Your Letters and Diaries are just as Valuable as Michael Palin’s Notebooks


Family history research is popular and enjoyable once you have got started and found your first ancestors. From historic records some people work out the age and history of their house or village, while others enthuse over old diaries or ships’ logs. Your children may use soldiers’ letters for a project on the First World War; old photos to study a famous explorer such as Ernest Shackleton; archive maps to work out how local roads have changed.

It is because all sorts of people in the past have deliberately left their personal papers, letters and records for posterity, that we, the public, are lucky enough to be able to look at and use any records we wish.

Field diaries, drawings, paintings, maps and reports written by observant naturalists during the past three centuries are of immense value and interest. They are used by today’s naturalists, conservationists, landscape architects, writers, the National Trusts, probably even lawyers. I visited the Natural History Museum to see Daniel Solander’s beautiful paintings of unknown plants found during Captain Cook’s first circumnavigation between 1768 and 1771.

Please do not throw away any records among your own or your family’s belongings because you do not think them important enough to keep.

Very often such papers and photos will be real treasures.

Ask your local county records office before you decide. Universities, libraries, solicitors and other businesses all store and look after hand-written and printed papers donated in the past. Cumbria Archive Service provides encouraging information: “Cumbria Archive Service is pleased to accept documents relating to all aspects of life in Cumbria into the safe-keeping of one of its four Archive Centres and to give advice to owners of documents about the preservation of material within their care”.

Folks in future (just like us today) may wish to hear politicians’ personal memoirs on DVD, analyse estate accounts and maps or read celebrities’ family letters. But they will also want to know where their own ancestors lived and worked, how much they were paid, what did they wear? Or what ordinary people cooked and ate, what their great-great-grandmother was given for her birthday when a girl and where she went on holiday.

Someone’s great-great-grandmother will be you! So please gift your postcards, diaries, photos, recordings, cuttings and even letters to posterity. Cumbria’s helpful advice is at:-

The UK country records offices are accessible online:-

And here is a link to the Scottish Life Archive of the National Museum of Scotland, where I deposited recordings of contributors to the Whitelee Forest Oral History project:-

And you can buy the book of their story here.

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