When I first taught a university course called “The London Diary” for young Americans studying abroad in 2002, each student ended up 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 edge in terms of convenience, portability, searchability, and password protection. Jonathan, one of my 2018 students, described in an essay for the class 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 novelist Katherine Mansfield’s private papers for her book “Diary Poetics” when she made an unexpected discovery. Jackson came across a “piece of the world” that was also an item in Mansfield’s diary – a kowhai flower between two pages of a notebook:
“After all this time, it was still there, still yellow, still between the same two pages that Mansfield had placed all those years ago. A piece of the world she was writing about was still there as a piece of the world, not a writing.”
Jackson’s experience shows the power of holding the newspaper in your hand like a physical object. What researchers call the “materiality” of the manuscript connects the author 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, your style, your book, the pen you write with, the direction in which you write on the pages, the language you write in, the topics you include… This is 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,” literary scholar Desirée Henderson notes that digital newspapers are also objects, shaped by tools the columnist selects — in this case, software and hardware — to create the newspaper. 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 wrote: “Like many kids in the 21st century, I love the idea of keeping everything online. That way I can take notes on my phone as I walk, put them up to day automatically 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 have to wake up a roommate with a lamp. However, the course also requires a diary analog.
Every newspaper, ‘analog’ or digital, can be read as a meaningful artifact – one that conveys clues about the life and times of its author through both non-verbal cues and words.
Paula Vene Smith, English teacher, Grinnell College
This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license.