Diaries, Journals, or Reminiscences

Historians often use diaries, journals or reminiscences, as historical sources. These provide a window onto daily life, life transitions (including courtship, marriage, separation, birth, and death), and many unrecorded events in the past. Such sources also reveal contemporary cultural forms of expression as well as individual styles of writing; they allow historians to determine if writers embraced or resisted these conventions. Equally, these sources reflect particular gender, class, and ethnic characteristics of a literate population.

Diaries and journals were popular amongst the literate middle class in nineteenth- and twentieth-century North America and served many functions: to record daily activities, remember a particular event (personal or otherwise), document a person’s religious experiences, intellectual progress, trip abroad, or self growth and self reflection. While they were the personal accounts of an individual and may appear as authentic representations of the diarist’s thoughts and experiences, diaries must be used with caution. Many diarists wrote with a public in mind and thus tempered their innermost private thoughts or deeds. A well-known diarist was Anne Frank who kept a journal while she was in hiding during the Nazi occupation of Amsterdam in the Netherlands. Her diary has been translated into numerous languages and read by people around the world. Other prominent diarists include British-born Samuel Pepys and Canadian prime minister William Lyon Mackenzie King.