Ask Unclutterer: What should I do with old journals?

Reader Kelly submitted the following to Ask Unclutterer:

When I was a teenager and a young 20-something, I often kept journals – not daily, but more in bursts. I haven’t kept one since I was about 26 or 27, and have no interest in reading these now and keep moving them in a box with me everywhere I go (I’ve had a few moves). I don’t get rid of them because I feel I _may_ want to look at them when I’m older (say 20 or 30 years from now), just as I recall my grandparents looking back on their own items with great affection and sentiment. However, I really would never want anyone else (ie, my spouse or children or other relatives) to read them since they were the angst-filled musings of a young person. I’ve told my husband of my concern about the journals, and to please throw them out if something happens to me, but they still cause me unease!

So, what do you think… keep or dump?

This is a question that I have struggled with myself, but not for the same reasons you are. I don’t care if someone finds them and reads them, but I’m more concerned about the amount of space three decades of journals takes to store. (Trust me, someone would be bored silly reading my third grade journal that is full of daily rantings on how I don’t want to practice the violin. The horror!)

Ultimately, your decision to keep or dump your journals should be based on your answer to the following question:

Why did I write the journals?

Once you figure out why you wrote in the journals, you should easily be able to decide what to do with them in the future. Here are some examples:

  • If you wrote them for therapeutic reasons, as a way to work through problems in your life, then go ahead and burn them.
  • If you wrote them as messages to your future self, then keep them.
  • If you wrote them as a record that you were alive in that moment, then keep them.
  • If you wrote them to vent your frustrations, then burn them.

There are hundreds of reasons why you may have kept them, but once you identify why you did, the next step should be clear.

I have written in journals for all but five years of my life because I wanted to keep a record of what life felt like at a specific age. I wanted help to remember who I was and how much I’ve grown. Which means that I have chosen to keep them.

If you choose to get rid of them, you must burn them. Throw yourself a party. Read some of your favorite entries. Then, toss them in the fire and don’t look back.

If you choose to keep them, put them on a shelf in a low-traffic area of your home and read them when the mood strikes. Don’t keep them in an inaccessible box like in a museum. Choosing to keep an object means that you’re choosing to have the object be a part of your life.

Thank you, Kelly, for submitting your question for our Ask Unclutterer column.

Do you have a question relating to organizing, cleaning, home and office projects, productivity, or any problems you think the Unclutterer team could help you solve? To submit your questions to Ask Unclutterer, go to our contact page and type your question in the content field. Please list the subject of your e-mail as “Ask Unclutterer.” If you feel comfortable sharing images of the spaces that trouble you, let us know about them. The more information we have about your specific issue, the better.

69 Comments for “Ask Unclutterer: What should I do with old journals?”

  1. posted by John on

    If you keep the actual physical journals, then your descendents will be able to read them (assuming the human race hasn’t devolved into losing written language). If you scan them… maybe. Scanning is a great way to deal with your bills, tax returns, and other such documents. But be aware that there are considerable technological issues around electronic storage of documents (library science types build whole careers sorting through this).

  2. Avatar of Erin Doland

    posted by Erin Doland on

    I just want to chime in and say that assuming your “legacy” and “descendants” will have any interest in your things is NOT a reason to keep something. First of all, you have no guarantees that you will have children or grandchildren or great grandchildren. Accidents, illnesses, and personal choices not to have children are always possibilities. Your DNA can stop with you or your children. Second of all, your offspring may not want your stuff. They would rather have memories with you than with your things. They can keep their own journals of their time with you if they choose to.

    Most importantly, your stuff will not make you live forever. Even if you keep journals that are published or stored on the shelves of the Library of Congress, eventually, a thousand years from now, you will be forgotten. And it is okay to be forgotten by future generations. We’re human, and that is our fate. Make the most of today, and with the people who are alive today, and live a remarkable life now. We get such a short time on this planet — stop feeling guilty about getting rid of an object that you feel is cluttering up your home. If it’s not clutter, than keep it. But, don’t let your “legacy” or “descendants” be what determines if you keep something or toss it.

  3. posted by John on

    I’d eat a bucket of bugs to be able to read the angst-filled musings of my father when he was young. My mother, not so much — I’ve already heard them.

