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Diaries Timeline

In laying out an exhibition, practical issues override intellectual ones. The wall adjacent to the entrance/exit was big enough; we measured up, and tested viewpoints with the average height of a visitor in mind. The average British woman is 5′3, or 161.6 cm in height; eyeline is of course slightly lower. We tested out our own (different) heights; we also checked what a visitor at wheelchair height would be able to see.

More practicalities ruled. Mr Gresty our designer came up with a very suitable sweeping line, with several bends. We set about an ambitious history, beginning with 1400 BCE, Babylonian clay tablets inscribing information about the movements of the sun, moon and stars – the precursor to the appointment diary, which still gives phases of the moon. With Ego Media in mind, I hoped to fill out the line to the current moment. In such a potentially vast history, there were a great many possibilities, and hence a great deal of editing. I have two of many versions in files labelled Skinny Timeline, and then, despondently, Skinnier Timeline. There was a great deal of editorial discussion to defend inclusions, suggest cuts and check against design for density, visibility and diversity. The timeline enabled us to instance forms of diary which we could not exhibit, especially useful for items from antiquity where survivals are few and lodged securely in museums. It enabled us to gesture to forms of diary beyond the West, though British exemplars crowded in from the sixteenth century on. We knew most about succeeding periods; that meant resisting many temptations to include more, unbalancing the line.

The first practicality, iron-clad, was permissions, most of which had costs attached. The budget was tight. We paid (a three digit sum) to reproduce Dorothy Wordsworth. We ditched others, equally worthy, because chasing permission got too time-consuming. I spent ages trying to find who held the copyright on a nice photo of a man who ran one of the big diary companies; in the end I abandoned him. I was really sorry about this one:

1890 Joseph Conrad captains a steamer up the Congo river; he draws on his diaries of this when writing Heart of Darkness (1899)

I had no idea Conrad wrote diaries when I read him avidly in my youth. Now modern editions print his Congo diary alongside the novel, such ignorance has abated. And so I could let the entry go.

To diversify the timeline, some entries were illustrated and some were not. Hence the second practicality, iron-clad too: image quality. The marvels of online resources mean you can find millions of images. But if you are reproducing, in small scale and up on a wall, you need high res images. Substitutions had to be made to fit that requirement. Then adjacencies had to be considered, an aesthetic imperative as much as an intellectual one: the images had to look sprinkled rather than clumped, and engage by showing different things – an author portrait, a manuscript, an edition, an illustration contemporary with the entry. I wanted to include film, radio and other media besides print, which introduced other challenges. Channel 4’s programme Big Brother had a Dairy Room, for which every season there was a different design, starring a different chair. Many hours went on pondering which was best for the timeline. Once we were into Ego Media territory, it seemed to me helpful to have the timeline show a selection of digital developments as orientation points.

In a life writing way, here is an editorial exchange about two such points:

1990 Tim Berners Lee posts the first website

1990 Word, Excel and Powerpoint appear via Microsoft Office software

Polly: I get why this is significant – but it isn’t the first diary posting, more suited for expo on the www, specifically, perhaps? Interesting but not directly pertinent, and no image

Clare: I think we need this because it’s so easy to forget how recent the web is? No image required – let people imagine?

Polly [re Word etc]: See comment above, more a general observation about technological advancements in software than directly related to diary app development? Part of diary app history sure, but could be dropped? Interesting but not directly pertinent, and no image

We kept the first (with no image) and dropped the second. (In hindsight that feels right.) At the time it was hard not to invest in entries, especially if they’d taken time to devise. I had worked with curator colleagues who seemed to spend a lot of time writing labels. I came to appreciate why. A label is like an epitaph: in Samuel Johnson’s formulation, an epitaph must do three things. It must say something about the person, about death, and in a short space. So with labels; it was definitely disciplined work. Or self-disciplined work. The timeline could accommodate one sentence for most items; items with a quotation or further data ran to two, possibly three sentences. There was room for only a few. This was one possible entry:

2014 Facebook passes 1.23 billion monthly active users, 945 million mobile users, and 757 million daily users, according to

Polly: Cut – timeline is diary-related, everyone knows facebook is doing well

I wanted to end with a date ahead of where we were, in part because digital is full of projections, and in part because I thought it would let visitors end with an ellipsis not a full stop…

Hence: 2020 the Internet of Things

The Cultural Institute, hosts of the exhibition space, queried that one. I insisted it stay. I should have added a question mark though.

