Added Value: Non-family Diaries and Letters

by Marjory Allen Perez | Sep 18, 2009

Marjory Allen Perez

I love to read diaries and letters.  I am fortunate that some of my ancestors actually kept diaries and their children and grandchildren saved the wonderful little books.  They also bundled up letters with ribbons and passed them down to their children. The same can not be said for my generation or even of my parents' generation as far as I can tell.  My aunt did save every check register she ever had, but we did not find her diary when settling her estate.  Her stuff did include a diary with my father's name on it - he had made all of three entries in it when he was about 10 years old.  He went sledding with his best friend on each of those three days.  But my love of diaries is not restricted to just those generated by members of my family.

The treasure trove of information to be found in family diaries and letters are well recognized by family historians.  These diaries and letters contain tidbits of family news, neighborhood gossip, accounts of daily activities - all things that will add "meat" to the family story.  But what if your family members did not keep diaries or they have been "lost" to the descendants.  What if the letters the family wrote to each other were not saved to be passed down to the next generation?  Do not despair.

Family historians will enhance their research by reading the diaries and letters of persons who lived contemporary lives to their ancestors, especially those who lived in or near the same geographical area or may have traveled similar routes in their migrations.  How do you find these treasures?

Published Diaries & Letters

Reference guides to published diaries are great way to start finding potential resources.  American Diaries: An Annotated Bibliography of Published American Diaries and Journals by Laura Arksey, Nancy Pries and Marcia Reed (Detroit, Gail Research, 1983, 1987) is a must.   Bibliography of Diaries Printed in English by Christopher S. Handley, printed by Hanover Press in 2002 is another goldmine of information.  Handley has divided his eight volume work into three sections - a bibliography of bibliographies of printed diaries; bibliography of anthologies that include extracts of diaries; and lastly a bibliography of printed diaries.  For a limited preview of this book, visit  Just reading through the index is fascinating!  Google Books has digitized many published diaries and journals which may be downloaded. 

Kenneth Holmes' eleven volume anthology entitled Covered Wagon Woman: Diaries and Letters from the Western Trails, 1840 - 1890 should be required reading for those tracing families that made the treacherous trek west.  One of my favorite published diaries is Village Life in America: 1852-1872: As Told in the Diary of a School-Girl by Caroline Cowles Richards.  My only objection to published diaries is that an editor usually has made alterations - however so slight they may be, you still wonder what was left out and why.  

Diaries and Letters in Manuscript Form

There is no doubt that The National Union Catalog of Manuscript Collections (NUCMC), maintained by the Library of Congress, is the place to go when looking for diaries that have not been published.  And since the dawn of the Internet, searching this resource is easier than ever.  While you are looking at this material, it is always a good idea to do a search of your family names.  It might turn out that someone in the family did leave a diary or letters and that some descendant donated the material to a participating institution. 

Another Internet undertaking that will assist in locating diaries and letters is In the First Person, an index to letters, diaries, oral histories and personal narratives. Some of the material is only available through subscription, but the creators claim that 75% is not tied to a fee.  Access to entire indexed material is often available through universities and libraries.  In doing a search on this site using keyword of "diary," I was very surprised to see a reference to Washington During the Civil War: Diary of Horatio Nelson Taft, 1861-1865.  Upon clicking for details, I was led back to the American Folklore Center at the Library of Congress and to a digital copy of the diary of a man who was born and raised in the town where I live.  

More and more libraries, historical societies, universities and just ordinary folks are putting online digital copies of diaries and letters from their collections.  The Librarians Internet Index yielded a large number of links that led to sites with digitized diaries and letters.  For example if you were looking for Civil War era letters and diaries you might want to check out the Sallie Bingham Center for Women's History and Culture; or American Civil War Collections

Documenting the American South, a project of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, includes transcriptions of about twenty diaries.  Researchers with New England roots will find Martha Ballard's Diary a true gem.    

Some of the most underused resources for diaries and letters are the local historical societies, local historians and small libraries that are often the first place individuals think of when it comes time to find a home for family documents.  Most people do not have connections to larger institutions such as the Library of Congress and in many cases do not think that their family papers would be of much interest beyond the locale in which they were created.  These manuscripts are also not often found in the NUCMU, so you will need to contact the specific institution in the geographic areas of interest to identify diaries and letters in their collections that might shed light on the life experiences of your family.  A Directory of Historical Societies in the United States, Canada and Australia is available at     

Reading the Diaries and Letters

The added-value of diaries and letters to genealogy research is a given.  At first you may be put off by the ordinariness of the life of the diarist and in fact find the entries quite mundane and boring.  You need to learn to "read between the lines" and let these folks come alive.  The farmer who systematically records the temperature and the weather conditions does so for a reason. The young girl who starts each entry with the words "helped mother with breakfast" is telling us of her role in the family.

If reading diaries and letters directly from the manuscript, you may have trouble reading the handwriting and deciphering the internal codes the writer used to save space, but it will be worth the effort.  I might suggest that you bring along a magnifying glass - paper was considered a luxury item for many people and the handwriting can be very small.  Maybe you will be lucky and someone will have transcribed the diary.  Yet there is something special about having the actual diary or letter in front of you.  

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