    To me, journals are worth keeping. Stick them in the one box of photos you’re keeping. If you really want to take the plunge, scan them and stash a thumbdrive or CD in the photo box. If they’re just too embarrassing, edit them down or write some recaps for your kids and grandkids to read.

    Just don’t be like my grandmother. She journaled almost every day, down to the grocery prices, almost every meal, and saved thousands of newspaper articles. When she passed, we shopped her 50-year archive around to some history schools to see if we could donate it anywhere. No takers. Thankfully, my whole family could let go and it went to the dump.

  4. posted by Michelle on

    Based on the letter, it seems like Reader Kelly doesn’t really want to keep these journals. In fact, it seems like she’s asking permission to get rid of them.

    In which case, permission granted, Reader Kelly! If they don’t bring you joy now, and you only think you MIGHT want to read them again someday (but you’re not even sure of that), there’s no reason to keep them all.

    If you really do want to preserve something from these times, do as other have suggested and pull out a few pages to keep in a memory box and toss the rest!

  5. posted by Nat on

    I haven’t read every single comment yet, but I had to share my experience about reading my mother’s journals. Granted, 70 percent of it was very dry daily log type information, which I have since destroyed, but the pages during my parents’ divorce and right afterward were very enlightening. Those entries explained a lot. I was very glad to have them as a reference.
    I myself have several journals that I may one day edit, but I would still want to keep in some of the angst. All of it is a part of who I am. If my daughter wants to chuck them in a dumpster someday, that’s her business.

  6. posted by goldsmith_ie on

    I have kept journals, in a sporadic fashion, since I was 11 years old. I shredded some of them, which recorded a very unhappy period of my life. It was a liberating move, where uncluttering equalled confirming that this period was past and would not return. I kept all the others. That said, over a period of 32 years (from age 11 to 43) they take up only half a foot of shelf space, attesting to the fact that I was never the most avid journaller.

    However, I can also see the point of shredding journals which, from your adult point of view, are full of banalities that you cannot see the value of any longer. I never wanted to practice the piano, but that emotion was not journal-worthy even to my teenage self. :-)

  7. posted by Elizabeth on

    Keep the old journals! You may not be interested in reading them but your children and grandchildren will. Those old journals will help them understand what life was like for you at different ages. They will see your struggles and triumphs. They will know that you had similar concerns to their. Keep old journals!


  8. posted by Michele on

    I found that I tend to wear rose-colored glasses when it comes to the past. When looking at old journals, I was dismayed to remember some miseries I’d previously forgotten. I was glad to destroy my old journals and let sleeping dogs lie.

  9. posted by Jill on

    I recently shredded most of my journals, but couldn’t articulate why I felt it was the right thing to do, but Erin summed it up best:

    * If you wrote them for therapeutic reasons, as a way to work through problems in your life, then go ahead and burn them.
    * If you wrote them as messages to your future self, then keep them.
    * If you wrote them as a record that you were alive in that moment, then keep them.
    * If you wrote them to vent your frustrations, then burn them.

    Mine were therapeutic and venting in nature, and so I am comfortable with having destroyed them.

  10. posted by Daree Allen on

    I’ve kept a diary/journal consistently since age 13. That’s 19 years of history. It has help me craft my upcoming book. I didn’t know years ago that my experiences would be able to help people in 2009 and beyond. This is a case where I’m glad I kept them– all of them. No matter what I was going through, good or bad, I’m glad I have them. I can see how far I’ve come and inspire others to keep going, too.

  11. posted by Daree Allen on

    I’ve kept some form of a journal for the past 20 years (I’m 32). My teen and young adult years will form my upcoming book that I am working on. I am grateful that I saved all this information. No matter how good or bad situations were in my life, I can use them for good now. I am remind myself how far God has brought me, and I can inspire others to be better in spite of their shortcomings.

  12. posted by Samir on

    do you have a backyard? can you bury them in a time capsule?

  13. posted by Patrick on

    De-cluttering is a very positive thing in multiple ways. But journals are not clutter, they’re historical records.

    Your journal was just “venting” your way through a problem period? Would no one benefit later from seeing at least some samples of your thoughts as you worked your way through such a period?

    Censor if you will, selectively scan if you must, but a journal (especially hand-written) is a treasure-trove to someone wanting to learn about an ancestor or relative from long ago. Seemingly-superficial comments in journals often give invaluable facts, or even just clues, about family relationships for someone trying to piece together a family history.