When the timeline went up – in a huge sheet! – it looked beautiful. I was very pleased when one of our clever visitors featured it in a blog post.

Job done.

Diaries Timeline

  • 1400 BCE

    Babylonians and others inscribe clay tablets with dated charts containing information on the sun, moon and stars – the precursor of the appointment diary which still includes information on lunar and solar movements

  • 450-350 BCE

    Ancient Greeks develop hypomnemata, notes to aid memory which often became highly personalised

  • 167 CE

    Marcus Aurelius (AD 120-180): ‘Very little is needed to make a happy life; it is all within yourself in your way of thinking.’ Meditations 8.40 Marcus Aurelius admired the Stoic idea that ‘knowing thyself’ (an edict of Delphi) through regular written exercise could be of philosophical and ethical benefit to the writer. It is an idea echoed in cognitive-behavioural therapy and self-help methods

  • c. 400 CE

    St Augustine’s Confessions prefigure the private, confessional writing of Puritan diarists over a thousand years later and the self-reflective writing of some diarists now

  • 1002

    Sei Shōnagon completes the Pillow Book, a compilation of musings about her life at court in Heian Japan

  • 1068-9

    Ibn al-Banna keeps a record of daily life in Baghdad. It includes many of his dreams

    1380s Merchants in Tuscany begin to keep ricordanze, account books with personal and dated annotations. When double entry book-keeping became established, this hybrid business and diary form disappeared

  • 1550-52

    Edward VI, the boy king (1537-53) makes daily entries in his personal chronicle - part private diary, part educational exercise. Its 68 leaves are in the British Library

    The Oxford English Dictionary dates the first use of the word ‘diary’ to this year, defining it under noun

    1. A daily record of events or transactions, a journal; specifically, a daily record of matters affecting the writer personally, or which come under his personal observation.

    1581 WM. FLEETWOOD in H. Ellis Orig. Lett. Eng. Hist. (1824) 1st Ser. II. 288 Thus most humbly I send unto yor good Lo. this last weeks Diarye.

    The OED distinguishes this use from a second one, ‘A book prepared for keeping a daily record, or having spaces with printed dates for daily memoranda and jottings;’ for which the first use is 1607:

    1607 B. JONSON Volpone IV. i. sig. I3 This is my Diary, Wherein I note my actions of the day.

    In its early days, diary could also be an adjective, meaning ephemeral; it was often associated with fever.

    1583 P. BARROUGH Methode of Phisicke IV. ii. 172 All diarie feauers be engendred of an outwarde cause.

  • 1620

    Birth of John Evelyn, versatile Restoration thinker (d.1706). His Diary, covering 1641-97, remained unpublished until 1818

  • 1656

    John Beadle, Essex minister publishes A Journall or Diary of a Thankfull Christian, which recommends keeping a diary: ‘A Christian that would be more exact hath more need and may reap much more good by such a journal as this. We are all but stewards, factors here, and must give a strict account in that great day to the high Lord of all our wayes, and of all his wayes towards us’

  • 1 January 1660

    Samuel Pepys begins his diary

  • 1700-16

    Sarah Cowper (1644-1720) keeps a diary commenting on her personal life, her reading and politics, religion and society

  • 25 April 1719

    Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe is published. Crusoe keeps a diary on his island

  • 1726

    Benjamin Franklin lists thirteen virtues to observe every day

  • 1754

    Thomas Turner (1729-65) Georgian shopkeeper in Sussex, begins his diary on 21 February – last entry 31 July 1765

  • 1750

    Sarah Hurst’s diary (1759-62) on 15 February: ‘How trifling, how unimportantly, does my time pass away, I wish I had been a man I might then have signalis’d myself in the service of my Country, but now I must live and die in wretched obscurity.

  • 1764

    James Boswell (1740-95) publishes his Journal of a Voyage to the Hebrides. Boswell kept a private journal for most of his adult life. Many of his diary writings were discovered in the 1920s in Malahide Castle near Dublin

  • 1768

    Frances Burney writes the first entry in her journal-diaries, on 27 March, addressed to Miss Nobody. 12 volumes of her journals and letters were published by Oxford University Press 1972-84

  • 1773

    Samuel Johnson writes on 10 April, ‘My general purpose, to which I humbly implore the help of God, is to methodize my life, to resist sloth. I hope from this time to keep a journal.’ He did not

  • 1780

    Lady Eleanor Butler, who lived with Sarah Ponsonby as the ‘Ladies of Llangollen’, sets up their home for fifty years at Plas Newydd, Llangollen; she kept a diary

