Paper vs Digital Journals: Are We Losing Our Personal History?

I am a student of history and find great value in reading the personal journals of ordinary people during historic times. Perhaps the most famous of these in recent history is Anne Frank’s diary, but there are countless examples.

This got me thinking about our personal and family history. Many of us, me included, primarily journal in a digital format. Whether it is Day One, Obsidian, or Microsoft Word, I have thousands of pages of personal reflection going back to 1989. (I started journaling using notebooks in 1982 and digital journaling in 1989 using WordPerfect, then transitioned to Word in 1992 or '93.)

Few of us are journaling with history in mind. In fact, most of us keep our journals encrypted and protected from prying eyes. While my great-grandchildren may find it interesting to read about some of my day-to-day trials and triumphs, these are not meant for my family, friends, or co-workers today. I process and reflect on what is happening in life, and sometimes that includes conflict with people I both love and respect. This doesn’t mean we are in a constant state of conflict, but if you cherry-pick various journal entries, one could conclude there is a lot of strife in my life, which isn’t true. (I tend to write more when I am stressed or worked up about something, so, naturally, times of trials prove to be more abundantly covered than when it is smooth sailing.)

This is where the dilemma lies: while I would like my grandchildren and great-grandchildren to read my journals after I am gone, I really don’t know if I would be comfortable printing them out and having them sit on a shelf. I know we can leave instructions including passwords for our children as part of our estate, but will those files get handed down to future generations? A handwritten journal becomes a keepsake that gets handed down. Links to files and passwords? Probably not.

Also, I cannot deny that there is something magical in reading my handwritten journals from 1982-1989. There is a certain nostalgia and intimacy with those journals that is lacking when I flip through a binder of printed text.

I have swung back and forth with keeping a paper journal, but I think and write better when I am typing, and the encryption gives me the freedom to fully express myself that simply does not exist when I write in a paper notebook. Still, I wonder if we are missing something by not being more intentional about what we keep in analog format vs digital. Would we have Anne Frank’s diary if she had owned an iPad?


Did you consider leaving a way to access the digital format in your will?

I include informations like that in a special attachment of my last will. That ensures, that those informations are handed over to the ones, who should get it.
Apple, and I would guess other services too, are offering a service for that also.

I get the diaries of my father after his death.
He startet around age 12, and died with 59. So I have, in theory, 47 years of “familyhistory” at my hand.
Our large problem, my father had a terrible kind of handwriting.
He used to use a lot of uncommon apprevations, placed a whole day (partly with 10-15 lines) into about 3x6 cm (h x w), and his handwriting in general was a mess.
So, while I have all informations within more than 40 Books, I cannot read the most, and spent hours in transcription only a single day, and so the informations are pretty much to be considered as lost.

If you have a digital journal, and you want to hand it down to your family, after you are gone, do them a big favor, and continue digital. It makes everything much easier for them, and the chances are much higher, that some of the recipients will take care of it, and read it at least in parts.

Most probably: Yes!
And we would be more likely certain, that she was the one, who had really written it.

Specially with historical documents, think about how few really go thru the time, and how many more is completely lost forever!
With the today digital possibilities, they could had the Library of Alexandria saved in a cloud, and protected it from being destroyed.
They could have protected other libraries also from damages, being lost, or burned down by criminals, war or catastrophic disasters.

I never kept a journal, but I have my pilot logbooks and others describing other activities. And I recently spent some time reading through them and remembering old friends and events. So I think I have an idea what you felt. But I doubt these histories will be read again after I’m gone. The same is true of my photo library. I’ve shared photos with family and friends over the years so they already have a copy of the ones they wanted.

Considering the volume of memories we are creating I wonder how much of it will be ever be seen by others? It’s one thing to look through four or five shoeboxes of pictures and quite another to review 150,000 digital images.

History is whatever’s left when the participants are gone.

It used to be customary for the heirs of the deceased to return letters written to him/her to their authors (if they were still alive). Pretty sure it also used to be customary for people to leave instructions to their executors to destroy certain letters or other material… which I’m sure was honored as much in the breach as otherwise.

