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May 2001

Me, Myself, and I: First-Person Narratives

There is nothing more vivid or immediate than a story told in the first person, where the author (or some fictional I) tells the tale of his or her own experiences. Diaries and letters, eyewitness accounts of historic events or disasters, autobiographies and memoirs, first-person novels — all have a special fascination. The millions of readers of Anne Frank's diary or the millions of viewers mesmerized by the personal accounts in Ken Burns' documentary film The Civil War testify to that.

There are undoubtedly thousands of examples of first-person accounts in the Library's collections. Here are some that we found especially compelling. You can find many more by using the keywords diaries, letters, personal narratives, or oral history in a subject search of the Library Catalog, or by asking your librarians.

Diaries and letters are of course prime sources for first-person accounts. Whether written with the expectation of publication or in the privacy of the moment, they can offer fresh insight, opinion, and historical testimony.

Autobiographies and memoirs, including travelogues and other reminiscences, are another common form for the first-person narrative.

In addition to general memoirs, many people have left eyewitness accounts about newsworthy events in their lives, or accounts of how their lives were shaped by world events that affected many of their generation.

Modern media allow us to hear and see the actual voices and images of people telling their stories. The effect of first-person narrative can be quite emotional with this added dimension of storytelling.

The government is another source for first-person narratives. Public documents preserve testimonies on major public events, offering a vivid picture of the history and culture of our country.

The Internet is a rich source for first-person accounts of all kinds. Libraries, universities, and other archives with primary historical material can make that material widely available far beyond their own walls. Groups and organizations of people with common interests or experiences can gather and publish related accounts from all over the world. And individuals from all walks of life can disseminate their opinions to anyone who cares to receive them.

Fiction in the first person has been a genre standard since the novel's earliest days. Classics like Robinson Crusoe, David Copperfield, Moby-Dick, or The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn are well-known examples. But authors are still discovering the wonderful adaptibility and power of the form to create a wide variety of fiction.

Writers for teens and children know how direct the first-person link between narrator and reader can be, and young people themselves have discovered the power of telling their own stories. Both nonfiction and fiction first-person titles for and by young people are available at the Library.

Finally, for those who are inspired to create their own first-person accounts, there are many handbooks on journal-keeping and letter-writing.