicating, and excerpting. Taking the time to transcribe into a data-base program means that each entry (or page) can be made a separate field. Then all the transcribed entries can be searched and rearranged according to your curiosity or research needs.
top of page  

Build a context for the diary and its writer.

Explore issues and topics raised or alluded to in the diary. Look for historical reasons behind what you learn from the diarist. Find other documents from the same time and place that might make the diary more understandable.

  1. Create a chronology of facts and events that you find in order to help yourself make order and sense of the diary.
  2. Create a context. What local or family events were going on around the person who was writing the diary? What larger historical events might have affected the writer and events in the diary? Building the historical context can be a research project of its own. Connectioning with known events helps in reading between the lines and in understanding the historical meaning of the diary.
  3. Look for other documents such as letters, photos, court records, genealogical charts, vital records, and deeds that might help you piece together what the diary means. Use gloves to keep documents in good shape. Don’t touch the fronts, the emulsion sides, of photographs.
  4. Look for artifacts – objects – that are mentioned in the diary or that are related to the person who wrote the diary. These will also help you understand the writer and the writing. Use cotton gloves when handling these, too, if you are concerned with them surviving a long time.
  5. Visit the locales where the writer lived or that are mentioned in the diary. Sometimes just seeing the town or the building or the layout of the land will make the entries and the writer’s experiences much more real and clear to you. Walking on the same paths or sitting in the very chair at the very desk where the diary was written can be a profound “Ah-ha!” experience.
  6. Read books and poems mentioned or alluded to in the diary. Listen to music mentioned, or find the sheet music and play it yourself. This, too, will help you understand the writer’s thoughts and feelings.
  7. Talk to people who knew the writer or who experienced events in the diary. Getting another point of view will help make a partial picture more whole.
top of page  

Put together what you have found.

Just gathering evidence won’t lead automatically to better understanding. Pieces of evidence, examined side-by-side, will suggest more than a disordered collection.

  1. Look at the evidence you have found. Think about what each piece could mean by itself and in combination with other pieces of evidence.
  2. Show your findings to others who share your interest. They will give you ideas and encouragement.
  3. Summarize your findings in writing. Writing will help you to think and draw conclusions.
  4. Keep your eyes and ears open for more information as time goes on.
  5. Enjoy your accomplishment.
top of page  

home your interests who was Martha? Martha's diary book film doing history archive on your own