Diaries as research tools

Submitted by Sammy Smith (sammy@thesga.org)

ArchaeoBus diary banner

The online look of the diary of Abby the ArchaeoBus.

Diaries are one kind of document or information sought by archivists for permanent or long-term preservation. Diaries have serial entries, that is, they are composed of a series of entries made at different times. Historically, diaries have at most an entry per day, although most diarists did not make time-consuming daily entries. Generally, diarists create their diaries for their own reference or for that of their loved ones, although some diarists intended to publish their writings as a diary rather than as a memoir or autobiography. Blogs (weblogs) are a modern diary form.

Historical archaeologists use diaries to flesh out their understanding of the past. For example, the diary of a nineteenth-century grocer would aid in understanding what a grocer did to keep shelves filled and to promote the business; it would provide first-hand data. A diary can provide information that the soil does not reveal to the archaeologist. Paired with archaeological data, diary entries can provide significant illumination about the past.

To researchers, diaries are one of many primary sources. A primary source is any archival information that was directly produced by someone in the time and place to which the source dates. A diary is written by someone living through what the individual writes about; this is what makes it a primary source. A book that discusses, for example, the history of a town, would be a secondary source, in that its author draws (at least in part) on primary sources.

While the authors of primary-source documents lived through the events they describe and the observations they make, they are not unbiased observers. Diaries do reflect the biases and opinions of their authors. Evaluating bias is an important task of historians and archaeologists using diaries to better understand the past.

On this website, we have a diary. It’s the diary of Abby the ArchaeoBus. The ArchaeoBus is a major outreach project of the Society for Georgia Archaeology. The SGA bills the ArchaeoBus as Georgia’s mobile archaeology classroom.

Take a look at this diary and see what biases you can find that Abby brings to the diary. Consider the implications of the periods for which there are no diary entries. These same issues would be relevant for evaluating any diary as part of an historical study.

Official photograph of the SGA’s ArchaeoBus.

Read more about historical research and primary sources on this website here. Read the diary of Abby the ArchaeoBus here.