A Pocket-Size Time Machine

Sally MacNamara Ivey has read more than 10,000 unpublished journals. She’s on a mission to save them all.

A photograph of an old diary with cursive writing on top of a blurred photo of a woman sitting in a house
Sally MacNamara Ivey; Getty; The Atlantic

Between the two of us, my father and I have more than 50 diaries. Mine are a wealth of embarrassments: elementary-school poems that rhyme first base with corn flakes, a photo of an ex–best friend with the edges burned in some teenage rage, gushing during college about first love and infidelity, and more recently, a list of baby names that I’m relieved were never chosen. (Was I really considering Amapola?) My father’s diaries, which date back to the 1960s, are a mash-up of half-finished watercolors, to-do lists, and reflections on addiction. As humiliating and incoherent as most of these diaries are, I cannot part with them. And so they sit there, stacked in banker’s boxes in my childhood attic, collecting dust and rat poop.

My diary collection is dwarfed by Sally MacNamara Ivey’s. She has read more than 10,000 unpublished diaries and spent 35 years collecting them. She keeps nearly 1,000 in her Washington State home. With her blue-rimmed librarian glasses and wavy golden hair, she’s part archivist and part romantic, on a mission to sort, catalog, and find a forever home for all of her diaries. They’re tucked away in plastic bins in each of her closets, stacked on nightstands, and stored securely in six-foot-tall, 1,000-pound safes in her garage. “If someone robs me,” she told me, “they’re going to be very disappointed.”

Whenever MacNamara Ivey has had pocket change, it’s gone to purchasing diaries. Back in the late ’90s, when she and her husband were raising four kids with the money she brought in waiting tables and he made working at the local mill, she bought a diary on layaway for $500 (about $900 today). It was written by a woman who attended the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. In exquisite detail, the author described the exotic events, including the devastating fire that erupted in a cold-storage building nicknamed the “Greatest Refrigerator on Earth” and the wonders of this new thing called electricity.

June 8, 1893: As dusk came on we obtained seats in front of the Administration Building and watched the surrounding buildings being lit with rows of incandescent lamps, and the dome of the Administration with its beautiful crown of electric lights. The fountains were illuminated by changing colored lights, and the Search Lights sending out their great arms of light, crossing and recrossing each other, were truly wonderful. These great rays seemed more supernatural than anything else at the Fair.

I’d always assumed that, because I was an ordinary, non–World’s Fair attending person, my journals were destined for the trash when I died or couldn’t store them anymore. But to some people, all diaries are treasures, especially the ordinary ones—not just because they are physical pieces of history, but for the same intangible reasons that I’ve been hanging on to my dad’s.

Until the 1970s, the value of ordinary people’s journals was often overlooked in Europe and North America. “They were seen as sentimental, parochial, and female,” Polly North, a diary scholar, told me. Though writing and reading diaries for pleasure were common throughout the 20th century, academics had traditionally focused on studying material from the powerful or famous. Starting in the ’60s, historians began to push for an understanding of history “from below.” Letters, oral histories, and diaries all became more common and attractive sources. As counter-histories have become fashionable, North said, the very things that used to be considered flaws of journal writing are now seen as its virtues.

To scholars, diaries are visceral firsthand accounts of history. Sure, you can gain some understanding of World War II through a textbook, but such descriptions will always be abstract compared with the in situ writing of, say, Mary Rowlands, a British teenager who recorded her time inside a bomb shelter. North has a copy of her unpublished diaries and letters, in which Rowlands describes her parents giving her cigarettes to keep her calm.

People will pay good money for some of these reflections. Starting in the late ’90s, MacNamara Ivey began selling diaries on eBay to collectors, institutions, and museums. Her most lucrative sales: a diary from a 1912 Machu Picchu visitor and one by an 1868 Missouri River traveler, which went for about $9,000 each.

Most diaries for sale online or in auction houses in America were written by a small segment of society; after all, writing and preserving a journal requires education, time, and money. When Angela Hooks began studying diary as literature a decade ago, she did not see herself in any public collection. “Pretty much every diary that was referenced was white and British,” Hooks, who is Black, told me. Historically, she said, Black people’s diaries have been disregarded, neglected, and occasionally destroyed by malice. This is especially true for Black women’s diaries, of which only about a dozen in the public record were written before 1900. (One of them was published in The Atlantic in 1864.)

Still, Hooks has found unpublished diaries by Black writers dating back centuries, as well as one her own grandmother wrote in the 1880s. “It was amazing to see my grandmother’s handwriting,” Hooks said. Although Hooks wasn’t able to preserve that diary, she has stored and labeled each of her own—more than 80 in total. She told me that her writing “narrates the pain and sorrow, the joys and victories, the hopes and dreams of a Black woman’s life.” Hooks, like many diarists, uses writing to vent, understand herself, and grow. And research backs journaling as a tool for alleviating anxiety and handling stress.

Whereas the emotional benefits of writing in a diary have been long established, what we might gain by reading other people’s diaries is just now being discovered. In 2019, the cultural psychologist Joshua Conrad Jackson ran an experiment in which he shared journal entries between Pakistanis and Americans. After merely a week of the exchange, Americans who read Pakistani entries and Pakistanis who read American ones felt closer to one another, and held fewer negative stereotypes about the other group. The power, Jackson told me, comes from how quotidian diaries are. Unlike posts on social media, which people are almost always writing to get attention, journal entries are usually private affairs. They’re not written to provoke outrage or elicit a response. “They’re such an invaluable research tool because they give us access to the naturalistic thoughts of so many people,” Jackson said.

