Diaries from the past

By Donald A. Windsor

Deputy Historian, Chenango County

If you want to know what it is like to live in a distant place, you can visit it or correspond with its residents. But what can you do if you want to know what it was like to live in a distant time?

You can read about it. Publications, such as newspapers, magazines, or books, are good sources of information, but they are polished. They have been sanitized, refined, and edited so that the communication has been rendered fit for public consumption and targeted to a particular audience. However, a lot of information never gets published because the publishers either reject it or are unaware of it.

To get real uncensored, unedited, direct, highly biased, personal information, consider reading diaries. First of all, should you? Do people write diaries for strangers to read? Probably not. As far as I can determine, people write diaries to record events in their lives and their reactions to them for their own personal use, to augment their memories. A diary is, in effect, outsourced memory storage and should be considered an extension of the authorís mind. That is about as personal and private as it gets.

So it is probably unethical to read someoneís diary without their consent. Obtaining consent from someone who is dead is impossible, unless they revealed their intent prior to passing. The saving grace is that reading diaries is painfully boring, so there are no long lines of eager readers. Moreover, they are hand written and often difficult to decipher. In fact, most diaries that have been saved go unread. Which is, of course, ethically irrelevant. However, if authors wanted their diaries to remain private, they would have destroyed them before they died. Their timing would have had to be pretty accurate, because most folks do not know when that final occasion will occur. Meanwhile, as the ethical issues are pondered (or sidestepped), historians find diaries to be veritable gold mines.

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