Toss a Note in a Bottle into the Sea of Time

As a tumultuous year draws to a close, we come o the time given to resolutions. The idea of New Year Resolutions is an ancient one. What was vows to deity for the ancient Babylonians had become religious introspection by the time of John Wesley before becoming personal goals in our own era. Usually we set our goals too high, and our resolutions vanish long before the first blooms of spring. But such doesn’t need to be. If you’re looking for an easy resolution that also has lasting value, why not keep a journal? In doing so, you’ll become what historians call a primary source, an eyewitness to events as they happen. Journaling can cost much less than exercise equipment, and you might find it an enjoyable pastime. Plus, you just might create an important record of life in your neck of the woods in the early 21st Century.

Would historians really be interested in your journal? Absolutely. Oh, they’d be ecstatic if they found Julius Caesar’s journal, but they were tickled to find the letters of a Roman soldier named Masclus, who was stationed in Britain during the 1st Century AD. Letters and journals provide a window into life at a place and time. Imagine finding the journal of a private in the Continental Army, or one kept by a housewife living in the Dust Bowl, and how things they considered mundane would grab your interest.

Ironically, although we live in an age where vast amounts of information are just a web search away, historians may know less about our era than they do the 18th Century. That’s because most of our communications are electronic and not on physical media. Telephone calls, then texts and e-mails replaced letters and telegraphs. Newspapers, along with other print media, are in decline, first from radio, then from television and the Internet. We are left with electronic records stored in a variety of formats on a hodgepodge of media. It’s hard enough viewing a VCR tape today, but have you heard of its competitor, Betamax? Then there’s 8 inch floppy disks and removable hard rives the size of hubcaps. It’s possible to scrounge up and repair old equipment to access electronic media and convert it to another format, but this takes time and money. What will be saved will be a small sliver of available information, reflecting the bias (unconscious or otherwise) of the conservator. Archaeologists today can read Marsclus’ letters, written in ink on thin wood chips two thousand years ago. It’s unlikely archaeologists two thousand years hence will be able to do the same with a hard drive.

True, words written in ink on paper are like a note in a bottle tossed into the vast sea of time. Even so, remember that Masclus’ letters surfaced after nearly two millennia. Your journal may well be like that Roman soldier’s letters.

You’ll also be creating an uncensored record of events from your point of view. That’s very important, as we live in an age where social media is willingly censored to favor particular viewpoints. No one can block your journal; no one can delete it. Given the longevity of ink on physical medium, your words may well endure long after the posts on social media have long vanished. All it takes is a good blank book and a good ink pen.

What do you write about? Anything you wish. It’s your journal. Want to write about what you did today? Do it. The Wuhan virus? Go for it. Politics? Why not? There’s no one looking over your shoulder, no scolds or moderators. Just remember that one day someone could read your words, but that’s sort of the point. You’re writing a letter to a stranger about your life and your world.

That, perhaps, can serve as a guide. If the past is like another country, so is the future. What you find commonplace your reader might find alien. They may also have a vastly different mental image of the world we live in, and find the reality a bit of a shock. Keep that in mind as you write.

Also keep in mind they might question your accuracy, particularly if what you write is contrary to what passes as common knowledge in their era. If you want to record current events, it might be a good idea to note cites. The reference may not exist in their time, but then again, it might, and could form a jumping off point for more research. You don’t have to supply cites; it’s your journal and you can write whatever your please. Just know that the more accurate your information, the more credible your journal will be to a future historian.

The main thing though is to just write, and know that in doing so you’re creating a record. For the ages? Who knows? It might be. And in the process you could find yourself having a lot of fun.

If your journal is to have any chance of surviving, it has to be written on good paper with good ink. This can be done with nothing more complicated that what you find at your local department store, and without spending much money. Still, if you want your words to last, there are some things you should keep in mind. Basically, you’ll need a journal made with acid free paper (most paper is acid free these days) and a pen with permanent, fade resistant ink. But this gets into what is and isn’t considered archival, and is the topic of my next post.