09/08/2013 08:49 BST | Updated 09/10/2013 06:12 BST

Genealogy and Journals: Preserve, Protect, and Defend


Genealogy and Journals: Preserve, Protect, and Defend!

Keeping a journal is a wonderful pastime for many folks. Documenting the exciting, the mundane, the important and the seemingly unimportant can be a proper hobby, a lovely outlet for creativity, or just a way to blow off steam.

Two things happened recently that led me to want to write this article. The first was my running across an advice column in a local newspaper. In this column, the columnist suggested that a sibling actually edit her deceased sister's journal before giving it to that sister's adult daughter (after holding it for nine years I might add). The second was when I discovered that in the Devon Record Office was a journal written by one of my ancestors in the early 1800s. The journal even holds the exquisitely intriguing title of "The Misspent time of T. J. Phillipps., Cornet 7th Hussars" and written by his wife.


While I fully understand that journals can be highly private matters, if someone leaves one to another family member(s) or the 'family library' then, at least in my mind, it moves from the realm of 'private journal' to 'history book'. You may disagree with this point of view, but to me once a person hands off a journal, they must have a reason for wanting that material to be shared and/or retained beyond its purpose as a 'secret'.

As a genealogical historian, several things from the advice column upset me. First no one should be revising history. Journals should absolutely and always be kept as written by the author. I am sure none of us feel as though we have the authority to rewrite many other written documents in our lives. No one is out there rewriting the Bible, the script to 'Gone with the Wind', nor the words to 'Abby Road'. Why then would someone believe they could simply rewrite something as personal as a journal of someone else's life history? We can't and we never should! The truth can often be unvarnished, unpleasant, and not particularly tidy, but it is one wonderful thing. It is THE TRUTH as that person experienced it.

It reminded me of a time when I was in a session with my two sisters. We all recounted an event in our family's life that all experienced first hand. Upon listening to each of us recount that event, you would have thought each of us was in a different place, at a different time, with different people participating. Our views of that event were that different in each of our minds and memories. Was one of us right and the others wrong? Certainly not. We each were correct in that we recounted how we experienced that event. It brought home to me directly how I could never presume to know what another person experienced. So it is with journals. None of us know what the author was experiencing except the author and thanks be to God that she/he took the time to keep that journal so we could have that view of history!

In the journal of my ancestor's 'misspent time' who am I to judge if the time was 'misspent' to me or not? I can only enjoy learning about the times and events of his life as recorded by his wife. I can only, in good conscious, transcribe her words exactly as she wrote them. Oh, and I certainly get to enjoy the many drawings that his wife included in this journal, from doodles to a now treasured drawing of her three sisters on a divan, which is the only image I have of these ancestors.


So when you come across a journal, you may choose not to share it, but please, for the benefit of all those who might continue your love of family history and genealogy, do not revise that history. Be true to the memory of the author of that journal and very respectful of their view of life.

If you disagree or dislike something in it ...... get busy and write your own journal! The coming generations will applaud you for doing so!

Onward To Our Past®