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Understanding Common Record Types: Diaries

Guide to understanding common types of archive documents: abstracts of title, accounts, annual reports, charters & letters patent, constitutions, diaries, household books, land deeds, letters, manorial records, maps & plans, minutes, photographs, & wills.

“What an odd thing a diary is: the things you omit are more important than those you put in”

Simone de Beauvoir, The Woman Destroyed 

Introduction to diaries and personal accounts

Personal record of everyday and out of the ordinary events and thoughts experienced by an individual.

Why they were created

To record personal thoughts, reflections and opinions for ones own benefit, not usually for an intended audience.

Who might have created them

Anyone might create a diary, and diaries of ordinary and working class individuals do survive (usually post-industrial revolution). However, it is more common to find diaries of authors, MPs and notable public and civic figures. It is also common to find diaries kept by educated and literate women and men (usually of gentry status and above).

Where you might find them

Usually found with other personal records, such as letters and photographs. Commonly found in the following collections:

  • Landed families
  • Estates
  • MPs and politicians
  • Writers and poets
  • Notable individuals

Period from which they most commonly survive

Diaries do survive from the early modern period, however, they are more commonly found from the 18th century onwards, and are proliferate in the 20th century.

Key features

Physical features

  • Various formats, including: bound volumes of loose manuscript entries; notebooks containing manuscript entries; appointment dairies with annotations and comments; bundles of loose or bound typescript entries; drafts for publication; published editions
  • Earlier examples are usually manuscript written in ink or pencil
  • Post-19th century examples might by typescript

Informational content

  • Date of entry, often including the day of the week and sometimes the time of day
  • Details of journeys or visits
  • Names of persons visited or met with
  • Overview of diarist's day
  • Note of and opinions on significant current political affairs or cultural events
  • Weather and temperature conditions
  • Diarist's feelings, worries and concerns
  • News and gossip relating to friends and family members
  • Diarist's health and that of their friends and family
  • Food eaten and restaurants visited


Extract from the diary of Mary Barbara Chichester, 1822

U DDSY-102-2

Extract from the diary of Richard Sykes, Esquire, 1756

U DHD/2/1

Extract from the diary of Mrs Charles Howard, 1806

U DPL2/1/2/7

Extract from the diary of Philip Larkin, written whilst studying at Oxford University, 1936-1937

Note on critical analysis

Things to consider:

  • Most people who keep a diary do so for personal use only, with the intended audience being no one other than the writer, they may therefore include statements that they would not make in public
  • Some writers of diaries, particularly those in the public eye, may begin a diary with the intention of eventually publishing it as an official autobiography, therefore particular details may be omitted and particular self-representations made
  • Some writers make detailed descriptive entries, whilst others might only jot down meeting times and the odd name, the same writer may even switch between the two styles within one diary making such records incomplete as factual evidence
  • Diaries can be written in real time, however, entries are sometimes back-dated when the writer gets time, bringing questions of memory and accuracy of record into play

Potential research uses

Diaries can be useful when undertaking research into the following areas:

  • Everyday experience of life
  • Biographies of individuals
  • Individuals' opinions on key historic events and political issues
  • Connections and interactions between individuals within a given public sphere, political group, society, area of study, etc.
  • Construction of personal narrative, identity and representation of self
  • Travel and The Grand Tour
  • Women’s interests and experiences
  • Personal psychologies

Specialist skills and knowledge

Further reading in the following areas will help researchers when using these sources:

  • Secretary script - 17th century diaries may be written using Secretary hand
  • Italic and mixed Secretary/Italic script - post 17th century diaries are usually written in mixed hands, whilst from the 19th century it is common to find diaries written in Italic hand
  • Key figures in the life of the individual diarist to be read
  • Key contextual details and events of the period in which a diary was written

Resources at Hull History Centre

Search for further examples of diaries using our online catalogue. Try using search terms such as diary, journal, personal account, etc.

Alternatively, if you prefer to browse, the file below contains a list of diaries held at Hull History Centre. Please note that this list is not comprehensive, but represents key examples of the document type.

Further help

The following secondary literature explores the historical development of diaries, their nature and potential research uses: