If you didn’t hear our most recent 15 minutes of fame please ‘listen again’ on BBC iplayer. The programme was first broadcast on BBC Radio 4 Friday 8th June 2012 at 11am
 ‘The Man Who Saves Life Stories’. 

 Rescuing diaries

Diaries are among our most precious items of heritage.  People in all walks of life have confided and often still confide their thoughts and experiences to the written page, and the result is a unique record of what happens to an individual over months, or even years, as seen through their eyes.  No other kind of document offers such a wealth of information about daily life and the ups and downs of human existence.  Diaries have been written in this country for about 500 years. Really early examples are rare. In Japan the tradition started in the late sixth century.

The Project’s idea is to collect as many diaries as possible from now on for long-term preservation.  In the future they will be a precious indication of what life, in our own time, was really like.

What we can learn from diaries

The most remarkable details get recorded in diaries.  The weather, movement of birds, the price of food, the regularity of the postal service and a hundred other matters ignored in the history books.  Some people comment extensively on the politics around them, others take no notice of such things at all.  Among all these come the excitement of children and holidays and remarks on religion, illness, death.  All human life, in fact, is there, packed into small pages where every entry – for the future historian – is accurately dated.  And what might seem today to be mundane and unimportant will, before long, take on quite a different significance.  Imagine if we had hundreds and hundreds of diaries from people in Shakespeare’s time today!

Rescuing diaries

Old diaries are at risk.  Life-long diary-keepers frequently make no provision for what should happen to their diaries long term, and people who inherit them often dispose of them unthinkingly.  Sometimes diaries are dusty, with resident spiders; sometimes they are in difficult handwriting or take up a lot of room.  Diaries are also supposed to be private, and people often feel it is their duty to destroy them and keep them from prying eyes.   The work of the Great Diary Project is to rescue diaries like these from skips and bonfires and look after them for the future as important items of everyone’s history.  Anyone who has old or unwanted diaries can be sure that Bishopsgate Institute will take them gratefully and look after them.

The work of the Great Diary Project

The Great Diary Project has been set up to provide a permanent home for unwanted diaries of any date or kind.  The collection was inaugurated with the gift of a private collection of some 1500 diaries of the 19th and 20th centuries, and is now adding to this resource as extensively as possible.  Once part of the collection, all diaries are housed according to up-to-date conservation standards.  All diaries will be catalogued for the Project database, the contents of which will be made freely available to researchers and interested readers, who can consult the originals in Bishopsgate Institute reading room.


Most people regard their diary as very private.  Often they write about people and events in the certainty that no-one else will ever read their words.  With the passage of time, however, this factor diminishes, and the moment comes when no-one any longer could be affected by the contents of someone else’s diary.  It is then that a manuscript diary passes from being just a personal record and becomes a testimony of far wider significance.  Once a diary is no longer ‘contemporary’ its message can have value and interest for many other readers who come after.  From this perspective a private diary becomes an important historical source.

The Project guarantees that diaries within the collection will be under permanent archival care.  Any donor can stipulate that donated diaries must remain un-read and private for a period after accession.  Privacy wishes will be respected. Though diaries will need to be catalogued.  All diary donations will be permanent, and the copyright of all contents ceded to the Bishopsgate Institute as future studies and publications maybe published in promotion of the project, this includes the internet.