It would be nice if apps like Day One had legacy preferences: a default setting for new entries, and a per-entry setting, designating whether one or more people could get the digital entry after the author’s death. Then you could decide which entries were passed on and which weren’t. (Or maybe there already is something like this?)

During the pandemic lockdowns I transcribed years of handwritten diaries into Day One (having been keeping a digital diary since 2012). My full page handwritten diaries covered the period from 1971 to 2011 so it was a mammoth task. However, I now have full digital records (19,500+ individual entries) from 1971 to the current day (aside from two incomplete years when handwritten diaries were stolen while I was travelling) and some rather more cursory entries from 1961 to 1970.

For me, the sheer delight of a digital diary is the ability to find anything in seconds. (As regulars here probably recall I import all my Day One diary entries into DEVONthink where searching is a dream). I find that encourages me to use cross-referencing much more which (for me at least) makes the diaries much more interesting.

I’ve also added many more photos to my diary entries in DEVONthink. I added very few in Day One because they seemed to slow down Day One too much.

I’m unsure who’d get much from reading my diaries after my death but I get much from them in their current format.



I’m not the right person to be keeping a journal. I think I’ve started 3 or 4 times by now. I think the issue is I feel I should write every day, but most days are dull and of little interest.

However, I am over 50,000 words into writing my memoirs, which includes my most memorable experiences to date. Stories I tell out loud among family, friends, and colleagues. It started as a simple bulleted list of the attractions and activities from a week spent in Singapore with my wife in 2019. That got fleshed out into a story, then other trips were added, then other topics… and I’m still going.

Meanwhile, I am also spending sessions with my Mum, recording our conversations about her past. I’ve also begun transcribing these and sharing both audio and text with my siblings.

My next task is to convince my brother to record in some form all the stories he got out of my Dad in his final years of lucidity.

Where will all of this end up? I don’t know yet, but my father’s illness and slow decline has galvanised me to get cracking on recording what I can, and doing it now. My memoirs will probably be turned into a “book” with plenty of photos. Mum’s, probably something similar. Whether they will ever be hard copy is a decision for another day.


My diary is for me, I don’t care that much what happens to it after I die. I do print out to a pdf file once a year, just in case I get locked out of Day One for some reason. I guess someone could stumble upon those unencrypted files after I’m gone.

I’ve been through several apps over the years — Day One, Simplenote, Diarly, iA Writer — and am now back with iA Writer as my journalling tool on all my devices and all my journal entries archived on my Mac using Hazel.

My journal is primarily a means to get stuff out of my head and remind myself of achievements and progress. I’ve no idea if my executor — my sister — will be interested in them, but they’ll be there after I’m gone. I need to start putting together a document listing how to access my devices and main accounts so that she can retrieve anything of value.

One possible source would be the wayback machine, personal websites would normally also be archived if they have not taken action to not be
And I do think it’s questionable if data collected by Facebook and the likes would actually ever be deleted

Times might have changed but there’s still a lot of data to look at

This joke tweet more or less sums up my feelings. We do turn photos into frames and books to give as gifts to relatives, and I know we’ll enjoy seeing them later when going through things… Pruning digital photos as we go makes them easier to find years later, which might make them more interesting. Same goes for text. But it’s all dust eventually.


That is an excellent way to capture family history. I sat down and recorded over two hours of my grandfather telling stories. He was born in 1909 and passed away in 2007. He told stories of his father homesteading in the 1880s and the difficulty of raising a family during those days. My grandfather lived through the 20th Century and all the changes that went with it, from horse-powered implements to space shuttles.


Wow! That is a tremendous task–both keeping a journal for that many years and transcribing all the handwritten entries.

I have debated whether or not to put my journal into Obsidian/Logseq just so I can connect relevant thoughts together. I have imported a year’s worth of entries into Obsidian just to see if it proved to be valuable or add cruft. Haven’t decided yet.

