You Are Not a Real Historian


Today we have a guest post from my good friend, Garry Adelman. This is a topic that comes up practically every time we run into one another and one that Garry promised to write up as a guest post. Later this week I will spend some time with Garry on the Gettysburg battlefield, where I will show him the location of the “Harvest of Death” photograph. He is going to be very surprised.

For the second time, I find myself on my friend Kevin Levin’s blog but this time to deliver some bad news to his historian readers: You are not a real historian. Do you want to know why? Because you don’t keep a diary or a journal.

This is your duty.  Create that thing that historians crave—real, firsthand accounts.  What if people in antebellum or Civil War America decided that newspaper accounts and other forms of public media were a sufficient representation of the past? Where would we be then?

Are we not better off for having the personal accounts of Mary Chestnut, Charles Wainwright and Robert Knox Sneden?  Do any of you put more stock in what people said in public 30 years after an event than in a personal account written within one day of when it happened?  Would anyone reading this blog assume that people had a better idea in 1900 about the reasons for secession than they did when the states seceded four decades earlier? OK, you get the point.

Even Kevin Levin who runs this blog does not keep a diary.  What? His blog is about memory.  He does have this blog and he has ensured that his blog will be archived. Bravo, but any medium meant for public consumption is inherently not as forthright, not as personal, and not as honest as something that is meant for yourself. If you are true to the process, a diary must be among frankest of all media.

I fear that some of you are forming excuses for your disregard of duty:

  • I am too busy. Stop being dramatic. You are a historian, not an ER doctor. You have the time.
  • My life is not that important. Who would want to hear or read about it?  Whatever. Historians make full careers out of leveraging the words of seemingly unimportant people.
  • I have nothing to say or I’m not introspective.  Get over it and do your job. Were Tillie Pierce or Anna Balfour concerned about this?
  • I am concerned that someone will find my journal and then I cannot be elected president.  Again, you are a historian… not Michael Douglas in the American President.

We as a group should know better.  We who so often wish that people would have written things down–that they had told us, intentionally or unintentionally, what things were like long ago.

You needn’t be a full-on lifelogger—a person who in one manner or another records the better part of every waking hour. Just start speaking into your voice memo app on your phone. Write a few lines about what’s going on in a spiral bound notebook. Buy a voice recorder and speak into it for a few minutes each week.  And then protect it. Then, read or listen to what you documented a year later. Increase your connection to history by understanding the importance of the present.

Become a real historian and not only will you find instructive, therapeutic and meaningful, but I suggest that it will inherently make you better at what you do.

Garry Adelman is the author, co-author or editor of more than thirty Civil War books and articles. His most recent title is Gettysburg in 3-D, which was published this past April. He is the vice president of the Center for Civil War Photography and a Licensed Battlefield Guide at Gettysburg He works full time as Director of History and Education at the Civil War Trust. (And, yes, he has been keeping a journal for 26 years. If his house was on fire and all the living things were out, his journals are the first thing he’d grab.

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31 comments… add one
  • Skies of Blue and Gray Dec 13, 2013 @ 14:06

    Excellent post! Though I’m tardy in journal-keeping, I try to jot down the “big stuff” in the news and in my own life as well. And I do love reading people’s diary entries from long ago . . .

  • Joe Fiffick Jun 17, 2013 @ 19:32

    Keeping a written diary would be more important than Facebook. Most people don’t put down their most intimate thoughts on Facebook for the world or friends to see. Besides with Facebook and any other digital media, how do you know that it will be around 150 years from now and accessible?

  • Garry Adelman Jun 17, 2013 @ 17:04

    Benjamin: You seem to be confusing my point on keeping a journal to make yourself a better historian with making a journal a historical product. Different process. Different result.
    John and others: Yes! Because keeping a journal in less interesting times makes you far more likely to keep one in the more interesting times. How many if you non-journal keepers out there truly made a personal account of Desert Storm or 9-11 as it was happening and then in the days after? I promise you that if you did not you are only barely in touch with what you felt and thought as it was happening. How can that not bother historians?
    Tim: great points but given how we leverage the past I think you should worry less about the truths you told when alive after you are dead!
    All: this is very enjoyable. My main goal is to end up with more historian diarists… (and yes I spoke in my journal about all this today).