    Unfortunately, for many, the value of such references seems not to occur until middle age.

    Before you part with a journal, try to find out something, anything, about a great-grandparent and his or her immediate family. Then re-visit the notion of journals as clutter.

    For something as unique and personal as a journal, I think it’s reasonable to take the position that you can _always_ dispose of it later. Unlike someother physical objects, though, once gone, a journal can never be replaced.

  14. posted by Bigscotty on

    I recently started snapping pics of the writing journals in which I scribble down sketch comedy notes, stories, one-act plays and such. What do I do with them after that?

    1. Snap photos of each page with iPhone.
    2. Synch the photos to iPhoto.
    3. Create an Evernote notebook.
    4. Drag all of the photos into the Evernote notebook.

    For the most part, I’m done at that point. The default file naming keeps the pages in order, but sometimes I’ll renumber them.

    While these aren’t hi-res, they’re good enough for me to go back and review as needed. Evernote does text recognition, but my handwriting isn’t great when I’m in a hurry.

    Sometimes I have notes about something I’m writing strung across two or three notebooks. Now I don’t have to carry them around.

    In short, it’s not a perfect solution, but I now have access to 20+ journals as long as I have an internet or 3G signal.

    Here’s a public notebook for an example:

    Another Example

    And Yet Another Example

  15. posted by Kelly on

    I am the Kelly who wrote the note to Unclutterer, and I am thrilled to get Erin’s feedback as well as so many reader comments! (I was traveling for a bit and just logged into my google reader to see my note was published a couple weeks ago.)

    It’s so interesting that this question generated so many opinions and thoughts – the very ones I have been struggling with as I debate this topic in my mind.

    I am going to take some time to make the decision, but I think I will be letting go of the journals. I like the idea of preserving some pages and passages and drawings for myself and any future generations, but I also am loathe to crack the spines and read these books of my youth! However, I think the idea of having some edited pieces of my own history is a good one.

    Asking myself why I wrote these is the most helpful piece (thanks Erin!) My journals really were mostly written in moments of anger and frustration, and as someone above mentioned, this would present a really unbalanced picture of my life as a kid. I was not a daily journaler mixing the good with the bad! The journals make it look like it was ALL bad.

    Anyways, very cool that so many other unclutterers are devoted to the clean out, but unsure about this type of sentimental object. Thanks everyone!

  16. posted by Julia on

    If your journals were written during an interesting time period, the Library of Congress may be interested in having them for research use. Check with them.

  17. Avatar of

    posted by Mom25dogs on

    I’m also into genealogy and love whatever bits and pieces of real life I have of my ancestors. I’ve got a place to keep them, so I keep them. I try to keep it in boxes and organized somewhat. I have a staircase attic and so it’s easy to store things there and I keep my attic in good order. My Grandma’s old collection of recipes in a shoebox, a box of poems that she clipped from the newspaper, my Grandpa’s little spiral notebooks that he was never without and into which he put all his farm and work related items (the hours he worked, how much he sold the cow for, how much hay he made, etc), hand drawn quilt patterns, etc. I kept journals a lot up until I got into scrapbooking and blogging. My blog is like a combination of a journal and scrapbook of everything that interests me. I try to print that out which creates big ole notebooks so I might just copy into a Word document and then save on a disk. It’s just that as technology changes, you may lose the ability to read that disc. My blog includes a recipe I tried, some genealogy, a Bible study I did, some house decorating ideas, etc. I’m a prolific writer. It’s just all on my blog now. My old journals, I went through and tore out some stuff but I’ve kept them and maybe (or maybe not) someone will be interested. I can understand if you don’t have room to store things like that or if your journals are too gut wrenching. But, nows the time to start new journals and you can write memories in them from now. And you are mature enough to know what to include and what to exclude.

  18. posted by handwritten journals « catwrangler on

    [...] I just found this post with a large amount of journal burners.  It is on a site about uncluttering so the ones that do [...]

  19. posted by Jill on

    Personally, I have destroyed every one of my journals. (I do regret throwing away my journal that my mom and I would write together each night when I was little…. (I would tell her what to write and she would write it) besides, my grandma gave me the actual journal…it was so pretty. :(

Comments are closed.