The first time I taught a college course called “The London Diary” for young Americans studying abroad in 2002, each student ending up with a tangible memory book, a handwritten record of their semester in London. But when I taught the course 15 years later, the first question my students asked was if they could keep their journals online. The question made me understand how the image of a newspaper has changed from scribbled words on a blank book to images and digital text on a screen.
Are digital magazines worth it?
Even as diary apps like Penzu and Diaro have become more widely available, estimates and surveys suggest that a sizeable number of the world’s diary keepers still keep handwritten diaries.
Fans of digital diaries give them an edge in convenience, portability, searchability, and password protection. Jonathan, one of my 2018 students, described in a class essay how digital reporters can upload entries to multiple platforms, keeping some parts offline or restricted to a select audience, while other parts become fully public. It is more difficult to control distribution, encrypt entries, or create an index with a paper diary.
I already expected my students to use electronic devices to read course materials, communicate with their families and me at home, write essays for class, and navigate London. Why not let them keep digital diaries too?
Diary as artifact
Poet and literary scholar Anna Jackson was researching the private papers of novelist Katherine Mansfield 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 it between all those years ago. A part of the world that she wrote about was there as a part of the world still, not as a piece of writing.”
Jackson’s experience shows the power of holding the diary as a physical object. What scholars call the “materiality” of the manuscript links the writer with the reader in an unexpectedly intimate way.
To historians and journal scholars, manuscripts are artifacts. The binding, paper quality, and ink of a book can indicate the socioeconomic status of an anonymous journalist. Changes in handwriting can show how the writer felt (drowsy, overly careful, or agitated) while he was writing certain passages.
Some clues, like the little evidence provided when inserting a memory, convey intentional messages. Others, like strikethrough words, can reveal information the writer didn’t plan to share.
Physical evidence can also hint at what happened after a text was written. Damaged or missing pages may indicate a strong reaction to the 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 originally confessed to rape, but later wrote a different account of the event, pasting the new page so carefully over the original that it went unnoticed for more than 300 years.
Digital is still material
Each original brand in a journal reflects an impulse of the moment. As dairy trainer Tristine Rainer says in the new daily, “At any time, you can change your point of view, your style, your book, the pen you write with, the direction you write on the pages, the language you write in, the themes you include. … It is your book, only yours.”
With so many convenient features, digital diaries remain a popular choice. This option, we would be surprised to know, even has its own form of materiality.
In How to read a newspaper, the literary scholar Desirée Henderson points out that digital diaries are also objects made up of tools that the author of the diary selects, in this case, software and hardware, to create the diary. The writer’s design choices, such as site structure, network parameters, incorporation of graphics, image and audio files, and hyperlinks, provide material for interpretation, similar to reading the nonverbal signs of a traditional newspaper.
write in the future
As I thought about offering my students the online option, I began to imagine them many years from now, coming across that London diary from their university days. I remembered my first group of students drawing sketches on their pages, attaching a Travelcard, a coffee napkin, or a theater ticket. I remembered Anna Jackson with the kowhai flower. I couldn’t shake my conviction that future newspaper readers will be less enthralled by a digital product, even enhanced with multimedia, than by the quirky, messy handwritten books of their predecessors.
In the end, I assigned my students, at least those who were physically able, to create their London diaries by hand. They could still use their phones to capture images or take preliminary notes, but they would ultimately produce a material memory.
Several students decided to write in their notebooks and at the same time keep a digital diary. 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. This way, I can take notes on my phone as I walk and automatically update them on my computer, where I can add more time. If I wake up in the middle of the night with an idea, I don’t need to wake up a roommate with a lamp. However, the course also requires an analog journal.”
Each diary, “analog” or digital, can be read as an artifact layered with meaning, one that conveys clues about the life and times of its writer in non-verbal signs and words.
This article was originally published on The conversation by Paula Come Smith at Grinnell College. Read the original article here.