That power to connect is exactly what keeps diary collectors hooked. There’s an intimacy that comes with studying the distinct penmanship of another person, seeing the exact date or time they jotted down their words, and discovering what was going through their mind at that very moment. When I read my own father’s diaries, the rawness makes me cringe, cry, and laugh. It peels back the layers to reveal just how similar we really are.

In 2008, MacNamara Ivey’s husband was killed in a construction accident. In her grief, she decided to escape by reading a random diary. But instead of getting lost in some exotic land, she found herself reading words that seemed to have spilled from her own mouth. The diary she’d picked up was written in 1927 by a Dallas man named John. The brown cover was falling off and the binding was loose. “Almost all the pages have a crease at the very top right-hand corner, as if John turned them down to mark where he left off,” MacNamara Ivey said.

When the diary begins, John is in the intense grip of grief after his wife and baby have both died following childbirth.

March 31st, 1927: Perhaps I should be in bed—I guess I need some rest. I’ve been lost in the sea of memory again this evening and the loneliness of life; the emptiness within my heart has been urging me to search and search for that which might heal it again. Happiness; It is indeed a word of mystery.

MacNamara Ivey saw the darkness and pain she felt reflected so perfectly in John’s writing that it was as if he’d reached across space and time to hold her hand. “It’s one of the things that saved me,” MacNamara Ivey said.

What made that diary so special was its very ordinariness—perhaps also the thing that makes it junk in anyone else’s eyes. It’s easy to find homes for the journals of famous people; the dilemma is what to do with diaries like John’s, or mine, or my father’s: the musings of everyday people, interspersed with doodles and to-do lists. Such diaries may not always change our understanding of history, but they can transport and unite us, like bridges across time.

“So many people ask me, ‘Will you take my diaries?’” MacNamara Ivey said. She has trouble saying no. “It’s like my heart just wraps around them, and I can’t let go.” But as she’s gotten older, MacNamara Ivey has started to worry about what will happen to all these “ordinary people’s” diaries when she’s not around to rescue them—or when her closets fill up. “I want them to be placed somewhere safe, with someone that appreciates them and loves them as much as I do.”

One evening this fall, I joined MacNamara Ivey and several other diary collectors from across the country on a video call. They were gathered to hash out their idea for an archive that would house not just their own diaries, but those of anyone in the U.S. The meeting began like diary-collectors anonymous, each of them listing the number of years they’ve been held hostage by their attraction to ephemera. Their collections consist of paper products that have been culled from a combination of flea markets, eBay, estate sales, and even Dumpsters.

As tightly as they’ve held on to these relics, they’re willing to give them all away to the right partner. “We would like our donations to be the seed for a place where other people can donate diaries and letters,” the group’s front man, Robert K. Elder, said in the meeting. Elder, the CEO of a nonprofit, said they’ve considered working with local libraries and historical organizations, but those places have their own collecting priorities and limited space. This group wants an open submission policy, fewer gatekeepers, and more voices than a local project could accommodate.

Europe has several such models of diary archives. The largest, The Great Diary Project, in London, is run by Polly North. North co-founded the archive in 2007, and since then has received more than 17,000 journals. “They call me the diary mama,” North told me. Though donors have the option to request that their diaries remain private until long after they’re dead, most don’t. “Their diaries cover adoption, abortion, family brawls, and still the majority allow them to be viewed,” North said. Historians and nosy people alike are thrilled.

An archive specifically devoted to the diaries of everyday people is a modern idea, and one that has found support in countries such as Italy, Portugal, and Germany. That’s not to say that diarizing is a uniquely European tradition. In fact, the type of introspective journal writing we are familiar with today can be traced back more than 1,000 years to East Asia. One of the best-known diaries from that time was written by a 10th-century Japanese courtesan named Sei Shonagon. Inside her “pillow-book,” she reflects on life inside the emperor’s palace, shares gossip, and records lists (under one titled “Adorable Things”: “The face of a child drawn on a melon”; under “Depressing Things'': “A dog howling in the daytime.”)

These days, diaries with lists and secrets are ubiquitous; there are far too many to properly sort and preserve in just a few archives. That’s why Sally MacNamara Ivey and her team of collectors are anxious to secure a space in the United States. And it will have to be big, because they’re considering accepting other forms of autobiographical material as well, such as scrapbooks, audio recordings, and family cookbooks—all those rare, ordinary, transcendent glimpses into another person’s life.

I recently asked my father whether he would consider donating his diaries to such an archive after he’s no longer alive. Ever the pragmatist, he replied, “Sure, it would be nice if they were useful.” The likelihood that any scholar will cite my father’s entries about learning to bake cornbread or recovering from knee surgery is low. But there are a million humbler ways that his—and my—most banal thoughts might be useful. As embarrassing as my own journal entries may be, I’ve come to recognize their flaws as their power. Their unfiltered mundanity is precisely what makes them so valuable. Will my diaries alter the course of history? Unlikely. Would I still donate them? I would. Besides, we’re running out of space in our attic.