It is not an exaggeration to say we are living in historic times. The Covid19 story is fast moving and we learn something more pretty much every day. We have also witnessed global protests in support of Black Lives Matter, and some change is percolating as a result. In the UK, we await Brexit and its substantial if yet unclear impact on our businesses and lives. A severe economic crash is underway in slow motion.
What is an ordinary citizen to do?
Turn archivist, of course.
Document things. Take pictures, make notes, keep a diary. These are all vital pieces of the history of 2020 that might get written up.
Museum curators and historians are now asking people to preserve personal materials for posterity, and for possible inclusion in museum archives (New York Times link; may be paywalled or require registration).
We are in the midst of an evolving situation. The advice in the New York Times article is to keep documenting and to be “posterity minded” when collecting ephemera.
That requires judgment.
Who is to determine value over posterity? What are the goals of keeping a diary (a question for ordinary times)?
For a time early in my career, I lived with a dear friend’s parents. I was, still am, close to them and often in the evenings, the Dad would bring out his diaries. He had written them when his children, who are my contemporaries, were young. He would read out bits of the diary and talk about how we could see the reflection of the adults they were now in the children they had been then. That was an exercise in nostalgia mainly for the parents. He also said it was going to be difficult to decide which of his two children get his diaries.
A few years on when I was building a startup, I started documenting some of our key decisions as well as the lessons from some of the hardest experiences. It felt like a machine gun fire. A lot at once, then sometimes nothing for days. It was a time-consuming thing to do. Although I had high expectations of writing some profound reflections and not just factual statements of things, I ended up keeping a decision journal of sorts.
After the startup ended, I tried again to keep a diary. I learnt quickly that I mostly document stuff, for various purposes. I look back to find interesting tidbits in detail, or to find past reasoning, or to remember a conversation recorded as-is, and as I do public speaking, stories I can use safely without violating others’ privacy. I recall what I wrote on a day some years ago, a bit like Facebook’s On This Day feature.
Do I expect my diaries will end up in an academic library or someone will read them? I don’t think about it.
But we are all curious. We read journalists’ and politicians’ journals, designers’ books, published memoirs — many of which, in my experience, are intended to make the author look a better person than he or she perhaps has been.
When Kurt Cobain’s Journals were published in 2002, I bought a hardback.
One of the first pages has the following words:
“Dont read my diary when Im gone
OK, Im going to work now, when you wake this morning, please read my diary. Look through my things, and figure me out.“
I still recall the raw feeling of shame I felt when I read that. I felt I was being complicit in his private diaries being made public.
But reading them now and again as I do, I also feel his words capture the desire most humans have — the desire to be understood, to be “figured out”, and at least (to quote the Animals), to not “be misunderstood”.
Deep down all diarists know that given a chance, someone somewhere will read their diaries. What we don’t want is to give explanations or engage in discussions about what we wrote.
Back to 2020.
Anne Frank’s diary is a good reminder of how while she lived — and died too young — during a momentous and difficult time in the 20th century, she has left us a record of history that remains unmatched as an act of service to us all.
This year there is too much going on not to keep a log of it. So I have kept one. There are conversations — mostly virtual since lockdown began — about people’s curiosities, worries, hopes, fears. There are arguments about science and politics. There are moments of humility and of connectedness with humanity. I have found the exercise educational and meaningful.
In this historic, highly distributed, hyper online, super connected time, if we all keep a log, together we could be writing the first draft of the history of 2020.
Day by day. Quarter by quarter.
We owe it to posterity.