If you have inherited or found a family member’s old journals or diaries, here’s the process I followed to introduce my great-grandma Angie’s memories to a new generation of family members.
“This is September, year of 1964. I started to write my ‘I Remember Whens’ June 1, 1959, on my 70th birthday, but didn’t get it finished as my husband who had shared my joys, sorrows, and woes for fifty years left me that summer on August 23, 1959. I will record at least a part of it today.”
My great-grandmother Angie Hannah Dickey Wirt did an amazing thing for our family. She wrote down her childhood memories and stories.
The excerpt above is from her handwritten notes, neatly penned in a simple, lined notebook. Her daughters found the notebook after she passed away in the late 1970s. They made photocopies and passed them out to family members. In the 1990s, a cousin of mine typed out the memories and created spiral-bound notebooks for the family.
I found both copies of Angie’s memories in my family memorabilia tote earlier this year. It was fun to think about breathing new life and interest into her stories. My goal was to share her words, but also add meaning and context for the new generations of the family who had never met Angie.
What to do with old journals and diaries?
Step 1: Your first priority is to preserve the original journals or diaries. Do a little research about the paper and the best way to preserve it. Ensure whoever has the original documents knows how to safely store them.
Step 2: Next, carefully make photocopies or digital photos of every page of the journals and diaries. It sounds tedious, but you’ll need high-resolution copies for your project.
Step 3: Now, it’s time to read and transcribe the entries so you have an electronic copy. Decoding old handwriting can be a challenge, especially if the author had messy penmanship. But it’s a fun and interesting puzzle to solve. Ask other family members or friends to take a look. If you hate typing, you can always record yourself reading the entries and then send it to a transcription service.
Step 4: Next, save a master electronic copy of the journal or diary exactly as it was written. Insert digital images of any pages that are illegible. Do not edit the grammar, spelling, or punctuation. Your master copy should be as close to the original writing as possible.
Step 5: Finally, create a copy of the master file so you can edit and revise it. This will be the document you work in as you decide how to present this diary or journal for modern readers.
How to add your special touch
Here are some things to consider when you’re working with old diaries and journals:
Most journals and diaries are organized by dates, which provides a simple and easy-to-follow outline for your readers. However, some journals, like my great-grandmother’s, were written as a stream of thoughts — one memory leading to many others. There may be digressions and interruptions, making it confusing for the reader to follow. Decide if you want to reorganize the stories. Here are a couple tips for organizing stories.
As the creator, you can add meaningful context to your project to help modern readers better understand the time when these stories were written. For instance, I added a page to my great-grandmother’s book showing all the noteworthy events that occurred the year she was born, 1889. It’s hard to really understand the year 1889 until you learn it’s the same year the Eiffel Tower officially opened and the first issue of the Wall Street Journal was published. These facts provide interesting context for your readers so they better grasp the history of what they’re reading.
Family trees and genealogy charts help current family members connect to the person who wrote the memories. My great-grandmother was one of eight children. Not only did I need to connect her to current family members, but also give them important information about her family so they could easily explore her family tree and find additional connections.
If you’re lucky, you have photographs and memorabilia of the person who wrote the memories. Scan high-res digital copies of all your images so you can easily add them to your project. If you have the originals, take the necessary steps to preserve them. If you don’t have any photographs or memorabilia, don’t panic. There are other ways to add visual interest to your project. Create maps and charts, use stock photography, use images of their handwritten notes, or search for vintage photos from that era. Don’t forget to ask family members for any photos they might have!
I created a hard-cover book of my great-grandmother’s memories. At the back of the book, we left a couple of pages for people to record their connection to Angie and write down stories about her. Making your project interactive will help you record and preserve more treasured family stories.
Putting it all together
Now that you’ve gathered all this great information, it’s time to finish your project! I’m a big believer in creating printed books. They don’t require any technology to view them, so they can’t become obsolete. They’re easy to store and keep safe. They’re tangible — you can pass a book around at a family reunion or read it aloud at bedtime to children or grandchildren.
But there are lots of ways to bring your diary or journal project to life:
- Design a book. There are lots of online publishing companies that make designing and printing hardcover books a breeze. If design work is not your thing, you can hire Circa Legacy to design and print your book for you.
- Make a video. Have members of your family read their favorite entries from the journal or diary. Add clips of old family photos. Interview family members for stories about the person who wrote the memories.
- Create a presentation. Highlight entries from the journal or diary along with old photos and images. You can play the video like a movie.
- Record an audio book. Read the entire journal or diary aloud for an audio book.
- Host a podcast. Invite a few chatty relatives to join you and discuss the journal entries together, adding your colorful commentary to bring the memories to life.
Share your creation with everyone
Now it’s time to share your project with all your family! Cherish your role as the family historian and make copies available to everyone.
A couple of days after receiving a copy of the Angie book, I walked by my 8-year-old daughter’s bedroom and saw her reading about her great-great-grandma Angie. She liked reading Angie’s school stories about the two girls who teased her and the games she played at recess. My daughter was born 123 years after Angie, but she could relate to her stories. She learned a lot about life in the late 1800s and had lots of questions about how Angie lived without electricity, phones, and Netflix. 🙂
Good luck with your project! I hope you have as much preserving your family stories as I did.