Editor’s Note: The Conversation is an independent, nonprofit source of news, analysis, and commentary from academic experts. Today’s piece is by Paula Vene Smith of Grinnell College.
(THE CONVERSATION) — The first time I taught a college course called “The London Diary” for young Americans studying abroad in 2002, each student was left with a tangible book of memories, a handwritten record of their semester in London. But when I taught the course 15 years later, the first question my students asked was whether they could keep their journals online. The question made me realize how the image of a newspaper changed from scribbled words in a blank book to images and digital text on a screen.
Why not go digital?
Even though journaling apps like Penzu and Diaro are becoming more widely available, estimates and surveys suggest that a significant number of journal keepers around the world still keep handwritten journals.
Fans of digital planners give them an advantage in terms of convenience, portability, searchability and password protection. Jonathan, one of my students from 2018, described in a class essay how digital columnists can upload entries to multiple platforms, keeping some parts offline or restricted to select audiences while others parties become completely public. It is more difficult to control distribution, encrypt entries, or build an index with a paper-based log.
I already expected my students to use electronic devices to read course materials, communicate with me and their families at home, write essays for class, and navigate London. Why not let them also keep digital journals?
Diary as artifact
Poet and literary scholar Anna Jackson was researching the private papers of novelist Katherine Mansfield for her book “Poetics of the newspaper” when she makes an unexpected discovery. Jackson came across a “piece of the world” it was also an item in Mansfield’s diary – a kowhai flower between two pages in a notebook:
“After all this time, it was still there, still yellow, still between the same two pages that Mansfield placed it all those years ago. A piece of the world she wrote about was still there as a piece of the world, not a piece of writing.
Jackson’s experience shows the power of holding the newspaper in your hand like a physical object. What scholars call the manuscript “materiality” connects the writer to the reader in a surprisingly intimate way.
For historians and journal scholars, the manuscripts are artifacts. A book’s binding, paper quality, and ink can signal an anonymous columnist’s socioeconomic status. Calligraphy changes can show how the writer felt – sleepy, very cautious, or restless – while writing certain passages.
Some clues, such as the proof provided by the insertion of a memento, relay intentional messages. Others, like crossed out words, may reveal information that the author did not intend to share.
Physical evidence can also refer to what happened after a text was written. Damaged or missing pages can indicate a strong reaction to content. A few years ago, curators at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, England discovered a hidden entry in the diary of a 17th-century British sailor. In his diary, he first confessed to committing rape, but then wrote a different account of the event, pasting the new page so neatly over the original that it went unnoticed for over 300 years.
Digital but material
Every quirky mark in a journal reflects a spur of the moment. As journal instructor Tristine Rainer says in “The New Diary” “At any time, you can change your point of view, style, book, pen you write with, writing direction on the pages, language you write in, subjects you include. … It’s your book, yours alone.
With so many handy features, digital planners remain a popular choice. This option, one might be surprised to learn, even has its own form of materiality.
In “How to Read a Newspaper” Literature scholar Desirée Henderson notes that digital journals are also objects, shaped by tools that the columnist selects – in this case, software and hardware – to create the journal. The writer’s design choices, such as site structure, networking settings, integration of graphics, image and audio files, and hyperlinks, provide water for interpretation, a much like reading non-verbal cues from a traditional newspaper.
write in the future
When I was thinking of giving my students the online option, I started imagining them many years from now, coming across this London newspaper from their college days. I remembered my first group of students drawing sketches on their pages, attaching a travel map, a coffee napkin, or a theater ticket. I remembered Anna Jackson with the kowhai flower. I am convinced that future diaries readers will be less captivated by a digital product – even enriched with multimedia – than by the quirky and messy hand-written books of their predecessors.
In the end, I asked my students – at least those who were physically able – to create their London newspaper by hand. They could still use their phone to capture images or take preliminary notes, but in the end they would produce a material memory.
Several students decided to write in their notebooks while keeping a digital journal. The dual process seemed natural to them. On his blog Jonathan posted, “Like many 21st century kids, I love the idea of keeping everything online. That way I can take notes on my phone as I walk, automatically update them on my computer, where I can develop with more time. If I wake up in the middle of the night with an idea, I don’t need to wake a roommate with a lamp. However, the course also requires an analog diary.
Each newspaper, “analog” or digital, can be read as a meaningful artifact – an artifact that conveys clues about the life and times of its maker through both non-verbal cues and words.
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This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article here: https://theconversation.com/handwritten-diaries-may-feel-old-fashioned-but-they-offer-insights-that-digital-diaries-just-cant-match-187508.