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Amsterdam Diaries and Other Stories of the Self Conference

26 October 2023 - 28 October 2023

In October 2025, Amsterdam will celebrate its 750th anniversary. In light of this upcoming celebration, two of the city’s institutes of higher education, the University of Amsterdam and the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, are inviting academics, artists, and others to share their research and knowledge on one particular topic: Amsterdam diaries and other stories of the self. An exciting lineup of key-note lectures and workshops given by our esteemed colleagues Julie Rak, Nina Siegal, Nadia Bouras and Diederik Oostdijk will provide each participant with a panoply of intellectually stimulating new insights on various aspects of life writing and the beautiful city of Amsterdam.

We are in particular focusing on Amsterdam-based self-narratives across the centuries, told by ‘ordinary individuals’, such as diaries and memoirs. We want to examine what it was like to live in the city, to study, work and go out, engage with other people, find places where one belongs (or perhaps feels excluded), and to move through its streets. Given the city´s long history of migration, the conference seeks to account for the life stories of people with diverse backgrounds in order to study, for example, how migrants have narrated their experiences in this city: how do they tell stories of the place of arrival, their first impressions, chances, challenges and restrictions of this new environment?

Through the theme of Amsterdam life stories, we will further explore the various ways in which the city is manifest in self-representations, whether as a socio-economic space, a cultural environment, a historical setting or otherwise. How do people engage with the city’s history and geography; with texts, imagery and discourses about Amsterdam; with its architecture; and with the life stories of citizens from the past, such as Rembrandt, Spinoza, Anne Frank, Anton de Kom? How does their street and neighborhood relate to forms of self-fashioning and identity-construction? And how do people narrate changes in the city, caused by war, crisis, or environmental conditions, that affect their everyday lives and life-trajectories? It is our goal to explore the life stories which can be found in diaries, letters, memoirs, graphics, sound recordings, or stories told to relatives and researchers. Jointly, we aim to discuss what these stories (and their interpretations) can tell us about the way individuals and groups have perceived and experienced the city of Amsterdam throughout the centuries – and which modes and forms of self-expression are practiced. In that sense, we will explore how the collection of such personal stories can construct a new and diverse ‘biography’ of the city. We further want to bring together experts from life writing studies and urban history. Both fields of study have gained prominence in the humanities and social sciences in recent decades, but their crossovers are still under-explored in scholarly research.

It is our aim to stimulate dialogue and open up new avenues for studying how the city shapes the self, and how life stories and self-constructions shape the city. The conference encourages dialogues across boundaries of theory, methodology, genre, place, and time. Possible themes the speakers can focus on are:

  • Coming of age in Amsterdam
  • Feelings of (non-)belonging
  • Places of arrival
  • Intercultural encounters and connections
  • Experiences of particular places, such as the harbour, Central Station, parks, and markets
  • Cultural traditions and practices of self-narration (in for example Christian and Muslim cultures)
  • Collective rituals and commemorations
  • Visual and textual expressions of city life
  • The uses of self-narratives in secondary and higher education; in museums
  • Amsterdam-based scientists: their personal experiences in the city and in public debates
  • Policies and practices of making the city’s collection of diaries more inclusive and diverse?
  • Notions of home and home-making practices in life writing
  • The potential of Digital Humanities to store and map historical information about diaries and diarists in its spatial and temporal context
  • Theoretical approaches to the intersections of life writing and (urban) life narratives
  • Diaries and their (lack of) references to daily urban life
  • The collection of urban life narratives and issues of in- and exclusivity 


The event will be hosted at the University Library of the University of Amsterdam (address: Singel 425, 1012 WP, Amsterdam) – starting at 13:30 PM on Thursday, October 26 and finishing on Saturday, October 28 at 17:00. 

Conference fee & languages

There will be no conference fee, just a small charge for lunch. The conference languages are English and Dutch and it will feature four keynote presentations, ca. 30 panel presentations, a round-table session, and possibly performances, a city excursion, and a museum visit. 

Please register here.

