Archival diary as object: interpretation and critical analysis

Welcome to this lesson on critically analysing archival diaries for research.

The lesson outlines a number of considerations when researching archival diaries, encouraging researchers to critically analyse the diary as an object in itself, as well as its context and content.

Kirsten Mulrennan and Rachel Murphy, 'Opening a window to the past: Researching archival diaries', University of Limerick Special Collections and Archives Department website ( (Date accessed).

1. Context: diaries as archival artefacts

When researching any archival document, it is important to consider the physical item as a whole, and not just the content contained within it. It is an archivist’s job to archivist explore the ‘provenance’, or ownership history of a source, where it is known. For more on provenance and the archival process, see FAQ: Beginner’s Guide to Archival Research, especially in relation to the question ‘What happens to archives before a researcher sees them‘, or watch the video introduction to Special Collections and Archives. For a definition of diaries and a history of diary-writing, see related lesson on Diaries as historical sources.

The physical object often contains clues that point towards additional information about its history, beyond what information is written on it. In relation to diaries, this means analysing the whole of the diary from cover to cover, and not just the series of entries within it. What can such an analysis tell us?

The condition of the cover can give us clues as to how often the item was read or used, i.e. is the cover in good condition, or is it worn and torn? The cover may be faded if it was kept in sunlight, stained by mould, dirt or damp if kept in unfavourable conditions, or in relatively good condition if kept somewhere ‘safe’. Where a diary is kept can give researchers clues as to its perceived value by the author and/or subsequent readers.

Well-worn cover of P1/22 Diary of William Massey Blennerhassett

The condition of the internal pages tells us a lot about how the diary was used. If the pages are well-thumbed, this suggests it was consulted often, perhaps even after its entries were complete. Removed pages raise more questions than answers. Why were the pages removed? It could be that the author simply made a mistake, and removed the page from the diary. Was there something they wrote that they later did not want someone else to read? Or, was there something written in the diary that a subsequent reader did not want anyone else to read? We will never know! See the document analysis page for P32 Massy diary for an example of a missing diary page.

The type of handwriting gives us clues about the physical and emotional environment in which the diary was written. For example, the type of pen used can help date the item (i.e. fountain pen vs. ballpoint pen). Tear stains and/or unusually hurried or scrawled writing can point to the emotional state of the author – combined with the content of the diary entry, this can point to whether they were happy, sad, or even under the influence of alcohol at the time of writing! Read more about analysing handwriting in the related lesson on archival transcription.

Handwriting in P32 Diary of Henry William Massy

The context of the diary also holds additional clues. Is the diary part of a larger archival collection, or is it a standalone item? If a standalone item, is this because the author only wrote one diary, or did their other diaries not survive? If part of a collection, are there related records that can help date or corroborate the diary entries, i.e. corresponding letters or documents, press clippings or photographs? Combining information from a set of interrelated records can give the researcher additional insight that would not be possible by analysing one document in isolation. For example, a diary entry may provide insight into the author’s private reflections about a well-known public event captured in a newspaper, or about a letter they received from a loved one.

Covers of the three diaries examined in this resource


2. Purpose: author attidues and agendas

As the work of archivists and historians are so closely connected, it is also important to critically analyse historical sources from an historical perspective. For more on this, read related lesson on Diaries as historical sources. For more on critical thinking in archival research, watch the video introduction to Special Collections and Archives, read more about the archival process, and follow the links in the summary in Section 6, below.


Why was it written?

The intended purpose of any document influences its content. The word ‘diary’ can have different meanings to different people, and depending on the time period. A diary can be a ‘structured’ appointment book, i.e. a book with spaces allocated for each day or week in a year, in which to record work and/or personal tasks, meetings, appointments and events. A diary can also be written in an ‘unstructured’ journal, i.e. a blank book, where an author can document whatever they wish. Of course, authors may choose to record daily appointments while documenting their other daily experiences, and vice versa. The author’s attitude towards the record they are creating is important, as this tells us what the types of information they are likely to record. For more on author’s attitudes and motivations for writing, see related lesson on Diaries as historical sources.


Who was it written for?

The intended audience of a document also influences the type of information it is likely to contain, or omit. An author is likely to be more reserved when contributing to a record that they know will be made public, while a ‘private’ diary provides more freedom for an author to record details about their lives which they may choose not to share with others.

I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read on the train.

Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest (1895)

The content and level of detail of historic diaries is also determined by the time period in which they were written. While entries range from detailed to cursory depending on the personal preference of the author, historic diary-writing generally focuses on the author’s day-to-day life. Such diaries are not necessarily comparable to what’s known as ‘journaling’ today, i.e. writing in a journal or diary as a conscious act to clarify thoughts and feelings, and to relieve stress and anxiety. While historic diaries certainly capture the thoughts and feelings of the writer, sometimes the researcher must manage their expectations of what historical diaries are most likely to contain, and learn to ‘read between the lines’ to uncover hints and clues as to the author’s ‘true’ feelings.


The content of historic diaries varies greatly, depending on the document’s purpose, and it’s importance to the author


Relatability vs. reliability: privacy and self-representation

Archival records provide a very real connection with the past, real people who created real records that survive today. Sometimes, diaries and other personal records that survive are the only trace everyday people have left in history, particularly for women and other marginalised members of society. Such archival records provide snapshots of the past, of a certain time in a person’s life, one that they felt was worthy of documentation. While such personal records provide invaluable insights into ‘ordinary’ people’s lives, we must remember not to take any archival record at face value. All we know is what these voices of the past tell us, and we must remain mindful of all they do not or cannot tell us. For instance, diary-writing was largely a middle- and upper-class activity, as those in the working classes may have lacked both the education or the leisure time for such a hobby. If they did keep diaries, the records of the lower-classes are less likely to survive in archives today.

Moreover, as mentioned above, the content and level of detail of historic diaries is determined by the time periods in which they were written. While diary-writing was considered ‘fashionable’ in the 19th century, public attitudes towards privacy were also subject to change – by the mid-Victorian era, despite a flurry of published personal diaries, ‘more diary writers were insisting on the privacy of their writing’.1

It is important for researchers to remember that just because an author considered their diary to be ‘private’, this does not mean that they did not continue to censor or alter their entries, either because they were not being honest with themselves, or because they feared their diary would be read by another in the future, with or without their consent. With this in mind, it is important to maintain a critical mindset when analysing personal records.


Archives hold only those records that have survived – they are not and cannot accurately represent every record created in the past. In using archives, we must remember that we are viewing only a portion of the records created by a person or institution. We must always critically analyse the content and format of the record in front of us, while simultaneously analysing the broader context of the record’s creation, including how it came to survive, what related records do not survive and why, and what pieces of our narrative about the past are missing as a result. To read more about archival theory, consult the ‘further reading‘ section below.

3. Overview: formatting highlights from individual diaries

Each diary or set of diaries, contains a unique style of handwriting, formatting and ‘coding’ personal to the individual author. Click the images below to view a sample from each of the three diaries included in this resource.  Critically examine the formatting features unique to each record, and analyse more closely how individual authors use a range of formatting styles, abbreviations and ligatures,2 as well as drawings and other markings, to supplement the content in their diary entries.

Each diary sample opens in a new window.

P32 Massy diary: format analysis

This diary is a single-item collection, written by Magistrate Henry William Massy, Co Tipperary, between 17 February 1839 and 1 January 1842, and runs to over 130 pages.

Click here to read more about Henry William Massy.

P1/22 Blennerhassett diary: format analysis

This diary is one of many held in the Glin Collection. It was written by landowner William Massey Blennerhassett, Co Limerick, between January 1861 and December 1865, and runs to over 350 pages.

Click here to read more about William Massey Blennerhassett.

P6/1769 Jess Armstrong: format analysis

This diary is one of many held in the Armstrong Collection. It was written by Winona Rosalie ‘Jess’ Kemmis nee Armstrong, of Moyaliffe House, Co Tipperary, and Folkstone, England,3 between January and September 1914, and runs to over 150 pages.

Click here to read more about Jess Armstrong.

4. Format: clues from the text itself

As demonstrated by the sample document analyses in section 3, in addition to analysing the context and physical condition of the diary, researchers must consider the clues provided by format. It is not unusual for individual authors to use different types of formatting as a ‘code’ for their own reference, i.e. always using red ink when recording financial information, including drawings as visual cues, or using particular symbols or initials to refer to certain people or places, or to remind themselves of important information.

For more on the different types of common formatting in historic diaries, and how to analyse and transcribe them, see the related lesson on archival transcription.