  • 1789

    Jean-Jacques Rousseau publishes The Confessions, which expand ideas of subjectivity

  • 1794

    The undoubtedly racy diary of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (1689-1762) writer and wit, was burnt by her daughter Mary Stuart, Lady Bute, (1718-1794) on her deathbed

  • 1791

    Anne Lister born (d.1840) – her extensive diaries chronicle her life as a Yorkshire landowner; entries about her lesbian relationships were written in code (a mix of algebra and Greek, deciphered in the 1980s)

  • 1796

    John Letts sets up a stationery business; in 1812, Letts produces the first commercial diary

  • 1802

    On 15 April, Dorothy Wordsworth describes daffodils in her journal – seen on a walk with her brother William, who uses her journal as source material for ‘I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud

  • 1807

    Last entry in the 36-volume diary of Elizabeth Sandwith Drinker (1735-1807). Begun in 1758, her journal is a significant personal record of eighteenth-century life in America

  • 1819

    Collins, another great diary company, is founded

  • 1835

    Queen Victoria kept a diary because, she says on 27 January, ‘I love to be employed; I hate to be idle.’ reproduces Queen Victoria’s diaries in full, 1832-1901

    Nikolai Gogol publishes ‘Diary of a Madman’, a story of textual delusions

  • 1854

    Hannah Cullwick, diarist and domestic servant, meets Arthur Munby, diarist and barrister. Their subsequent relationship confounds stereotypes of Victorian class and gender

  • 1873

    Beatrice Webb (1858-1943), socialist, social reformer and co-founder of the LSE, begins her lifelong diary

  • 1870-79

    The years of the surviving diaries of Reverend Francis Kilvert, curate in Radnorshire, whose observations of rural life were hugely popular when first published 1938-40

  • 1890

    Joseph Conrad captains a steamer up the Congo river; he draws on his diaries of this when writing Heart of Darkness (1899)

  • 1892

    Diary of a Nobody, a novel by George and Weedon Grossmith, first serialised in Punch magazine 1888-9 then published as a book in 1892, recording the daily life of a London clerk, Charles Pooter

  • 1895

    ‘I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read in the train.’ Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest

  • 1914

    Anais Nin aged 11 begins a diary, continued until she dies in 1977, at great length. First volume is published 1966

  • 1919

    The Journal of a Disappointed Man, by W.N.P. Barbellion, real name Bruce Cummings, published six months before he died of multiple sclerosis. The author described it as ‘a study in the nude’. It can be read for free and in full at

  • 1929

    Diary of a Lost Girl, a searing silent film directed by Georg Wilhelm Pabst and starring Louise Brooks

  • 1942-44

    Anne Frank writes her diary (first published in English in 1951)

  • 1948

    Mrs Dale’s Diary broadcast by the BBC Light Programme (later Radio 2) – the first notable radio serial, featuring life in the suburbs. It ran for 5,531 episodes

  • 1949

    BBC West Indies broadcasts West Indian Diary – personal experiences of West Indian immigrants in London which were then broadcast back to listeners in the Caribbean

  • c. 1950

    Louis Armstrong starts to make audio diaries on tape: more than 650 reels till his death in 1971

  • 1953

    Leonard Woolf publishes A Writer’s Diary, distilling 26 volumes of diaries by Virginia Woolf written between 1918-1941

  • 1958

    First performance of Samuel Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape, in which Krapp plays spooled diaries from his past

  • 1963

    The first modern smiley is created by Harvey Ball - for an insurance company to cheer up its employees

  • 1981

    Mass Observation Archive builds on papers generated by the original Mass Observation social research organisation (1937 to early 1950s). It contains diaries commissioned by the organisation

  • 1981-83

    Konrad Kujau forges 60 volumes of diaries purportedly by Hitler; in 1983 the West German news magazine Stern pays 9.3 million Deutsche marks ($3.7 million) for them – proved later to be fakes

  • 1990

    Tim Berners Lee posts the first website

    Word, Excel and Powerpoint appear via Microsoft Office software

    Video Diaries, produced by the BBC’s Community Programme Unit until 2001, prove popular and revitalise documentary by making the film-maker the subject; they also feature a diary of the production process

  • 1994

    Publication of the first volume (of nine) of the diaries of Tony Benn, politician (1925-2013)

  • 1995

    Carolyn Burke makes the first online diary entry, on Jan 3: Carolyn’s diary continues until 2002,

