Printed Items

How to

Examine letters and diaries


Read between the lines.


Early printed materials and manuscripts hold tantalizing clues and valuable primary-source facts. This is such a wide-ranging topic that we have arbitrarily limited ourselves to personal papers and manuscripts. See your library for help with other printed items.

Historical investigators love to work with letters and diaries. These are primary sources that come straight from the heart, generally free of evasions. After all, few writers expected us to be reading their personal mail or journals.

Both journals and letters offer valuable, exciting (and occasionally challenging) opportunities to see directly into the past.

However, as with all historical records, you will need to evaluate authenticity and be aware of possible tampering or deliberate omissions. It's easy to become emotionally attached to the writer, so be on the lookout for bias and motivation.

Diaries & Journals

These are not your basic little pink books filled with the longings of prepubescents. Men wrote the vast majority of historical diaries and journals (consider the journals of Lewis and Clark). It wasn't until the 1800s that journal writing became a popular practice among women.


Until the advent of telegraph and telephone, letters were the primary form of long-distance communication. Instruction in letter writing was part of a proper education.

Despite their ephemeral nature, vast numbers of early American letters still exist. Because a letter is written to a specific "other" party, it tends to reveal less than a diary.

Although every letter has interesting elements, to be historically useful a collection of letters is generally required.

Finding a Subject

You don't have to own an original document to conduct a manuscript investigation. The Internet has brought thousands of manuscripts within your reach.

Perhaps you will want to explore writings from a particular period of history, or letters authored by a personal hero. You can even search online for family manuscripts.

For basic instruction about accessing materials in one of the world's largest online manuscript collections, visit Finding Items in American Memory Collections at the Library of Congress Web site.

History Detectives Tips

  • If you're having trouble reading a manuscript, focus on individual letters in words you know, and compare with indecipherable letters.
  • Look up unfamiliar words in the Oxford English Dictionary, which includes archaic and obscure words that you might find in manuscripts.
  • When a document seems difficult to understand, leave it alone for a while. Let your mind work on problems while you do something else.
  • If writing seems "wrong," ask someone with no pre-conceived notions to look at the manuscript. Fresh eyes can see more clearly.

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