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  • Writer's pictureDevon Noel Lee

7 Ideas for Preserving Old Diaries

Are you fortunate enough to have old journals and diaries from family members in your attic, garage, closet, or home hiding places?

Old journals and diaries are incredible genealogy resources. If you have some in your home collection, how fortunate are you? Few people actually have such insights into their loved ones.

Today, consider the following ideas of what you (or your family members) should do with those historical items to preserve them for the future.

Do What You Can

But before we get into that, please know you might not be the person who can or should do all six steps.

Enlist the help of family members or the genealogy and archivist community to help you preserve these treasures. If you can do one or more of the ideas in this oist , that’s less work someone else has to do.

But please, start on this project sooner rather than later.

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1. Organize

Fires, floods, illness, and other trials can damage or destroy your heritage in the blink of an eye. Therefore, the first step to preserving your old family journals and diaries is to organize the artifact and details about the creator of the items.

  • Dig the journal(s) out of the hiding place where ever they reside.

  • Place them in one workplace.

  • Then organize details about who created these items.

When I donated two diaries to the Ohio Start Archive, the archivists were thrilled to know a little about the person who created the journals and his heritage. I drew out his family tree and tied him to deep roots in Huron County, Ohio.

Not every archive or family member will accept old journals unless they know something about their creator. So, organize that information and put it together with your diaries.

It doesn’t have to be fancy, but it should be well-sourced.

2. Preserve

Now that you have the items and who created the items gathered, take action on preserving them.

Melissa Barker, The Archive Lady, shares a wealth of knowledge about preserving family artifacts. With old journals, she recommends:

Archival Box

The one she recommends is an adjustable 1-piece book box or a clamshell book box. Both are available through an archival supply store. One that I’m most familiar with is Gaylord.

Archival Tissue Paper

While the box is necessary, this next preservation tip is optional. You can purchase archival tissue paper and wrap the journal for additional protection before placing the book in a storage box.

Additionally, if a diary has newspaper clippings and other inserts, place a piece of archival paper between the pages to reduce other damage, such as ink transfer.

Melissa has also suggested avoiding tape, rubber bands, or adhesives. Simply fold the tissue paper and place the book in the box. Crumple some tissue paper and fit it around the journal in the storage box to reduce movement when stored.

Finally, store the journals flat, not on their sides, and keep them in a cold, dark place. Avoid the attic, basement, or garage as storage locations.

3. Create a Finding Aid

With the old journal property stored, consider creating a finding aid so others can know what’s inside the box without opening it and handling it frequently.

There are numerous finding aid templates available online. For instance, you’ll find this one from the Georgia Historical Society.

As a home archivist, the details within this template may seem confusing. Therefore, view manuscript finding aids at an archive near you.

Or review this one that Melissa created for the Houston County, Tennessee archive. While her finding aid relates to letters, notice that Melissa detailed what was in the collection.

Few people take the time to create this finding aid. And yes, if you donate your journals to archives and libraries, they’ll likely revise what you created. But the goal is to create something that makes it easier to pass on your family archive when you’re no longer able to keep it.

4. Donate the Journal

For many, preserving the items is more than you want to do with old journals and diaries. Therefore, I recommend you donate them to the options I’ll mention in a moment.

For others, you do not want to stop there. However, I advise you to consider what will happen to your family archive and make plans now.

You’re family journals and diaries have a better chance of lasting long into the future if you take time to consider where you donate the items later on.

The Society of American Archivists has a helpful post about Donating Your Personal or Family Records to a Repository. This society offers the best tips and action plans for donating any family record, including journals.

I will offer a few places to consider donating your old journals.

  • Local/State Archives, Repositories, Depositories

  • Genealogy Libraries / Archives

  • University Special Collections

  • Subject Archives/Museums

Subject archives are thematic museums and archives. For instance,

  • Military museums

  • Farm & Ranch

  • Ethnic Groups

  • Church History

  • And more.

For instance, if you have LDS Pioneers or Missionaries, you can contribute to the Church History Biographical Database, by reaching out to the Church History Donation Office.

The LDS Church is not the only religious organization collecting such material. If your ancestor wrote a faith-promoting journal or diary documenting numerous members of a religion in an area, reach out to various church archives to see if they would accept the items you have.