Different coloured writing implements and handwriting styles

Seeing a different coloured ink or different hand in a diary raises a number of questions to consider:
Is the same author using multiple writing implements, or are there different authors? If there are multiple authors present, are these contemporaries of the original author, or subsequent readers who added notes to someone else’s diary? This can give us important clues about the custodial history of the diary, i.e. who cared for it between the time it was created, and the time it was donated to an archive. The above image from P1/22 Diary of William Massey Blennerhassett (Glin Collection) is a good example of many different authors evident on one page.

P1/22 pp 4-5: several notes made by the original author, with additions from others


Borders, underlines and emphasis

The author’s own emphasis of his or her handwriting speaks volumes – it tells us, very clearly, what they information they considered worthy of highlighting. Examples from the diaries in this resource include a black square border around local funerals or deaths recorded in P1/22 Diary of William Massey Blennerhassett (Glin Collection).

P1/22 pp24-25: a note made by [a subsequent?] author in green ink, beside author’s own black border used to note local deaths and funerals

Drawings and doodles

While not always present, drawings and doodles by an author provide interesting visual representations of the author’s daily experiences, and help provide insight into what was to the forefront of their mind at the time. These can be especially relatable from a human perspective, and often contain additional insights about the author’s world that are not captured in their words alone, i.e. Blennerhassett’s drawings of his daily outings depict the dress of the upper-classes in 1860s Ireland (see image gallery below from P1/22 Diary of William Massey Blennerhassett (Glin Collection).

Drawings and doodles can also capture incidental information which may not otherwise have been captured – Blennerhassett’s diary uses doodles as a type of ‘quick reference guide’ in the margin, recording details such as the days his bay horse was sick, or his chestnut horse was shod, or the hobbies of his peers, details that are not reflected in the corresponding text. Lastly, drawings in diaries are evidence of the time and effort an author put into their diary, giving us some insight into the importance they placed on the document, and the pride they took in keeping nicely presented and illustrated accounts of their daily lives.


5. Incidental references: contextual clues for social history

Diaries are wonderful sources of incidental evidence – those passing pieces of information that provide small snapshots of daily life in past generations. As such, diaries are important sources for social history. For more on what kinds of topics historians research using diaries, see related lesson on Diaries as historical sources.

Outlined below are examples of the richness of incidental information contained in the three diaries included in this resource:


Contemporary social norms

Printed diaries often contain a number of informational pages at the beginning of each volume, which give researchers valuable insight into what types of information and products were deemed most important to people of the time. Jess Armstrong’s diary from 1914 is a ‘Home Diary and Ladies’ Note Book’, published annually by Boots Cash Chemists, and as such, contains a wealth of information for the efficient running of a home at the turn of the 20th century,4 including: postal regulations; telegram charges; legal obligations in relation to the care of servants; ‘household’, ‘family’ and ‘sick room’ information, including how to fight infectious diseases, cure infant ailments and treat cases of poisoning; how to make a will (using a pre-prepared template supplied by Boots; lists of general abbreviations; and a ‘ready reckoner’ for converting pence (d) to pounds, shillings and pence (£, s, d).

click on any image below to enlarge


Local and global events from a personal perspective

The lived experiences contained in archival diaries are priceless, providing snippets of past ways of living, and of the thoughts, hobbies, occupations, hopes and fears of past generations. Another wonderful feature of personal archives such as diaries is reading them through a modern lens, giving the researcher the benefit of hindsight, so that in some circumstances, they know more about the event or person being described than the author at the time of writing. Such first-hand or primary accounts give researchers a fresh perspective, through the eyes of someone living through life-changing events. In capturing everything from the weather and personal finance, to local and global events, archival diaries really do record, as Massy describes:

‘the adventures of my ordinary life.’

Concerned with the running of his farm, as well as his many hobbies and visitors, Blennerhassett’s diaries contain a daily weather report for the area around Rathkeale, Co Limerick 1861–1897. Incidental information such as this rarely survives elsewhere, at least not in such a concise format, and without, say, having to survey a run of local newspapers for weather forecasts, if they survive.