  • 1996

    Bridget Jones’s Diary by Helen Fielding is published and becomes a classic of chick lit; two sequels and three films follow (to 2016)

  • 1997

    The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady – Edith Holden’s naturalist diary of 1906 – is published: it becomes the best-selling book of the 1970s. Current merchandise includes stationery, ceramics, furnishings

    8 December, first entry in Dickon Edwards’ online diary, still going

    Moleskine diaries appear, based on the notebooks used by van Gogh, Picasso, Hemingway and Bruce Chatwin

  • 1998

    BackRub is renamed and launched as a search engine: Google

  • 1999

    Blog and Blogosphere – meaning blogs considered collectively with writers and readers as a distinct online network – first appear as words

  • 2000

    Channel 4’s show Big Brother begins, featuring a diary room where housemates can confide to camera, and be summoned to be instructed by Big Brother. Each series has had a differently designed chair

    Natascha Merritt publishes Digital Diaries, chronicling her explicit sexual explorations, (the first digital book of photography).

  • 2001

    Two scientists working at a research station in Antarctica contribute to OpenDiary – the first online diary community, 1998-2014, founded by Bruce Ableson – making it the first to have diarists from all seven continents

  • 2002

    Salam Pax, pseudonym of Salam Abdulmunem, a 29-year-old architect, blogs from Baghdad during the Iraq war. His posts are published as a book in 2003

  • 2003

    Microsoft markets the SenseCam, an early lifelogging device which takes three pictures a minute

  • 2004

    September 11 OpenDiary is hacked – and again on 28 August 2008

    Meriam-Webster Dictionary names ‘blog’ its word of the year

    Facebook is founded

  • 2005

    Blog platform Xanga offers premium members a gigabyte of photo storage

  • 2006

    lonelygirl15, vlogger on YouTube, is revealed to be a fiction

    The BBC’s Planet Earth series airs with a video diary for each episode, showing behind-the-scenes challenges

    In her award-winning play Housewife, 49, Victoria Wood dramatizes a Mass Observation wartime diary by Nella Last

  • 2007

    Rae Earl’s My Fat Mad Teenage Diary, made into a TV show 2013-15

    Swiping, touchscreens and Google maps become familiar via the iPhone

  • 2008

    Publication of ‘The Blair Years: Extracts from the Alastair Campbell Diaries

    The Great Diary Project is established as an archive for rescuing, from destruction or disappearance, the diaries of ordinary people

  • 2009

    Reddit r/Diary appears, hosting real and fictional daily diary entries

  • 2011

    Facebook releases its Timeline feature (removed in 2016) which curates an end-of-year review

    A journal by Bram Stoker is discovered in an attic in the Isle of Wight: it prefigures some of Jonathan Harker’s diary entries in Dracula (1897)

  • 2012

    Wendy Guerra publishes a fictional diary in the voice of Anais Nin, Posar desnuda en la Habana (Posing Nude in Havana)

  • 2013

    Technorati’s Digital Influence survey declares blogs are the fifth most trustworthy source overall for information on the Internet. 52% of bloggers operate 2-5 blogs; 43% run just one

  • 2014

    Facebook passes 1.23 billion monthly active users, 945 million mobile users, and 757 million daily users, according to

  • 2015

    The British Library acquires Kenneth Williams’ diaries; The Telegraph asks, is he is the 'Greatest Diarist Since Pepys

    Guantánamo Diary is published by former detainee Mohamedou Ould Slahi

    Pope John Paul II’s diaries are published, against his dying wishes: In God’s Hands: Personal Notes 1962-2003

    ‘Face with tears of joy’ emoji is named word of the year by Oxford Dictionaries

  • 2016

    Alan Bennett (b.1934) publishes Keeping On Keeping On, his diaries 2005-2014

    Alexandra Shulman’s Inside Vogue: A Diary Of My 100th Year celebrates British Vogue’s centenary year

    Reddit had 542 million monthly visitors (234 million unique users), ranking #7 most visited web-site in US and #24 in the world

  • 2017

    The Raqqua Diaries: Escape from ‘Islamic State’ courageously tells of the wretchedness endured by Samer, his family, friends and city of Raqqua in the east of Syria

  • 2018

    The diary of Renia Spiegel is published in English translation: 700 pages, covering 1939-42. She was a Polish teenager shot by the Nazis.

    The Mayor of London, Saddiq Khan, publishes his appointment diary online, in the interests of openness and transparency.

Project status: Completed
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