Sunday, September 27, 2015

To Capture a Micro-History

Very few people realize, when they sit down to pen the opening line of what they consider a very private diary, how much history they will capture in the process. Yet, be they great or be they small, each one of them cannot help but reveal to us, in retrospect, passage through significant times.

I remember seeing, on the occasion of the Diamond Jubilee celebration of Queen Elizabeth II, an offer—limited to one precious month's time—to view online, free of charge, the journals kept by Queen Victoria. The joint effort to provide this digitized gift to the public was a collaboration between the Bodleian Libraries, the Royal Archives and Pro-Quest.

The virtual doors to this national treasure opened, fittingly, on the anniversary of Queen Victoria's birth—May 24, 1819—and for the next thirty days, allowed visitors worldwide to view the remaining volumes of her journals in her own hand, as well as transcriptions of much of the rest of the collection, which at one time numbered one hundred forty one volumes.

Of course, Queen Victoria was the type of person who made history—not just recorded it. Though you may be thinking your lot in life is quite different, you, too, are recording the passing of history if you are keeping a personal record of it.

Many people, over the years and across the world, have had that compelling urge to write down their thoughts, feelings, musings and regrets over the private life they lead as they pass through the upheavals of then-current events. Though it may have been a private in the army whose account was kept, it still may become a sought-after record, many years later.

Case in point: just google the phrase, "civil war diaries" and see how many hits come up. These records of "insignificant" lives afford us, nonetheless, a valuable glimpse of the past—just exactly as it was on the ground floor of life. Is it no surprise that universities maintain collections of such material? And yet, how many of those private people started out their journaling project, intent on producing a definitive volume on the era of history through which they were so briefly passing?

I mentioned yesterday how the loss of friends or family remind us of the fleeting aspect of life, and how it reminds us to treasure our time and use it wisely. One way is to capture the details of events through which our life has passed. We never know where that path will take us—whether through plain vanilla life or mind-boggling upheaval. One established, that practice of journaling enables the subject to stick to that discipline of recording each event as it passes by. Only time will tell whether that record reveals significance in retrospect.

If you are already researching your family's history, you may be accustomed to seeking out the stories behind the ancestors you are documenting. That is not only a reminder that your own is a story that needs to be added to that collection, but a great launching pad to prompt you to write your own recollections of life. After all, someday, someone else in your family—those folks a hundred years from now who will never have met you—will wonder just exactly what kind of person you were, and what kind of life you led.

Don't keep them guessing. Give them all the delightful discoveries you wish you had stumbled upon in researching your own second great grandparents. If you are not a snail-mail advocate full of yesteryear's newsy letters, the next best approach is to keep a journal.

Above: James Abbott McNeill Whistler's "Nocturne in Blue and Gold: Old Battersea Bridge," circa 1872; courtesy Wikipedia; in the public domain.


  1. My daughter gave me a journal for my birthday...I might write in it now and then...maybe stuff not shared on the blog. :)

    1. I know journals are supposed to be logs of daily activity, but I always thought of them as places to store one's private thoughts about those activities, so I can imagine it quite possible to contain stuff you hadn't shared on your blog, Far Side. I have one from my daughter, too, which is small enough to keep in my purse--just in case the writing urge hits at a lull in the day's activities.

  2. As one required to record what was done in 10 minute intervals at work, I'm too tired to write what I'm doing outside of work!

    I did however, close up the houseboat for the season last weekend. The end of the summer blues hit me pretty hard.

    1. I'm right with you on those end-of-summer blues. Despite needing the rainy season to hit around here--desperately!--I am loving it that the temperatures have been lingering in the 70s and even 80s still.

      Ah, billable hours. No fun. I can understand your aversion to record-keeping. But at some point, if nothing else, I would love to see another post on your blog. Even just a tiny one :)


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