As people across the country are told to work from home and practice social distancing, historians recommend a simple practice to fend off boredom and contribute to the history books: daily journaling.
Written accounts of events, especially during times of turmoil, have proven crucial to historians as they seek to grasp a full picture of a time period. And during the current pandemic, physical documentation from ordinary people is as important as ever.
“As historians, we rely on those daily reports to figure out what actually happened on the ground,” said Victoria Cain, an associate professor of history at Northeastern University. “It really offers us insight into how society and culture worked at a time of tragedy, or crisis, or just chaos.”
Personal journals helped capture the struggles and horrors of history. The Great Plague of London was documented by Daniel Defoe, drawing on his own childhood memories, his uncle’s journal, and extensive research. And generations have learned of the horrors of World War ll through the experiences of Anne Frank.
However, in the age of social media, virtual writing has taken precedence over pen and paper. Photographs, e-mails, and text messages may document the essence of an era, but their longevity could be limited.
“Digital media and technology is amazing in many ways, but it also has a lot of problems,” said Dan Cohen, the dean of libraries at Northeastern University, whose extensive documentation of firsthand accounts following the Sept. 11 attacks is in the Library of Congress. “A physical diary, if you stick it in your attic, you’ll likely be able to read that in a century or two. That really doesn’t happen with digital media.”
In some instances, the physical documentation can tell a story itself. While Cain was completing her doctoral dissertation years ago, she recalls analyzing the diary of a naturalist who was sent to France during World War l. As she was reading, she began to cry.
“You can see his handwriting, and he’s scared he’s going to die,” she said. “There’s teardrops on the page, and the ink is running. I remember being in the archives… I started crying, and I’ll never forget that experience.”
Cain and Cohen stressed the benefits that not only for historians but also for the writers; the act of putting pen to paper has been found to bring certain therapeutic benefits.
“It helps to contextualize [the event] and put it into a longer time horizon,” Cohen said. “That can kind of help to lower the blood pressure a little bit.”
“I think it just helps us slow down and reflect a little bit about what extraordinary times these are,” Cain said.
Caeli Chesin, a junior at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, described her experience with journaling during the pandemic as cathartic.
“As much as we are locked in and nervous, I think there is a lot of potential to use the time to connect with loved ones, slow down, reflect, and create,” she said. “The most effective way to keep me on that track and not get too slumped down is by journaling.”
If people decide to take up the hobby, families can read their relatives accounts of what life was like for generations to come, which can be “a profoundly moving experience,” Cain said. By keeping it physical rather than virtual, the authors can rest easy knowing their memories won’t be lost because of a forgotten password, and, in Cohen’s experience, an obsolete floppy disk.
“[Journals] remind us of our common humanity across time and space, and that's something that we will always need as human beings,” Cain said. “As historians and scholars certainly, but as citizens and people, it's really important to have a glimpse of the human mind and the human heart. Diaries give us this.”
Matt Berg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @mattberg33.