  • Timothy Orr Jun 17, 2013 @ 7:24

    Sometimes, when I’m feeling sassy, and someone asks me what I do for a living, I answer, “I snoop through dead people’s mail.” I say this in part because it makes my job as a “historian” sound more interesting. I also say this because it emphasizes the sometimes awkward process of doing history. In short, being a nineteenth-century historian means reading through a person’s private writings, items the writer never intended to share; items that he or she never thought would fall under the eyes of an overly-shrewd researcher from another century (myself included). There is no doubt; historians inflict a severe invasion of privacy on the dearly departed. But how could it be otherwise? Let me offer a case in point: famously, the eighteenth-century plantation owner William Byrd II kept a journal, and he wrote it in secret code. He never intended for anyone to read it, certainly not a historian studying slavery. But, thank the Maker that some enterprising student found the journal and deciphered his code, for now we all know the brutal truth about the master-slave relationship at Westover Plantation (and Byrd’s sadistic brutality toward his slaves). Now, Byrd’s journal is a must-read for all scholars who study Virginia slavery. (We might say, it’s the colonial equivalent of Chesnut, Sneden, or Wainwright.)

    So, my question: Because I am a real historian, because I invade the privacy of the long-deceased, and because I write about them, while they have no recourse to defend themselves, does that mean I am obligated to keep a journal so that a future historian might one day read through my private writings, analyze me shrewdly, and keep this cycle of history going? Or, am I entitled to the right to privacy? Can I refuse to keep a journal and do so under the premise that I do not want a historian to study me, and if so, can I say this openly and still be considered a “real historian”? Or to put it another way, to be considered a real historian, must the modern historian sacrifice his or her privacy in such a way?

  • London John Jun 17, 2013 @ 4:51

    Garry, are you aquainted with the British Mass Observation project, which was set up in 1937 and flourished thru the Second World War and the immediated post-war years? Its subsequent decline suggests that it’s only worth doing in “interesting times”. Would anyone want the PeaceTime Diaries of Mary Chesnut?

  • Pat Young Jun 17, 2013 @ 0:07

    Since the diary of 2013 is facebook and its kin, I’m wondering if it will be available to future historians. Particularly useful to anyone studying the mating practices of single women or the sports viewing of males.

  • Larry Cebula Jun 16, 2013 @ 17:59


  • Garry Adelman Jun 16, 2013 @ 16:46

    Well spoken, Paul. My main goal of course is to encourage more people to keep journals. Having said that, I say to you and others that what type of historian you are or how you use the records, or even whether you are a historian, has little bearing upon whether you should keep one…

  • Paul Erickson Jun 16, 2013 @ 16:33

    There are plenty of good historians who don’t rely on diaries at all in their research–in fact, there are entire subfields of history where diaries as source material are largely irrelevant. So maybe the headline should be “You Are Not My Kind of Historian” instead.

  • Benjamin Carp Jun 16, 2013 @ 15:45

    Katie: I think you and I are in agreement. I’m not saying diaries aren’t valuable–indeed, historians do value the more immediate, inchoate, inconsistent, and (potentially, but see Larry’s warning) un-self-conscious thoughts of diarists. But that’s precisely why I’d venture to guess that a historian would be a bad diarist: because they’re aware of the importance of diaries for posterity, they’d have more difficulty getting the “audience” out of their heads. They’d edit themselves more, because they’d always be more conscious that they were writing for posterity.

    Diaries are great for inspiring creativity (as any writing teacher or artist can tell you), they have all sorts of theraputic benefits, they’re great for people who can articulate their own introspection, and they’re handy in many other ways. But they’re not for everyone.

    Just to be even more conciliatory, I hope more people do keep diaries! Future historians will have fun matching them up against other sources. I think where I mainly disagree with Garry is that I don’t believe historians should necessarily be the ones to personally lead the charge. Encourage all your friends and family to keep diaries, sure. (In his follow-up comment, Garry seems content with that.) But if you want to skip the task yourself, that’s ok! I think my main problem is that I just didn’t like being bossed around.

  • Jean Huets Jun 16, 2013 @ 15:10

    Not to flog my blog here, but my post a while back about Dr. Eppes shows an example of how valuable a diary can be. Dr. Eppes’ diary wasn’t meant for public consumption, nor was it confessional, at least by today’s standards. Yet it reveals the thoughts and activities of a man in a particular situation, day after day. It’s not about getting accurate weather reports from 1869, which the future will not lack, but the way he experiences the weather. Dr. Eppes’ passed down a resource that I truly don’t believe can emerge from any other source than a man sitting down and writing a few paragraphs more or less daily about, basically, how his life is going: a diary.

