How Long Will Your Words Last?

Quaker-DiaryWho would expect a diary to last hundreds of years? Someone told me a few years ago about conversion journals written by Quaker women as part of what might be called an initiation into the faith. If my source was correct, the women were required to keep these diaries, presumably to demonstrate the strength of their faith and their worthiness to be accepted as members of the Religious Society of Friends.

The Lippincott tribe is descended from Quaker ancestors Richard and Abigail Lippincott, who arrived in the colonies in the mid-1500s seeking relief from persecution by the Church of England. A few years ago my husband received a copy of the Quaker marriage certificate of his grandfather’s great-grandparents, signed by everyone who witnessed the ceremony. He decided to donate this historic document to the Special Collections kept by Haverford College. During a recent visit to deliver the document, I asked to see some of these women’s conversion diaries. Unfortunately the collection includes nothing specifically identified as a conversion diary is included in the collection, but they do have a sizeable collection of other journals. I scanned the list and found a promising volume written by Anna. I’m chagrinned to realize I neglected to note her last name or the dates of the diary, but it was referenced as a “spiritual diary” and I do know that it dates to pre-Revolutionary times, so it’s about 250 years old. 

With a bit of ceremony, after I completed the formal registration and request, the volume was brought forth from it’s protected location and placed on green velvet-covered foam blocks that positioned it for reading.

“Don’t worry about harming it,” the librarian told me. “It’s sturdier than it looks.” He chilled my blood by picking it up and flexing the spine to demonstrate. The volume consists of hand sewn signatures. I couldn’t tell for sure how they were held together, because the spine was covered, but many seemed quite loose. The pages felt a bit slick, due to an invisible layer of ultra-sheer silk applied to protect them and avert further aging damage.

The text was challenging to read, written in flowery old script. Anna was thrifty with her paper. She used small handwriting and close spacing between lines, further complicating the reading by our eyes, unaccustomed to her style. Occasional ink blots didn’t help.

How I would have loved to sit there for a week and deeply ponder her words, puzzling out obscure ones and ruminating on meanings to plunge into her world. Unfortunately, our time was limited, and I had to make do with skimming several pages while my husband poured over Minutes of Cropwell meeting where his ancestors played leading roles. What I found was a powerful testament of faith, reminding me of the first four lines of the magnificat or Song of Mary:

My soul doth magnify the Lord. And my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour. Because he hath regarded the humility of his handmaid; for behold from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed.—Luke 1:46-47

Such flowery, passionate language surprised me, coming from a devoted member of a sect traditionally known for stoicism.  Perhaps that element of surprise underlines the importance of this document. It challenges me to revisit assumptions. It informs me more accurately of how things really were. And isn’t that exactly what most of us hope our words will do? Set the record straight at some future time and inspire others to expand understanding?

That old diary and the Meeting Minutes are sturdy. Even without preservation they would probably remain legible and valuable for at least another century. Will our digital output endure as long? I can’t imagine it will. I’m reminded that a copy or few, printed in durable ink on acid-free paper, will increase their odds of long-term survival. Unless you plan to burn your journals, use archival quality volumes to  create a legacy for centuries to come.

Write now: make a plan for preserving print copies of at least your most important stories. Look for sources of acid-free archival quality journals. Then write something something that will set a record straight about your life or family.

1 comment :

Sherrey Meyer said...

Sharon, this post is fascinating. To read from a journal over 250 years old is an almost unbelievable act. Years ago we visited Ephrata Cloister in Ephrata, PA, and there we s