For questions, please contact us at

Organizing committee

Organizing committee

Babs Boter, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam

Ernestine Hoegen, Independent researcher

Marleen Rensen, Universiteit van Amsterdam

Leonieke Vermeer, Rijksuniversiteit Groningen

Alexander Williams, Rijksuniversiteit Groningen

About Amsterdam Diaries and Other Stories of the Self Conference

Starting date

  • 26 October 2023 - 28 October 2023

Abstracts keynote lectures (in the order of the program)
Julie Rak

Paper Lives, Post-Digital Connections

Since the eighteenth century, when Benjamin Franklin created a chart to track his daily attempts to embody thirteen virtues, journaling has been an important way to record on paper the various technologies of the self, including writing and reflection. By the late twentieth century, the advent of the personal computer and the internet had changed how people recorded their lives. Surely then, recording the details of one’s life on paper will soon be a thing of the past, particularly for people who did not grow up with cursive writing, pens and paper? The answer is “no,” and especially not for people under the age of 25, who in studies have said that they prefer paper diaries and journals to digital diary and planner apps. How can we understand the use of journaling on paper in the wake of the post-digital turn, when analog and digital technologies inform each other? Is there a connection between the use of social media and the concept of journaling on paper as good self-care and discovery, and if there is, what can the connection tell us about the technologies of the self in the 21st century, in Amsterdam and beyond?

Prof. dr. Julie Rak holds the Henry Marshall Tory Chair in the Department of English and Film Studies at the University of Alberta for 2019-2024. She lives and works on Treaty 6 and Region 4, Metis Nation. Her major areas of research are auto/biography and life writing, popular culture and North American literature. She has other interests in book history and publishing, as well as online forms of identity construction and graphic memoirs. She is committed to researching what ordinary people think, do and write about their lives.

Nina Siegal

Intimate Recollections: Examining Shards of the Ruins on Which Our Contemporary City Was Built (working title)

"WEDNESDAY, APRIL 14, 1943—Do you remember that winter evening, a Saturday evening, when we went shopping together on Kalverstraat? We went to Hoying, where we bought those lovely fruit knives….When we came out of the shop, the street was one big, surging mass, and everything was bright and gay.…  I have drawn you this picture to tell you what the city looks like now. Kalverstraat is a sea of shutters. Even in the daytime only some of them are removed; most of them are nailed shut. Shop windows all display the same wares. Wooden brooches, for example, are sold by lingerie shops, furniture shops, department stores—in a word, by everybody—because there’s nothing else to sell.”     

These are the words of diary writer Mirjam Levie-Bolle, writing during World War II, and painting two portraits of Amsterdam in her diary: the before, and the now. The contrast is striking but they are both intimate recollections. It’s as if she’s taken two photographs to hold them side by side: both are fleeting; each city is already, nearly gone. The French literary critic Philippe Lejeune has described the diary as “a daunting face-off with time.” It forces us to stay in the moment, because “it is always on the very crest of time, moving into unknown territory.” This is what makes diaries both difficult as literature, and powerful to read. They promise no structure, no narrative arc; they lack cohesion, and do not seek a satisfying denouement. They can break our readerly contract off mid-sentence, never to be taken up again. Yet diaries are the first draft of memory, a record. They insist that every moment is the present moment. And in doing so, they allow us to examine the shards of the ruins on which our contemporary city was built.

Nina Siegal is a Culture Writer for The New York Times from Europe, and the author of four books. Her most recent book, The Diary Keepers: World War II in the Netherlands as Written by the People Who Lived Through It (Ecco/HarperCollins) is a nonfiction exploration of the Dutch Holocaust. She has previously written three novels, You’ll Thank Me For This (2020), The Anatomy Lesson (2014) and A Little Trouble With The Facts (2008). Siegal was an urban culture reporter for Bloomberg News, a product reviewer for The Wall Street Journal, and a freelance contributor to scores of magazines including The Economist, Art and Auction, W. magazine, and many other art publications. She has also received numerous awards and grants for her writing, including a Fulbright Fellowship and the 2021 Whiting Foundation Creative Nonfiction Grant. Siegal was born and raised in New York, and has been living in Amsterdam since 2006.

