There were moments in preparing this exhibition when 2002 seemed ‘the year of the diary’.

January opened with The Age carrying Michael Leunig’s car- toon series ‘Summer Diary’, while The Australian launched a year-long series of wartime diary extracts tracking the events of 1942. Elsewhere in the press, the diary as a device around which to structure a story was as popular as ever, be it asylum seekers, nurses or celebrities. The year’s first issue of Meanjin carried Helen Garner’s admission about her 1977 novel Monkey Grip: ‘I might as well come clean. I did publish my diary’. Publishers’ enthusiasm for diaries remained strong, both as authentic historical documents and works of fiction. Melbourne University Press released Professor Ron Ridley’s edition of the diary of one of our former Vice-Chancellors, Raymond Priestley, and the children’s publisher Scholastic released the first of its ‘My Story’ series of fictional historical diaries, Anita Heiss’s Who am I? The Diary of Mary Talence, Sydney 1937.

The phenomenon was hardly restricted to publishing, however. In April the local cinema screened Paul Cox’s latest film, The Diaries of Vaslav Nijinsky and in the same month came news of a BBC crew working on converting The Diary of a Welsh Swagman into a documentary.

This is fortuitous background. The curator’s interest in diary originated in work on the C. E.W. Bean papers and diaries at the Australian War Memorial. Stimulated since by the occa- sional reference in the professional archival literature, it was rekindled via a University of Melbourne Archives project coordinated by Fay Anderson in 2001. This was a ‘History in the Field’ project undertaken by two third year history students, Kate Leihy and Agata Kula, to list and assess a selection from the hundreds of diaries in the University Archives.

This exhibition, ‘Inscribing the Daily’, aims to introduce a selection of diaries and related material from the University’s library, archives and Grainger Museum collections, while also acknowledging the wealth of other collections. Through this selection, we plan to highlight the diary as a social and publish- ing phenomenon, an important resource for historical research and literary inspiration, and a legitimate object for study in its own right.

Woven through the exhibition’s dozen or so mini themes is the enduring question of motives and audiences. It is rare for diarists to explain — to themselves, to us — what motivates them to write. But whatever triggers them, it can become a duty. It can also be, to use Katie Holmes’ phrase, ‘an itch to record’, and as she reveals about certain Australian women in the 1920s and 1930s, much more as well. Indeed she and others systematically analysing the phenomenon have had little diffi- culty in establishing clear patterns of motivation. Thomas Mallon provides one of the best known explanations, identify- ing seven types of diary writers: chroniclers, travellers, pil- grims, creators, apologists, confessors and prisoners.1 Most scholars have been more specialised, looking at a specific gen- der and time span, such as women diarists as noted above, or soldiers or 19th century travellers to Australia.2 Others have  ocussed on one set of motivations, for example linking diary writing to strong psychological motivations and a sense of identity, such as archivist Sue McKemmish’s notion of ‘evi- dence of me’ and Anthony Giddens’ ‘narrative of the self’. Interestingly, in the past 20 years, the diary as journal of inner feelings and self-identity has also become popular with spiritual advisers and grief and trauma counsellors.

One should not overlook more practical explanations of course. The diary as ‘log book’ has a myriad contemporary and histori- cal illustrations, reflecting established scientific, professional, law enforcement, and military requirements or practice. And whether on land, ice or sea, the explorer was also recorder of diary and journal, a chart maker and scientific observer and forthcoming author. The diary which doubled as a note book, sketch book or ‘commonplace book’ also had fairly immediate uses for writers, painters and autobiographers. The diaries of the renowned war correspondent and war historian of Australia in the First World War, Dr C. E. W. Bean certainly were written for immediate self-reference.3 Timothy Garton Ash illustrates another variation of the diary being used for the author’s own reference, enabling him to cross check his own account of life in East Germany with the voluminous dossier kept on him during the same period by the Stasi.4

Whatever the reasons motivating diarists to daily toil, usually the result is intended at least in the short term exclusively for the author’s reference. Hence the care taken with storage away from prying eyes, with the writing (at times with symbols or abbreviations) and with the diary’s ultimate fate via instruc- tions to one’s executors. With libraries and archives, this pattern is reversed. A single motive drives them — to collect and preserve historical evidences, with minimal or better still no access conditions, for the use of historians, biographers, journalists and others researching the past.

These are generalisations of course. In fact those who have examined diaries systematically have concluded that subcon- sciously all diarists are writing for an audience, if not immedi- ately, then for an eventual posterity. ‘Ever within the breasts of all diarists’, wrote A. A. Milne, there is ‘the hope that their diaries may some day be revealed to the world’.5 Here the core motive for writing the diary can identify the intended audience, with soldiers, sports stars, travellers and politicians well repre- sented among those happy to share quite early their daily observations and thoughts.

Now, with personal websites able to broadcast the images and sounds and words of one’s diary instantaneously, we have the ultimate deliberate and unselfconscious diarist, producing real time continuous reportage of the life as lived. The phenomenon started by Jennifer Ringley of Jennicam fame recalls the words of Christopher Isherwood’s 1930s Berlin diary, ‘I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking’.6

The subject of diaries is vast, as is the scholarship about (and based on) them. We claim no expertise, just a place in the front stalls.


  1. See A Book of one’s Own: people and their diaries (Ticknor and Fields, 1984). Anthologists too have their categories, though usually stressing diversity. See for instance Alan and Irene Taylor, editors, The Assassin’s Cloak: an anthology of the world’s greatest diarists (Canongate Books, 2000).
  2. Such categories represent the interests of the key Australian schol- ars; see, for example Katie Holmes, Spaces in her day: Australian Women’s Diaries of the 1920s and 1930s (Allen and Unwin, 1995), Andrew Hassam, Sailing to Australia: shipboard diaries by nineteenth-century British emigrants (MUP, 1995), and Bill Gammage, The Broken Years: Australian Soldiers in the Great War (Penguin, 1975). It need hardly be said that editing a single diary for publication can also require deep scholarship.
  3. See Gallipoli Correspondent; the frontline diary of C. E. W. Bean selected and annotated by Kevin Fewster (George Allen and Unwin, 1983).
  4. Ash describes the results of this cross matching in The File (HarperCollins, 1997).
  5. A. A. Milne, ‘The diary habit’, in Not That it Matters (tenth edition, Methuen, 1933), p. 105.
  6. Christopher Isherwood, ‘A Berlin Diary August 1930’, in Goodbye to Berlin (Penguin, 1945), p. 7.