  • Garry Adelman Jun 16, 2013 @ 14:12

    Enjoying reading the comments, all. Thanks, Indeed I am perfectly in earnest and I think that the comments above only solidify the need. If the post creates a few more journal keepers, as two have at least claimed on my Facebook page, and even one entry serves to help someone in the future, I shall be perfectly satisfied. I still believe the greatest benefit is to oneself. Perhaps keeping and reading a journal would help you, Larry, to be a bit less angry, man. Glad to have coerced you this Father’s Day into adding a bit more into the historical record, even if in this less-than-frank digital form.

    • Judkin Browning Jul 2, 2013 @ 18:15

      Thanks, apparently I have been a real historian since 2001, and had no idea. I have always viewed it as a historical document in some ways and will leave it for my daughter after I am gone. Wish my own parents had kept one before they passed. Though I would quibble with the frankness aspect. Even diarists self-censor a bit, no matter how frank they think they are being. Even we don’t want to read about how naughty or pig-headed we were. As I say to my students when discussing these sources, no one admits to looking at Internet porn though apparently over half of Americans do. Civil war diaries are often lacking in what they record. Mary chestnut apparently never had an impure thought, and no civil war soldier ever had sex or rubbed one out in the woods if diaries are too be believed. Just a thought.

  • Gustavspeed Jun 16, 2013 @ 11:54

    Actually I am a physician and I do keep a diary, started in graduate school in 1981

    • Woodrowfan Jun 16, 2013 @ 11:57

      there’s always one that throws off the curve…

  • J. L. Bell Jun 16, 2013 @ 11:14

    I read Garry Adelman’s essay as a plea to pay back Clio, the muse of history, by producing valuable historical sources for future historians researching our time. Is it necessary to do that as a diary in whatever form? Not at all, as Ben Carp says. There are many other forms of historical evidence that could actually be more valuable and revealing precisely because they’re created to reflect the concerns and activities of these times rather than how we might cogitate on things or wish to appear to be cogitating.

    And as Larry Cebula says, we’re in a period with more documentation (at least in digital form) of our activities than the world has ever known. Future historians won’t have access to our phone calls (though those calls’ “metadata” might come out of a government or corporate database one day), but they might have our email, credit-card records, travels by GPS, social-media updates, and much more to sort out. If, that is, those records survive.

    So perhaps part of the cost of entry to this historical profession should be a greater concern with preserving family and personal papers and significant digital trails?

  • Larry Cebula Jun 16, 2013 @ 10:36

    I expanded my comment to a post on my own blog:

  • Larry Cebula Jun 16, 2013 @ 8:59

    Sigh. Today is Fathers Day, and for all know Garry Adleman is a father. I should be nice, and I will try my best. But honestly this is the silliest piece of writing I have read in many a day. In fact it so closely resembles one of those old Rosanne Rossannadana skits on Saturday Night Live that I suspect that Adleman is having us on. That is the nicest explanation.

    We are living in an era of an explosion of personal writing and documentation that is unprecedented in human history. Over a billion people are on Facebook, posting about their days, complete with pictures. Half a billion are on Twitter. There are tens of millions of blogs. And let’s throw Instagram and similar services into the mix. And of course there is email–which is indeed being saved, as recent news revelations about the NSA should reassure all of us.

    And before anyone sets up the strawman of comparing your aunt Edna’s Facebook updates (“Doubled the prune juice this morning–will let you all know how it works!”) to Mary Chestnut’s diary, let me point out how extremely atypical are the handful of historian’s favorite diaries. As every working historian has come to realize, for every Mary Chestnut or George Templeton Strong, there are a hundred surviving diaries of stoic Norwegian farmers or busy mill workers are that are considerably less than illuminating:

    November 2, 1863: Rained.
    Novermber 3, 1863: Rained
    November 5, 1863: Cow died.
    November 8, 1863: Didn’t rain.

    Far from having a paucity of information from which to work, future historians of our present era will have information sprayed at them with a firehose. Imagine if Thomas Jefferson had a Facebook page, commented on pages of his FB friends, tweeted (“Tip to fellow planters: Increase farm income w/ a nail factory manned by young slaves! #slavery #childlabor #Monticello”), and an Instagram (“Used the sepia filter for this pic of Sally on a bearskin rug. #naughty”). Plus all of his contemporaries FBing and tweeting about Jefferson! We would have vastly more information about the man.

    The real revolution in personal writing and documentation for our era, however, is the way that it will illuminate the lives of we peasants. Every fry cook at McDonald’s has a Facebook page.