Personal finances
A common hobby of historical diarists was to document their income and expenditure, which, luckily for us, provides great insight into contemporary currencies, wealth and perceived worth, as well as what middle- to upper-class Irish people in the 19th and early 20th centuries were spending their money on! Massy includes one such account in his diary – outlining his personal expenses, law expenses (as a Magistrate), as well as a yearly allowance paid to his mother.

click on any image below to enlarge

Local events
Learning more about how past generations spent their time and money builds a richer worldview of a particular period, a multiplicity of perspective of massive benefit to today’s researchers. Such information heightens our ability to relate and empathise with the people of the past, and to highlight that although we may be separated by hundreds of years, we are not so different from those who have lived before us, who like us, enjoyed meeting with friends, seeking out entertainment, and keeping their spare time occupied with a variety of activites (depending on societal class). While there may be records of a local or community event taking place, personal archives can tell us what the people of time felt about these events; if they enjoyed them; how popular such events were; who they met there and so on. For example, Blennerhassett helpfully includes a drawing of the Kilkee races, Co Clare, held on 20 September 1861, when he described the weather as ‘storm rain’, and where he met ‘Mr Wilson + [Midge] Wall’. Likewise, Jess Armstrong includes a number of press clippings from local newspapers, documenting local engagements and other events of note to her personally, including an account of the dresses of Lady de Houghton and her daughters at the Debutante’s ball at Buckingham Palace in March 1914.


P1/22, page 37: a day at the Kilkee Races, Co Clare

Historical figures
Just as they record encounters with the people they met in the course of their daily activities, the creators of personal archives can occasionally give us a different perspective on historical figures, for example from religious or political backgrounds, who may have circulated in the same society or professional groups at the same time as the author. Massy’s contemporaries included several well-known figures. When he attended a meeting at the Corn Exchange, Dublin, to ‘advocate the introduction of railroads in Ireland’, he recorded that the meeting was was attended by ‘great men’, such as the Archbishop of Dublin, the Duke of Leinster, the Earl of Charlemont and William Henry Grattan. His entries provide an alternative commentary on various meetings he attended in his official capacity as Magistrate. For example, following an exhibition and concert at the Rotunda, Dublin, in April 1841, where he saw the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, he was more concerned with noting in his diary that only that one female guest, Miss McGrath Gogerty from Co Tipperary, was ‘small but exceedingly pretty’. Likewise, after his attendance at a meeting of Poor Law Guardians in October 1841, he remarked that among the attendees were ‘a few men of intelligence and a number of the most ignorant old brutes I ever met’.

Global events
As mentioned above, with the modern researcher’s benefit of hindsight, it can be especially chilling to read the unfolding of life-changing world events from someone who has lived through it. Testament to Jess Armstrong’s presence of mind, and with a sense that the world was going through a time of great change, she dutifully describes the outbreak of Word War I in her diary, at first noting her male relatives’ excitement to go to war, and later, recounting ongoing battles and recording the numbers of those killed, wounded or missing, as reported in the media, as well as the fate of men known to her and her family (see image below).


P6/1769 p75: Jess Armstrong records those killed, wounded or missing in September 1914


Lost or forgotten histories

Blennerhassett’s diary refers to Cloughnarold (or Cloughanarold) House, near Rathkeale, Co Limerick, where he lived and farmed. This house is mentioned in a number of online obituaries from the Massy and Fitzgerald families in the 1800s, and as the residence of Magistrate James Fitzgerald Massy Esq in 1847.5 The house is now derelict, included on the Landed Estates Database. Blennerhassett’s doodle of his homestead maybe the only surviving visual representation left of the dwelling in its prime.



Following leads contained in incidental information

In order to extract the largest amount of information from any archival source, any and all incidental references to third parties, locations, events and institutions mentioned should be followed up – these can easily be traced in records from around the same time, and allow us to find out even more about the creator(s) and their world. The following is an example of the types of sources that can be used in conjunction with other archival records, to triangulate evidence, check spelling and provide additional contextual information. For more on contextual and background research see related lesson on archival transcription and the archival research journey.

Samples of sources for contextual research:



UL students have access to a variety of genealogical and biographical databases through the Library website. Make sure to log in through the Library homepage, then navigate to Explore Collections > Databases A-Z to find the relevant source, i.e., the Irish Newspaper Archive, the Irish Times Newspaper Archives and the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

6. Recap: critical thinking in archival research

Critical thinking is a vital skill for archival and historical research, and is a key theme throughout this resource.

This lesson has outlined the importance of critically analysing the content, context and format of every archival record you consult. For more on critical thinking and the analysis of historical evidence, see also:


7. Further reading and resources


Archives and archival research

  • Watch the video introduction (20 mins) to the Special Collections and Archives Department at UL
  • Watch archivist Dr Kirsten Mulrennan outline the work of an archivist and the department in her UL Talks video (5 mins)
  • See our list of Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) in relation to archives and archival research.
  • For a list of useful resources relating to archives and archival research, please see our A–Z of online resources. This list is continuously updated.


