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Monday, October 17, 2016

Journals and Diaries: A Window into the Past

As a member of the Archives Center staff, I have worked with numerous hand-written archival materials over the past four years. Most of my work with hand-written documents has been for the purpose of digitizing them to be uploaded into the Transcription Center for transcription by public volunteers. While the Archives Center staff has digitized a wide array of materials, many of these handwritten documents are diaries or journals.

The majority of these diaries and journals provide a first-hand detailed account of a specific time and place, like the journals in the Leo H. Baekeland Papers, 1863-1968.  Leo Baekeland was a chemist and inventor, credited with the development of an early form of plastic called Bakelite. His journals, which spanned 35 years, 1907-1942, preserve much of his ideas and work in the development and production of plastic and his research. While this may be fascinating to some researchers, what I find most valuable about these journals is not the specifics of his work. I am more interested in his details of day-to-day American life and historic events.

Pages 142-143, Volume 25 of Leo Baekeland’s journals from the Leo H. Baekeland Papers, Archives Center, NMAH
Baekeland’s journals, 65 in all, cover not only his work with plastic, but some of the most important events in American history.  As an example, he wrote on November 7th, 1918, “WAR IS OVER and GERMANY SURRENDERS” and describes the celebration on Broadway in New York City. Later in his diaries, October 29, 1929, Baekeland writes about the fall of Wall Street and how he did not lose his money, but many did due to speculation and inflation of the stock market. In December 1941, he wrote of the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

Journals like this are an invaluable resource for the day-to-day activities of their author, but also the insight they provide on the American experience from that period of time. When researched alongside other journals and diaries from other collections, on the same dates of important events or time periods, these manuscripts can assist the researcher in seeing a snapshot in time.  This can be an important aid to the understanding of a specific time period or experience.  For myself, this is why these types of manuscripts are so important to us and our researchers.

Joe Hursey
Archives Center, National Museum of American History

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