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Physically locking a physical diary/journal is tough and probably won’t last. Then again, who knows how easy it might be to decrypt today’s encryption protocols? And yes, physical keepsakes get handed down, but in every generation they get moved, lost, destroyed, trashed. Think fire. At least with digital journals you can make multiple distributed backups.

Perhaps encrypt the storage locker (like Google Drive or your favorite password app) but not the journal itself. Something like that.

I think about this often, especially w/ my genealogy software and multiple copies I scatter on the internet (WikiTree and FamilySearch, for example). I have started formalizing my estate plan, including digital assets, on multiple occasions. I’ve never completed this plan. It’s really inexcusable…

You are not alone in this.

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I’m betting you could put the entire Library of Alexandria on an entry-level iPhone with no appreciable loss of storage for other things. :slight_smile:

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I understand this post but I also remember last year when we got evacuated because of the wildfires coming through. We left in such a hurry that I accidently left all my paper journals at the house.

I still use paper on occasion, but when I do, I always take a picture of it in Day One. I’m not as worried about their availability after I’m dead, but at the same time, I’d kill to have something like this from my dad (who died when I was just getting out of college. I think I’m going to take advantage of Day One’s printing service and have a bunch of these years printed out and stick them somewhere safe AND leave instructions with my estate documents.

All that said, I still stand by the principle that you should be journaling for your benefit, not some hypothetical person in 50 years. If you find the thought of saving your journal for time is getting in the way of being honest with yourself, then instead just get a fancy paper vanity paper for the ages and go back to doing the real work somewhere else where nobody will ever see it.


It is a wonder anything survives, even in my old country, which was not too wildfire, flood, earthquake and so on prone. One of the tour guides at the British Library in my days there was famous for concentrating almost totally on the ‘fire security systems’; much mocked but she was right to be so proud of the standard of preservation. A curator told me once that the big problem with electronic, audio and so on is keeping stuff to play them on or finding devices. He did have some things that can’t be read.

Me, I have one photograph of my dad, one of my mam’s parents and none of my other grandparents, very little written stuff either, I could hold it all of it in my hand from all my family probs.
Who will read mine?
On the other hand, to coin a phrase, some Neanderthal ‘hand prints’ probably well over 35,000 years old are in such inaccessible parts of the caves they were found in that current expert speculation is that these ones were never meant to be seen by any other being. And are considered a kind of ‘journal’ entry, Kilroy was Here with a spiritual dimension maybe?
Now everybody sees pictures of them. Weird David eh? Felt you guys could use this today somehow. This is the kind of thing, these a lot younger 'only a few thousand years old, not the ones I actually talk about, I couldn’t load them.


I waited too long to record any history with my mom. When I tried, she didn’t want to. :cry:

We had plates on a rail in the kitchen since I was a kid and each plate had a story (linked to relatives I did not know/never met as they were before my time).

I still have the plates; but… :man_shrugging:

As we ponder recording our own life histories I recommend talking with a local librarian and asking about local/national oral history projects, Google-searching, etc.

In the U.S. The Library of Congress has a number of spots/placed dedicated to recording our life stories. One that I can find quickly is:

The American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress

One I used to listen to edited stories from on NPR is StoryCorps.

Someone I know was recording stories “on the road” and I believe her org was somehow connected to the American Red Cross. … Will do some digging.

This does not solve the “pass info to our relatives” problem very well, but may help preserve stories that will really help historians.

However, I agree (knowing a few historians), those hand-written journals w/ slices of history like this (imaginary one) are priceless!

“65 degrees and cloudy today. Heard an explosion from the town’s grain mill at 8:47 this morning. I know the exact time as I was not finished milking the cows and…”

All the best to all as we work on this challenge!

Will keep an eye on this thread for inspiration!

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That reminds me of a tale my Uncle recorded years ago. He emailed it around family at the time. It’s not about our family, but we definitely had family in the area most affected by the 1929 Murchison earthquake. These are the first words after “BANG!”