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Dear Diary: an interview with Laura Barnicoat

The Great Diary Project is a repository for unwanted diaries of any date and kind. In the pages of the 2,000+ diaries collected for the project so far are the most remarkable details of everyday life, often overlooked in the history books. In preparation for The Poetry School’s Summer Workshop ‘Dear Diary’ at The Bishopsgate Institute – home of The Great Diary Project – we had a chat with Laura Barnicoat, who has been a researcher for the project since 2011.

How did you get involved with the Great Diary Project?

Laura: I saw a small exhibition of diaries that mentioned the project and so I got in touch with the founder, Irving Finkel, to see if I could help. He was about to start making a radio documentary about diaries and needed researchers to find stories from his collection that would make good material for radio.

What’s it been like building an archive from the ground up?

Laura: At first no one was able to help us – it seemed there was no space in other archives and they all had specific focuses that our collection didn’t match. However, after the radio documentary people started getting in touch with us, including Bishopsgate Institute who agreed to take them in.

Do you have a standout diary that’s been unearthed so far?

Laura: There are lots of good ones. I loved reading one recently about a man who worked for Highgate Cemetery around 1800 and rode around London on a horse-drawn bus, noting down what he was planning on cooking for dinner that night- most often it’s a sausage!

Do you ever feel like you’re prying too far into somebody’s private life?

Laura: Not really, because they are often unnamed and anonymous. You do get a sense of the character of the diarist and just as in real life, some of those characters you warm to and others you don’t…

Is it possible to write for yourself, or are we always writing for an audience?

I think they might be both things – written for yourself to try and understand what has happened and test out ideas, preserve and capture things, as well as to communicate with someone, but it’s an unknown audience, which is interesting.

What do you have planned for the collection? I read that you’re making a film…

Laura: Yes, I have made a short film which is confined to my blog – it did not quite make the final cut to the official project website! Film making is so difficult. I am excited about the idea of the poetry workshop and finding the best diaries in the collection, selecting small fragments or sections to use as inspiration for storytelling – I would like to make postcards using these fragments to send to people. We are also working on a new exhibition at Somerset House and are collaborating with the Maritime Museum on a project about Pepys.

Collecting and reading through such a huge number of diaries must be fascinating – what aspect of the job do you find most interesting?

Laura: Looking for the mysterious, unexplained detail that opens up an imaginary story and getting a sense of the voice of the diarist.

Do you write a diary?

Laura: Yes, I have written diaries since I was about 18 – not every day, but now and again I like to draw pictures and write down phrases that I have been thinking about, or descriptions of people or places. They become this weird part of your library that you don’t know what to do with, almost a taboo, but I still like them.

The project has spurred you on to write a blog about your findings – what inspiration do you think poets will find among the archives?

Laura: I think the diaries leave gaps for us to fill in. As Emily Dickinson, who I think would have related to the project, once wrote: ‘To fill a gap insert the thing that caused it…’

If you’d like to join Laura Barnicoat and Julia Bird in search for poetic inspiration amongst the diaries at The Great Diary Project, ‘Dear Diary’ is available to book online or by calling our offices on 0207 582 1679.

Laura Barnicoat has been a researcher for The Great Diary Project since 2011. She features in the Radio 4 documentary ‘The Man Who Saves Life Stories’ and has interviewed historians such as Kate Summerscale and Iain Sinclair on the subject of diaries. She is currently making a film about the collection, as well as planning future workshops and exhibitions inspired by the archive.

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