Diederik Oostdijk

Anne Frank’s visual Diary

The Diary of Anne Frank is undoubtedly the most famous and most widely read diary written in Amsterdam. More than 30 million copies have been sold, and Anne Frank’s story of hiding in the secret annex has been translated in dozens of languages, and adapted to different media, for instance in plays, graphic novels, and movies. For many generations of young people, The Diary of Anne Frank is their first introduction to the horrors of the Holocaust.

Less known than the written diary is that Anne Frank also narrated her experiences during World War II. Not only did she make drawings and doodles herself, she also cut out and selected postcards and images from magazines which she attached to her wall. This paper analyzes what those images tell us about her development as a teenager, and how they evoke a world outside Prinsengracht 263, in Amsterdam and beyond.

Yet Anne Frank’s visual diary does more than that. It also invites us to reflect on how people – young and old – nowadays collect images of themselves and project that into the world. Anne Frank’s wall of images can be seen as a precursor of social media, such as Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest. With the notable difference that Anne Frank did not only garner images to give herself a place in the world, but also bring the world into her room, into her life.

Prof. dr. Diederik Oostdijk (1972) is professor of English and American Literature at the Faculty of Humanities, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. Most recently, he published two books on the Netherlands Carillon in Arlington, a gift the Netherlands gave to the people of the United States to thank them for helping to liberate the Netherlands during World War II and for the Marshall Aid. Bells for America was published by Penn State University Press in 2019, and a lavishly illustrated Dutch version titled Klokken voor Amerika was published by Boom in 2020. A bilingual exhibit based on this story is mounted at Museum Klok & Peel in Asten, the Netherlands, which runs until May 2021.

Nadia Bouras

Een klas apart: de coming of age van een generatie Marokkaans-Amsterdamse leerlingen op de Arabische school (in Dutch)

Lang voor de huidige discussie over bijzonder onderwijs richtte het predikantenechtpaar Boiten-Du Rieu in 1971 midden op de Amsterdamse Wallen de Arabische School van Amsterdam op. Een aparte school met alleen maar kinderen van Marokkaanse gastarbeiders. De leerlingen kregen er naast het Nederlandse onderwijs elke dag Arabisch ter voorbereiding op hun terugkeer naar Marokko. Maar de gezinnen bleven, de kinderen werden Amsterdammers, en in 1996, 25 jaar na de oprichting, hield de Arabische School op te bestaan.

Een klas apart is de unieke geschiedenis van de eerste Arabische school van Nederland, die uitgroeide tot een van de grootste basisscholen van Amsterdam, en de persoonlijke zoektocht van Nadia Bouras naar hoe het haar en haar klasgenoten verging. Wat bezielde twee Amsterdamse dominees om een school voor Marokkaanse kinderen te beginnen? Wat is er geworden van juf Fatima die keiharde tucht en orde in het klaslokaal niet schuwde? Welke invloed had de school op de ontwikkeling van de leerlingen?

De geschiedenis van de Arabische School vertelt het coming of age-verhaal van een generatie Amsterdamse kinderen. Met een Marokkaanse achtergrond weliswaar, maar onmiskenbaar Amsterdams. Nu, een kwarteeuw later, zijn ze volwassen en nieuwsgierig naar hun geschiedenis. Ze zijn in de stad geïntegreerd en één geworden met de Amsterdamse identiteit. Maar dat proces is pas compleet als ze ook in haar geschiedenis zijn geworteld. Het verhaal van de Arabische School van Amsterdam is daarvan het tastbare bewijs.

Dr. Nadia Bouras is University Lecturer in Social and Migration history, History Department, Leiden University. Bouras is an expert in the field of the migration and integration of Moroccan people in the Netherlands. She is an Assistant Professor in the History and Urban Studies departments, and is also a representative of the Netherlands Institute in Morocco (NIMAR). Nadia Bouras makes regular media appearances on current affairs relating to migration and integration.