    OK, I went back an reread the post before hitting submit–I am 99% sure Adleman is having us on. There is no other explanation for such a ridiculous post. Happy Father’s Day, Garry Adelman.

    • Katie Aldridge Jun 16, 2013 @ 10:05

      Good point, Larry, however, the presentation of public image cannot be relied upon for accuracy. Publicly, people present themselves very differently than what is kept in personal notes to self (i.e., memoirs & journals). The human inconsistencies, flip-flopping opinions, misconceptions, being swayed by media, personal value of mundane parts of life, etc., is genuine, Dr. Carp, and worthy of note.
      I, for one, am going to immediately take up keeping a journal again — as mundane as the life of a stay-at-home mom might be. My outlook on the world was changed when I found a collection of Civil War letters in my barn. The thoughts, and especially the inconsistencies, of the writer shed light on a perspective that I never would have found in a text book. I am not an historian, but I don’t think that is really the point.

      • Larry Cebula Jun 16, 2013 @ 11:47

        Remember though that in the 19th century diaries were generally understood as public documents, and were often read aloud to friends and family. Diaries were as much a crafted image as are Facebook walls today.

      • Larry Cebula Jun 16, 2013 @ 11:49

        Maybe today we actually producing too much information and should knock it the hell off?

    • Ray Ortensie Jun 17, 2013 @ 3:33

      The cow died! Who’s diary did you pull that from?!?! I’m doing a study on 19th-century Civil War bovine deaths and that would be a key primary source in my quest in the migration patterns of bovie deaths through the South….

      • Ken Noe Jun 17, 2013 @ 4:07

        I’m writing about Civil War era weather, and that rainy spell in November 1863 had a real effect on the preliminaries to the Mine Run campaign. Now if that guy wrote about drought and crop yields, I really want to see it when you’re done with it, Ray.

  • Nathan Towne Jun 16, 2013 @ 7:39


    Did you complete Guelzo’s study yet?

    Nathan Towne

    • Kevin Levin Jun 16, 2013 @ 8:08


  • Wallace Hettle Jun 16, 2013 @ 7:00

    Larry: I like your suggestion. Facebook will be a fascinating and problematic source. Problematic because most of us present fairly idealized versions of themselves: my kid made the honor roll, my cat is incredibly cute, we had a great time in Aruba..

    And if we can work out future technical compatibility issues, email can be great too. Future historians will have no shortage of documents to cover things like the meltdown of Enron. And Lord knows what the NSA has on their servers.

    These sources won’t be the same as the diary, and maybe not as revealing at times but as the world changes I suppose sources do as well.

  • Larry Cebula Jun 16, 2013 @ 6:26

    So who is going to tell Garry about Facebook?

    • Ben Allen Jun 29, 2013 @ 6:42

      Garry has a Facebook fanpage AND a regular one.

  • Benjamin Carp Jun 16, 2013 @ 5:58

    There are many good reasons to keep a journal, but being a historian is not one of them. A historian’s job is to take the voluminous evidence from the everyday lives of the past and distill it into an argument, evocation, and/or narrative with coherence, accuracy, and thoughtfulness. That is the opposite of what I would produce in a diary–in a diary I’d have malformed thoughts about current events that might easily change the next day; I’d have tentative thoughts about my writing that will look much better once I produce a final draft; I might be tempted to discuss mundane things like the weather but you know what? since I’m not an ER doctor with eight twelve-hour shifts in a month, I really am quite busy with other (more public) forms of writing. Honestly, historians of the future would have better evidence of my thoughts from the extreme amount of correspondence that I produce via e-mail, plus my google calendar (and they could probably get better weather data from elsewhere). I’d say a historian is uniquely ill-equipped to write a diary, and although I’ve met one or two historians who do keep diaries (and I’m sure they’ll be valuable someday), I don’t feel too guilty politely declining this call to arms. Historians studying the 21st century will probably not be lamenting a paucity of raw archival material, so long as we can keep our archives thriving.

    By the way my spouse does keep a diary, and she would be horrified at the thought of anyone reading it. If I came across the diary of a historian who deliberately kept a diary with posterity in mind, I might regard it with some skepticism as to its sincerity.

  • Jean Huets Jun 16, 2013 @ 5:17

    (Not that I keep a diary myself, but…) For me, the value of diaries is in the mundane observations: weather, relations with others, including employees, business transactions, even the moods of the diarist.

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