This summer the Museum of Childhood (MoC) hosted an exhibition on children and teenager’s diaries, with examples ranging from a 15-year-old teenage girl writing in 1947 about her turbulent love life, to a teenage colliery apprentice writing in 1838 about the death of a fellow miner. These diaries form part of a larger collection called ‘The Great Diary Project’ currently housed at the Bishopsgate Institute, incorporating both children’s and adults’ diaries from across the 19th and 20th centuries. According to The Great Diary Project website, the aim of the collection is to attempt to ‘rescue’ as many diaries as possible in order to preserve the highly personal accounts of everyday that they contain.
In this short piece I share some reflections on visiting this exhibition by linking together a number of themes I have been thinking through this past year. In particular, the (historical) materiality of children’s media practices, and issues around audience, privacy and authorship.
Getting up close and personal
Viewing the diaries arranged in glass cases, it’s hard not to be struck by their diverse material forms. From pocket-sized, leather-bound journals filled with minute handwriting, to sheets of ruled paper tied together and covered with black biro and carefully glued magazine clippings. The exhibition offered a carefully curated selection of diaries from as far back as 1838 and as recent as the mid-90s. Placed in juxtaposition, the diaries made visible a variety of trends in handwriting, ink and paper qualities, the use of visual images and collaging and, of course, the issues of value and significance in each of the writers’ lives.
In a recent article, Liz Moor and Emma Uprichard (2014) describe the significance of the materiality of archival objects. They propose we need to pay attention to, “how the material qualities of paper and type/script make the research process a sensory and emotive experience” (Moor and Uprichard, 2014: 6.1). By narrowly focusing on the ‘content’ of a diary or archival documents, they suggest we may miss “the sensuous ‘cues’ and ‘hints’ offered by the archive’s materiality” (2014: 1.2).
In an essay for the London Review of Books, Mark Ford similarly asserts the importance of experiencing the poems of Emily Dickinson in their original material form. According to Ford, Dickinson regularly wrote on scraps of paper and envelopes, fashioning her poems around their material form. He describes how Dickinson “razored or scissored the envelopes in a deliberative manner” (Ford, 2014) as a way of crafting the poem into a material artefact.
Individually, the diaries exhibited at the MoC offer a fleeting material and biographical trace of their authors, offering just a glimpse of the values, concerns, and aspirations that they chose to inscribe on paper at a particular moment. What remains is a material artefact, now spatially and historically separated from its author, yet still retaining the affective traces of the cares and concerns that they chose to impart on its pages.
“Who else but me is ever going to read these letters?”
All too often we read past media through a contemporary lens, judging their modalities and affordances by our own relationships with digital and online media in the present. The diary, in particular, has been subject to modern comparisons with online blogging and video diaries – both of which have been described as present-day ‘confessional’ devices. Comparisons between these different forms of cultural practice are, however, highly problematic. Rather than simply seeing them as analogue/digital equivalents, each cultural practice needs to be seen as shaped through a distinct set of values and technological modalities. I briefly focus here on the significance of privacy and audiences for the diarists.
In the biographical novel The Boy in the Book, Nathan Penlington recounts his attempts to locate the author of a childhood diary he finds amongst a set of second-hand Choose Your Own Adventure books. Penlington feels that he and the diary’s author shared a similarly difficult childhood and he feels compelled to discover how the diarist’s life has unfolded. During his quest, Penlington is troubled by a number of ethical questions, in particular: how the diarist will feel about the diary being ‘discovered’ and read by another person, and whether they will want to be re-confronted with the memories it contains.
A point of commonality across the diaries on display at the MoC was their often highly personal disclosure of thoughts and events significant to the writers’ lives. Looking through them I often felt an uneasy sense of prying, despite the often substantial ‘historical distance’. Occasionally the diaries were written in a way that appeared mindful of potentially uninvited and unwanted audiences. For example, one of the diaries was transcribed in an elaborate code devised by the author as a way of deterring would-be snoopers, whilst another diarist’s reference to ‘getting rabbit food’ was potentially used to hide a smoking habit. In these instances privacy might be seen as a highly localised encounter, with information specifically concealed from inquisitive friends, parents or siblings.
Our contemporary standpoint on privacy positions all forms of content production as potentially highly ‘risky’, even when not intended for wider audiences. During the recent spate of celebrity photo leaks the EU digital commissioner Günther Oettinger placed part of the blame on the victims for having been ‘stupid enough’ to create the images. Our contemporary networked world is one in which privacy is positioned as primarily the responsibility of the individual, and where personal content can rapidly circulate through wider audiences without warning or consent. Consequently, contemporary teenagers are increasingly burdened with the fear of spoiling reputations through the content they produce. This is not to say that the diarists displayed at the MoC did not have their own sets of concerns around privacy and audience, but it is nonetheless important to acknowledge the fundamental differences in the way that such concerns are actualised and played out.
Ford, M. (2014). ‘Pomenvylopes’, The London Review of Books, 36(12), pp. 23-28.
Franks, A. ( 2011). The Diary of a Young Girl. London: Penguin.
Moor, L. & Uprichard, E. (2014). ‘The Materiality of Method: The Case of the Mass Observation Archive’, Sociological Research Online, 19(3), 10.
Penlington, N. (2014). The Boy in the Book. London: Headline.
 A quote from Anne Franks’ The Diary of a Young Girl (1952)