Diaries, Journals, Commonplace Books and Notebooks

What is the difference between a diary and journal? I can’t find much of a difference in how the terms are used. They seem interchangeable, but that only means that somewhere on the Internet, a big flame war exists over the subtle differences between these terms.

Accord to Merriam-Webster, a diary is “a record of events, transactions, or observations kept daily or at frequent intervals.” After that it says “: JOURNAL”. I had to lookup what that meant in the Explanatory Chart. It is a synonymous reference, which is Merriam-Webester’s way of saying that diaries and journals are the same thing.

Merriam-Webster says a journal is “a record of experiences, ideas, or reflections kept regularly for private use.” I noted that there was no synonymous reference back to DIARY. Both, it seems, are a record of events and experiences. The definition of “diary” refers to transactions, which is sort of odd. I think of journal (specifically, a double-entry book-keeping journal) as more transactional than a diary.

I think I use the terms interchangeably, although I say that I journal (verb) more than I say, “write in my diary.”

Journals/diaries don’t seem as popular as they once were. At least, from my reading, it seems that people kept diaries more than they used to. There are, of course, famous diaries, like those of John Adams, and John Quincy Adams, or Anne Frank. At one point last year I began reading the diary of Samuel Pepys. I suspect there are three reasons I don’t see as many people admitting to having diaries as they once did:

  1. There are no courses in keeping a diary. Certainly, I never learned how or why to do this in my schooling, a lapse that I am both grateful for, and that I also lament.
  2. Time is occupied by other activities. John Quincy Adams, even at his busiest, did not have social media, movies, and television competing for his attention.
  3. Litigation. People worry that what they write can be subpoenaed and so they don’t record anything.

It is something of a shame, really. All of those historical diaries sitting in various collections contain valuable data about everyday life across all walks of life. It seems like there is useful research information in that aggregate data.

For many years, I used red Standard Diaries, keyed to the current year. These were convenient for their ready-made pages, but limiting in that there was only one relatively small page per day. If I wanted to write more, I felt constrained. If I didn’t fill a page, I felt it a waste. Now I use large Moleskine Art Collection Sketchbooks, which have big blank pages that I can use however I see fit.

Assuming that diary and journal are interchangeable, there are two other written records that confuse me from time-to-time. There is the notebook, which Merriam-Webster defines as “a book for notes or memoranda.” When I think of a notebook, I think of the notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci. The line blurs, it seems to me. Certainly some of his notes were memoranda, some were notes, some were reflections, some designs. Were these not really just “working”journals?

Lab books are another type of notebook. Lab books are supposed to be a scientists notes for their experiments and discoveries. They showed progress, evolution of thought and ideas, and ultimately provided a recipe for others to reproduce their results. That is how my “notes” are today, although they are digital rather than notebook form. But that is not how I was taught to keep a lab book in college. In college, the implication in my chemistry and physics classes was that you had two lab books. One for your raw notes, the other one, a “cleaned up” version that you turned in for grades. I could never afford two so I always turned in my messy, raw notes.

A commonplace book is perhaps the most interesting of these forms of recording, and yet Merriam-Webster gives it the shortest shrift: “A book of memorabilia.” I first learned about commonplace books reading a biography of Thomas Jefferson. Back in his time, a commonplace book was a kind of learning tool. He recorded passages from his readings in the book, along with his own notes. It seems like another valuable learning tool that I was never taught in any of my formal schooling. You don’t hear much about commonplace books these days, although there was recently an article about digital commonplace books in the New York Times.

Today, instead of diaries and journals and commonplace books, we have blogs and Twitter and Facebook. And yet I keep thinking about something Walter Isaacson wrote in his biography of Leonardo da Vinci:

HIs mind, I think, is best revealed in the more than 7,200 pages of his notes and scribbles that, miraculously, survive to this day. Paper, turns out to be a superb information-storage technology, still readable after five hundred years, which our own tweets likely won’t be.

If I’d had a commonplace book, I might have copied this passage into it, instead of just highlighting it in the book.

One comment

  1. I think the distinction is lost in American English. The appointment book in England is called a diary, at least it was in Churchill’s time. My Bullet Journal for work is essentially a diary. A journal is a collection of thoughts, etc.

    Now, if you integrate the two…a journal being a collection of time-based thoughts, etc., then the two are synonymous.

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