Diaries, Archives and ‘Value’

Last night, I stumbled upon a wonderful Radio 4 programme called ‘The Man Who Saves Life Stories’. This was about the ‘diary rescuer’ Irving Finkel and his attempt to find a home for his manuscript diary collection (Update: this is now available on youtube and is as delightful the second time around). One word which kept recurring throughout the programme was ‘value’; various participants talked about the value of diaries to archivists, historians or book dealers, and this was distinct from the ‘value’ of the diaries in themselves.

Irving talked about the case of a friend – a dealer in odds and ends – who tried to sell a lifetime of diaries of one man (a man called Godfrey) to a museum. He explained that the museum was only interested in the volumes that concerned the world wars and this meant that the collection, spanning decades, would have been split up and ‘less interesting volumes’ perhaps thrown away. This chimed with my experience of researching Frank Forster’s diaries, which are split across two repositories (that we know about; I refuse – because it would make me cry – to think about if some diaries may have been thrown away because the period or events depicted were not considered significant). The diaries spanning from 1939-1944 are kept by the Department of Documents at the Imperial War Museum, while diaries dating from 1934 to 1938 are at the Modern Records Centre at the University of Warwick.

Apart from the fact that some of these diaries happen to have been produced during the Second World War, there is no intrinsic reason why these diaries should have been split up. They are written by the same man, deal with similar issues and the first volume at the IWM starts a short period after the last at the MRC concludes. There is no natural break between them in terms of Forster’s life; the break is an external one, the fact that war is on the immediate horizon. The diaries were therefore thought of as having ‘value’ by an archive that, quite understandably, concentrates on war experience.

The IWM finding aid, however, is very revealing about the supposed ‘value’ of Forster’s diaries. Neither the IWM nor the MRC catalogue explain the whereabouts of the other diaries – I found the IWM diaries in a Google search – but there is a reference to other diaries in the summary:

The ten diaries not held by this Museum concentrate on Forster’s disillusion with the Capitalist system and his support for the Republicans during the Spanish Civil War (1936). They are quite turgid and dull, and reflect the hopelessness of his situation … In contrast the eight diaries catalogued here are more palatable, although still weighed down by ponderous views on Communism and society. (Private papers of F P Forster, Imperial War Museum, 88/37/1)

This is very problematic. The other diaries are roundly dismissed as ‘turgid and dull’, not only because they do not deal with war, but in their style and content. The cataloguer (writing in the mid-1990s) also laments that the IWM diaries have a significant gap between November 1939 and December 1942 and ‘[u]nfortunately the main events of the Blitz on England occurred within these dates’. Even Forster’s war diaries, then, have limited value for the cataloguer, because they do not cover the larger events that they are most interested in.

This is not to criticise the IWM, which is one of the best archives I have ever visited and still the only archive to have sent me an actual proper letter (from the Head Keeper himself) to say thank you for an offprint and to wish me well in my doctoral studies. Rather it is to talk about the various value judgements about personal documents made by a whole chain of people before they get anywhere near the historian, who then gets to make a whole set of value judgements of his or her own: the relative or friend who helps clear out a house; the dealer in ephemera who tries to find a buyer; the archivist who scans lists of items in search of something that fits their remit. As Irving Finkel says, these are frail documents, frail because there are so many stages at which they can be dismissed as having little or no value.

Forster actually had his own ideas about the possible value of his diaries and, actually, the more I ponder them, the more I think that they are not as far removed from those of the IWM archivist as I initially thought:

The more I think of the idea the more I like the sound of it- I mean that of keeping a diary as an account of the life and happenings in the Army when I am called up – I am now very  expert as a diarist and with the stuff which will be recorded having a direct bearing on events which loom so large in the eyes of people, all this will go to making the diary a thing of value – its publication will be an event. (IWM 88/37/1, 22.10.39)

For Forster, the value of the diaries is connected to ‘events which loom so large in the eyes of people’, in this case the war. But, of course, the ‘eyes of people’ change. Historians are not as interested in ‘events’ as much as they once were, but more in the very creation of self, the self that considers that he is ‘now very expert as a diarist’. Finkel articulated it very well when he said that nobody can anticipate what people will find ‘valuable’ several decades hence. And archivists, too, have changed, as Stef Dickers of the Bishopsgate Institute, which is going to give a home to Irving Finkel’s collection, showed.

Dickers ended the programme with a rousing call to arms: ‘Let’s rock!’

I, for one, can hardly wait.

UPDATE: Irving Finkel is giving a talk about the Great Diary Project at the Bishopsgate Institute on November 10th for the Public History discussion group. More details here: http://oralhistorynoticeboard.wordpress.com/2012/09/24/the-public-history-discussion-group-2012-2013-bishopsgate-institute-london/

For more on Irving Finkel’s collection see: http://www.thegreatdiaryproject.co.uk/public_html/

The Bishopsgate Institute can be found here: http://www.bishopsgate.org.uk/

For more by me on Frank Forster’s diaries see : http://hwj.oxfordjournals.org/content/69/1/90.abstract (this is behind a paywall; please contact me if you do not have access but would like to read it)

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6 Responses to Diaries, Archives and ‘Value’

  1. Good for you! Come and see me! Irving

  2. Hilda Kean says:

    Cath The problem you highlight is, unfortunately , a common one! Pleased to say that having heard the programme I had already contacted Irving Finkel who has agreed to come and speak to the Public History group this Autumn that regularly meets at the Bishopsgate Institute. Details on my website in due course!

    Hilda Kean

  3. Pingback: ‘The greatly varied procession of phenomena’: reflecting on history and the everyday | misplacedhabits

  4. Pingback: Probably there are many different explanations as to what love really is … | misplacedhabits

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