written on the margins: Girls’ Diary Writing as Cultural Production
I’m still reeling from last week’s tidbit from NPR. As part of the Hidden World of Girls Project, NPR and Kitchen Sisters are archiving girls’ diary pages. From drawings to doodles to confessions and reveries, Kitchen Sisters are asking for listeners to submit their diary pages to their Flickr account to be compiled in a database and preserved for future researchers. This news makes the girlhood studies and the archivist in me grin from ear to ear.
In placing girls’ diary entries into a broader historical context, and in thinking about how the digital age is both preserving pen to paper diaries while rendering them obsolete by offering blogs and livejournal accounts, we can better appreciate the collection Kitchen Sisters is amassing for future reference.
In her book Girls Make Media, Mary Celeste Kearney discusses U.S. girls’ diary writing in the 19th century and onward in relation to contemporary forms of girls’ cultural production, such as filmmaking. Kearney notes that early on diary writing was connected to religious notions of purity and girls used diaries to develop penmanship and composition skills (30). In “Diaries, On-Line Diaries, and the Future Loss to Archives; Or, Blogs and the Blogging Bloggers Who Blog Them”** Catherine O’Sullivan stresses that diaries functioned as both “regulators of behavior and testimonies of sustained virtue. Adolescents, and girls in particular, were encouraged to keep diaries as a means of self-discipline and a safeguard against idleness.” (61) Both pieces note that girls were often expected to hand over their diaries to their parents for formal inspection and/or were asked to recite their diary pages aloud as a form of family entertainment, suggesting that girls’ diaries were anything but private spaces to record their innermost thoughts and desires.
Kearney and O’Sullivan both emphasize the classed implications in the beginning of diary writing – in which white, middle to upper class girls had both the time and the resources to express themselves through writing. While we can think of diaries as affording girls a certain amount of freedom of expression early on, Kearney argues that “the media [diaries] that fostered young females’ communication also served as muzzles, keeping their voices safely out of the public realm, and ensuring that female youth would be seen and not heard” (32).
O’Sullivan notes that with the industrial revolution and increased modernization “diaries developed as sites of self-exploration, self-expression, and self-construction” and that the pages of a diary “became a space where an individual’s identity was actively conceived and constructed. Diarists were no longer abstracted from their personal experiences for the sake of spiritual assessment or placed on the periphery when calculating the day’s achievements. Instead, they became the focus of their diary’s attention.” (60) As diary writing continued girls not only recounted their fantasies and gave accounts of their lived realities, but as Kearney notes, girls also reenacted the melodramatic language and romantic fantasies from their favorite films, novels, magazines and songs within the pages of their diary (33). In this respect girls’ diaries illustrate their interactions with and relationship to popular culture – as shown in the diary entry posted above, in which James Dean is a prominent figure on the page.
In her article O’Sullivan notes one of the more famous girl diaries – the diary of Marie Bashkirtseff. As a 19th century Ukranian-born Russian painter and sculptor, Bashkirtseff began keeping a diary at the age of thirteen. As an activist for women’s rights, Bashkirtseff used her diary to showcase the struggle she faced as a female artist. At the young age of twenty-five Bashkirtseff died from tuberculosis, yet through her diary entries – compiled and published under the title I Am the Most Interesting Book of All – she gained notoriety and in many respects immortality. Incidentally, I’ve owned a copy of this book for years – since high school maybe. I don’t remember how I came to own it, but I never knew what the book was about so I never picked up. Now that I know I might just have to give it a read and blog about it.
In thinking about the future of diaries O’Sullivan argues that “on-line diaries are the next logical step in the progression of diary keeping” (69). As an archivist O’Sullivan sees many issues with the impermanence of on-line diaries, especially when links within on-line entries can become broken or dead, and on-line diarists can edit, revise, and delete entries whenever they choose, often leaving no trace behind (at least that the public can see). O’Sullivan suggests that these issues will “be problematic for future researchers hoping to discover something of the twenty-first century diarist’s writing process, especially where it relates to self-representation in a medium that has always straddled the public/private divide.” (70)
Besides broken links, there’s the broader question of how to actually archive on-line diaries. When most institutions are used to dealing with textual (physical) materials – many are asking what is the best method for archiving textual materials that exist only in a digital realm. When I attended the Society of American Archivists Conference in Austin, TX this was one of the primary questions discussed in countless workshops. Some archivists suggested printing out pages, therefore creating a physical document that can easily be archived using traditional archival methods. However, as everyone noted this method fails to capture the flow of a blog – or all the ways a visitor may interact with a blog (by clicking on links, reading other posts, etc.). Others suggested making screen captures – but then again the question becomes how will those captures be stored and what sort of access will future researchers have to those screen captures.
What I appreciate most about the Hidden World of Girls’ diary archive project is that it invites users to participate in the process of archiving materials. Not only can people upload their own diary entries to the Flickr account, but as with Jill’s diary page above – if you see it on the Flickr account – she’s actually tagged different areas of the page. Through tagging Jill is able to show how several sections of writing on the page were written by friends, hinting at the social (and social networking) aspect of diary writing. By capturing these details, and complicating how we think girls use diaries, the Hidden World of Girls’ archival project will prove to be an invaluable contribution to girlhood studies and countless other fields.
**Citation for O’Sullivan’s article: O’Sullivan, Catherine. “Diaries, On-Line Diaries, and the Future Loss to Archives; Or, Blogs and the Blogging Bloggers Who Blog Them.” American Archivist. Vol. 68, No. 1 (Spring – Summer, 2005), pp. 53-73