Archival theory and the history of the archive


Diaries as sources for the historian

  • Dekker, R., Egodocuments and history : autobiographical writing in its social context since the Middle Ages (Hilversum, 2002).
  • Hämmerle, Christa, ‘Diaries’ in Miriam Dobson and Benjamin Zieman, Reading Primary Sources: The Interpretation of Texts from Nineteenth and Twentieth Century History (2nd edn., Abingdon, 2020).
  • Lejeune, Philippe, On Diary (Hawai’i, 2009).
  • Vivian, Frances (ed.), Letts keep a diary – A history of diary keeping in Great Britain from 16th–20th century (London, 1987).


Academic articles and chapters based on diaries

  • Breathnach, Ciara, ‘Professional patienthood and mortality: Seán Ó Ríordáin’s diaries 1974–1977’ in Medical Humanities, 42:2 (2016) pp 1–5 (doi:10.1136/medhum-2015-010828).
  • Breathnach, Ciara, ‘Heavier the interval than the consummation:’ bronchial disease in Seán Ó Ríordáin’s diaries’ in Medical Humanities 40:1 (2014), pp 11–16 (doi:10.1136/medhum-2013-010386).
  • Carter, Kathryn, ‘The Cultural Work of Diaries in Mid-Century Victorian Britain’, Victorian Review 23, 2 (1997), pp. 251–267.
  • Eckerle, Julie A. and Naomi MAreavey, Women’s Life Writing and Early Modern Ireland (Nebraska, 2019).
  • Murphy, Rachel, ‘Lady Charlotte Stopford: A lady of leisure?’ in Leeann Lane and William Murphy, Leisure and the Irish in the Nineteenth Century (Liverpool, 2016), pp 226–244.
  • Pelger, Erin Kennedy, ‘Lives through the looking glass: The diaries of three nineteenth-century American women’ (1999). Graduate Student Theses, Dissertations, & Professional Papers, University of Montana.
  • Sanderson, M. G., ‘Daily weather in Dublin 1716–1734: the diary of Isaac Butler in Weather 2018–06, Vol.73 (6), pp 179–182.


Published diaries / extracts from diaries

  • Bhaldraithe, Tomás, The Diary of an Irish Countryman 1827-1835 (Cork, 1979)
  • Cullen, Clara, The World Upturning –  Elsie Henry’s Irish Wartime Diaries, 1913–1919 (Dublin, 2012).
  • Lenox-Conyngham, Melosina (ed.), Diaries of Ireland, An Anthology 15901987 (Dublin, 2009).
  • LeFanu, William, Betsy Sheridan’s Journal – Letters from Sheridan’s Sister (Oxford, 1986).
  • Legg, Marie-Louise (ed.), The Diary of Nicholas Peacock, 174051 (Dublin, 2005).
  • Léoutre, Marie, Jane McKee, Jean-Paul Pittion and Amy Prendergast, The diary (16891719) and accounts (17041717) of Élie Bouhéreau (Dublin, 2019).
  • MacDermott, Brian (ed.), The Irish Catholic petition of 1805: the diary of Denys Scully (Dublin, 1992).
  • Thomson, David with Moyra McGusty (eds)., The Irish Journals of Elizabeth Smith, 1840–1850 (Oxford, 1980).
  • O’Malley, Cormac K.H. and Róisín Kennedy, ‘Nobody’s Business’: The Arran Diaries of Ernie O’Malley (Dublin, 2017).
  • Phil, Lis (ed.), Signe Toksvig’s Irish Diaries 1926–1937 (Dublin, 1994).
  • The Gladstone Diaries 1825–1896, is available in thirteen volumes plus and index edited by M.R.D. Foot (Vols I and II) and H.C.G. Matthew (Vols III–XIV).


Online diaries

  1. Kathryn Carter, ‘The Cultural Work of Diaries in Mid-Century Victorian Britain’, Victorian Review 23, 2 (1997), p. 251.[]
  2. In handwriting, a ligature occurs when two or more letters are joined together in a single symbol, i.e. ‘et’, Latin for ‘and’, is commonly shortened to the ampersand symbol ‘&’.[]
  3. As this author was unmarried at the time the journal was written, she is referred to as Jess Armstrong throughout this resource.[]
  4. See also Boots online archive.[]
  5. The Dublin almanac, and general register of Ireland, for 1847.[]