Questions to Ask Your Diary
Below are questions to ask of your diary as you read it to deepen your understanding and
analysis of it. The list of questions is not exhaustive but will get your detective juices
flowing. The more you read your diary and think about these questions, the more you will
enjoy the process.
How was it made?
What time of day was it written?
Was it for general use, family viewing or strictly private?
What does it suggest about the author?
Who was the author? Were several people writing in it and if so, why?
Why was the author writing a diary?
What do I observe about the content and writing style in the entries? How does it appear on the page? Is there a formula for entries?
Is the author literate?
What kinds of things does he or she record – and not record? What is described in detail and why? Does the author stop to express opinion or editorialize and if so when and why?
Do I observe elements of the author’s personality: depression, sudden emotional outbursts, romanticizing, fastidiousness etc.?
How it was used?
What purpose did entries serve: memory aid, financial ledger, emotional release, handwriting practise or some combination of these or other purposes?
Who was the intended audience and how does this affect the content?
What does it mean?
Am I encountering words that have a meaning unfamiliar to me? Be aware that the literal meaning of words can change over time. For example, in the 19th century “gay” meant to be happy, to “make love” meant to flirt or declare one’s affections. The meaning of abbreviations can also be challenging.
Do I encounter dialect? People might say it “commence to snow” and “we were avisiting”.
Is there an overall story to your diary? Is the diary a general/grand narrative of life/community life and if so what is its message?
Do I see submerged narratives present that create a fleeting image of a particular underlying story line that appears here and there?
Do I observe narrative weight? Is a particular topic or person mentioned more or given more detail or written up with different words so as to show that the topic or person is being given greater weight/importance than others?
Why are some entries missing? How do I read silence? Was the person too busy to write or was there “nothing doing”.
Can I tease meaning from the diary by counting, mapping or otherwise using the dry details in new ways beyond simply reading them?
How reliable and useful is it?
How did the museum acquire this diary?
Is this the original diary or a transcription?
How accurate and detailed is it?
How regular and complete is the record? Are some days not filled out? Are pages or words missing or illegible? Are abbreviations incomprehensible? Are prices and amounts given sometimes and not others?
Is the author situated in such a way concerning age, gender, space, social class etc. to be able to accurately record the events which he/she observes?
What is the perspective and bias of the author? Do they express opinions on certain events?
Does the author convey his or her meaning clearly or are entries so terse as to be of little value?
Has everything been recorded? What is left out and what is emphasized?
Did the author have any reason to exaggerate or otherwise alter the evidence?
Does corroborating evidence exist in other sources?
Are birth, death and marriage recorded for future generations to consult?
Can the diary years be linked to surviving census, assessment and historical maps, or other primary sources?