Ever kept a diary? Part of my historian avocation (nobody pays me to do it) involves reading the journals/diaries of people now long dead. A danger in doing so is taking them too seriously. Diarists vary in their ability and “desire” to robustly represent their perceptions and experience. Some seem nearly robotic (George Albert Smith for example) in reporting what they had for breakfast and who they saw that day – and little else – as though they had little or no reaction whatsoever. Others seem to give us wonderful and candid detail even where great embarrassment might come from its revelation. Most edit the happenings around them, distilling their memories of the day or days into brief accounts of conversations, feelings, impressions, etc. filtered through a lens only they understand. Many write prayers and other sacred things.
Even the most candid only give us a picture of the past sieved through the obstacles of prejudice, faulty senses, point of observation, strong feelings, environmental issues or personal sensitivities. We see this when multiple witnesses to an event leave contemporary reports of that event. But the candid diary is far better than a blank page, even if it merely gives us a better picture of the diarist than the event.
Two diarists of note in Mormon history are the famous Wilford Woodruff (1807-1898), and the less well known but wonderful Abraham Hoagland Cannnon (1859-1896). Woodruff occasionally gives us some deep insight into various issues and feelings but most of these are not personal (his domestic interactions in plural marriages, say). He was a chronicler of the first water though. His journals extend from 1834 to his death in 1898. They leave tantalizing clues about what he was thinking, but sometimes do not betray those thoughts. For example,
Drove to the Office, feeling well. I thought it for the best to write my views and feelings on the matter which has been on my mind for some time and which has been made quite clear to me in regard to the Godhead and of which I hope to be able to speak at at[sic] the coming Conference so that I can submit the same to Bros Cannon & Smith [February 23, 1898]
On the other hand, he reports the words of others with some fidelity. For instance, his reports of Joseph Smith’s sermons are an important addition to the historical record. His reports on the doings of the apostles in Utah, particularly the words of Brigham Young and others are beyond valuation. Woodruff’s sermon reports are sometimes written from memory, sometimes by expanding notes taken at the event. In either case when other witnesses exist, it is seen that Woodruff does not give verbatim accounts but is mostly reliable in sense.
Elder Cannon, like Woodruff, summarizes his experience but often gives useful details. Here’s one excerpt:
Thursday June 1st 1893 . . . At 2 o’clock I attended my Quorum meeting in the temple. Present: all of the Presidency, though Pres. Woodruff had to leave because of weakness before the meeting dismissed, Pres. L. Snow, F. D. Richards, F. M. Lyman, John W. Taylor and M. W. Merrill as well as myself Geo. F. Gibbs Clerk. Bros. John D. T. McAllister, Nephi W. Clayton, and James Jack were also in attendance a part of the time. We first had some talk about the ordinance of adoption in the Temple. Jos. F. Smith said Pres. Young had told him to follow in the ordinance work for the dead the rules which will ordinarily govern similar work for the living. President John Taylor had ruled that no person could represent another who is dead in the receiving of any ordinance which the living person had not already received. The conversation lasted for some time, but was finally dismissed for future consideration when we could devote more time and thought to the subject. The custom was however approved of giving endowments to children over eight yrs. of age if they are dead and of sealing to parents only one generation beyond the one in the church.
My mother began keeping a journal in the 1980s. It is an interesting document and has a peculiar flavor to me because the events she chronicles are invested with perceived motivations and feelings that just weren’t there in my experience. I don’t think this kind of thing is abnormal.
Are you a journal keeper? Ever write dear diary? Got any interesting experiences related to reading a diary?
 General Authorities have been counseled not to record their authoritative interactions in private diaries.
 Since Woodruff, like many 19th century diarists wrote for posterity and eventually the public perhaps, most of his entries may be called self-conscious. Nevertheless, he can be quite candid. Even skilled early Mormon clerks assigned to attempt verbatim reports clearly edit in both subtle and obvious ways in the interest of keeping up with the speakers.
 Another issue is transparency. Is it even possible? And to define it?