In doing my PhD, I have read many disparate and versatile sources, from account books to letters and diaries. I recently starting reading the personal diary of the overseer of the poor John Turner from eighteenth-century Sussex. Instead of a formulaic piece that simply outlines his day-to-day job, I was surprised to find an extraordinarily candid and personal piece in which he talks about his feelings, worries and hopes. He discusses his problems with drink, his worries about making ends meet and his love life. He discusses the ups and downs of his marriage, including his doubts about being with his wife, and his stages of mourning when she died, including his loneliness and the worries and excitement of finding someone else. Throughout, I was frequently thinking to myself that I should not be reading this. Here was a piece which was incredibly private and something which he did for himself – to not be seen by anybody. It was a way for him to digest what he had done and a way for him to work out his plans, feelings and aspirations.
The foundation of modern research ethics is based on the idea that the subject has free choice in whether they participate, away from deception, coercion and the potential of emotional/physical distress. So what then, makes using such a private and personal document as an old diary for the pursuit of history ok?
Modern oral history has to go through rigorous ethical constraints to be approved and many modern documents are subject to informed consent and time restraints as to when they are released to the public. When we bear this in mind then, is it ethical for us to use diaries like Turner’s? Does the fact that he is dead and unable to provide consent exonerate us from this worry? The majority of modern people that keep a diary must cringe at the thought of others reading it, let alone it being published and made readily available in a library or at the click of a mouse. So how would somebody like Turner feel if he knew that people would be reading his diary and dissecting intricate and private details of his life?
Of course, the questions I pose are unanswerable and we can only speculate as to whether Turner would approve of his diary being used in the pursuit of historical knowledge. Equally, I am not advocating that all personal accounts which do not have consent be taken out of circulation. Sources like private diaries and letters enable the historian to see the past in a way beyond simple descriptions and facts. They allow us to see emotion and constantly remind us that what we are studying are people; that were once alive and living and breathing like us. But I nonetheless feel that some historians habitually forget this. We, as historians, must constantly remind ourselves of this fact and endeavour to treat each subject with respect and dignity. We need to see them as the product of their surroundings and not judge them too heavily on ideas that seem alien to us and emotions that we could never fully fathom. Ultimately, by doing this, despite not knowing if they approved of our use of their personal accounts, we will at the very least give the subject a fair and just appraisal which they might have understood, and will be able to use these fantastic personal testimonies to their full potential.