Finally, you can reach out to your family members and distant cousins, researching a common surname to see if they would like to care for the family journals.

Donating physical items can take a considerable amount of time to research the best place to receive your old family diaries and then deliver your items. Don’t procrastinate making the decisions necessary to pass on our items, even if you’re going to keep them for a while.

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5. Digitize the Diary

Now, let’s take preservation up a notch. While preserving the physical item is essential, providing access to the item to many is something worth considering.

When numerous family members have access to the old family journals, they can benefit more than one person hoarding them in their home. Digitizing the diaries can accomplish this goal.

This task also creates a second layer of preservation. If the physical item is ever damaged beyond repair, you and others can have a digital copy of the personal writings of your ancestors.

The American Library Association provides several tips for preserving diaries.

You’ll want to remove the journal from the archival storage. Then, attempt to turn the pages.

  • If they are easy to open, you can scan the book on a flatbed scanner.

  • If the book is hard to open, take digital pictures.

If you do not have access to scanners, reach out to your local genealogy library or FamilySearch Center that might have such equipment.

Next, capture the highest resolution possible and save the files as TIFs rather than JPGs.

  • For instance, many images on your phone or digital camera have a 300 DPI resolution.

  • For the diary, strive for a minimum of 600 DPI.

Be aware that TIF files at a high resolution take up a lot of digital storage. You’ll want to use external hard drives and/or online storage such as Dropbox to handle these files.

After digitizing all the pages, create one file with all the images. You can share this digital file in several places. I will tell you those a little later, so stick around.

Once you have digitized the book, you can place the journal back in the storage box and not open it except for rare occasions.

6. Transcribe the Handwriting

Thus far, all of the previous steps have preserved the physical journals. But have you considered making the journals more enjoyable and approachable?

To step up your connections to these journals, consider transcribing handwriting genealogy documents.

However, transcribing these documents is a labor of love and time-consuming. Therefore, this is one time that you should consider getting help.

Reach out to family members and others looking for genealogy service opportunities to help transcribe these important items. The more interesting and historically significant the diaries, the more non-family members might be willing to help.

In the end, you might end up with a transcribed journal similar to this one for Eugénie de Guérin.

7. Share Digitized Journals

Once you have transcribed the journals or diaries, you can create a PDF file and share the journal in several locations.

In actuality, the suggestions that I will share with you may accept either the PDF of the journal images or transcription. But, if you can transcribe the journal, I recommend uploading the text version as it is now searchable by other family historians.

Since we are family historians, the first place I’d recommend uploading your transcriptions is to the FamilySearch Digital Library. This informative post contains a video explaining the process and access to the forms for uploading your items.

A second place to consider is the Internet Archive. While it’s not genealogically focused, it’s a second place to preserve your old diaries.

One golden rule of digital preservation is backing up items in multiple places. With these two digital archives, you’re on your way to achieving that goal.

There are other possible places to upload digital copies of your old journals. If you know of some, please share those suggestions in the comments section below.

Bonus Preservation Idea for Old Journals

If you complete the previous six steps, you can call it quits and celebrate all your efforts to preserve your family legacy. However, I have one final tip.

Consider taking the journal and annotating it or adding context.

In this 1863 Civil War Diary, the transcriber

  • added front material that helped readers know who wrote the diary.

  • provided historical context and timelines to help readers really process all the diary would contain.

  • went straight into the transcribed diary.

Adding a little extra to the diary becomes more historically relevant to people outside the family. But it also makes the journal more approachable to family members.

You can also take things a step further.

While this example pertains to old English essays that Andy wrote, it can serve as an example of what you could do with a diary.

  • Andy transcribed the old essays.

  • Then he transcribed the critiques his teachers wrote on them.

  • Finally, he added commentary on the essay and the teacher’s feedback.

Not everyone will take old family journals to this level. However, if you do, you can annotate the journal and diary and explain who is whom and what is what.

Excerpt from transcribed 1863 Civil War Journal
Excerpt from transcribed 1863 Civil War Journal

While reading these entries in the Civil War journal is nice, imagine how much more meaningful the journal would become if someone could explain what “This pen was drew as a prize from NY PH Winslow & Co” means.

I hope these items will help you care for the blessings of having old journals and diaries in your care.

If you have further questions about preserving items in your family archive, let me know in the comments below.

More Preservation Tips

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