Is Hoarding An Archival Activity?

June 4, 2012

When I first moved to New York I lived in the Brooklyn Chinatown section of Sunset Park, an approximately 20 block long area sandwiched between a largely Hispanic section of the neighborhood and the primarily Hasidic Boro Park neighborhood. On my block was a small Indian bodega (which I’m guessing is a term that has transcended its original classification) that carried a large selection of Bollywood films on VHS. I never saw anyone shopping in this store but assumed it must be serving some nearby Indian population, given the broad ethnic mix of the area and the stacks of videocassettes with Xeroxed cover art taped to the plastic housing — a common enough site not just in New York but anywhere I’ve lived with an immigrant population large enough to support their own “specialty” grocery store. (Well, I assumed that was the case…either that or it was just another front for some undocumented, cash only business. Again a seemingly common site in New York).

A recent article in the New York Times reported on this continuing phenomenon of VHS rentals available in immigrant heavy neighborhoods (“For Movies, Some Immigrants Still Choose to Hit Rewind”). Of course the article assumes this is something unique to New York because, well, New York, but, regardless, I still found a lot to think about packed into this “Hey look, people do things” story.

In a way, the anecdotes made me feel a smidge less vehemently against the “We are all archivists” creed. Not because I would call some of the people in the article archivists, but because I recognize common struggles and discussions about using and managing media collections. We have the characters enamored with the ritual and aesthetic of the format and technology (Yes, for VHS. There are people who love video more than film.) (“‘They’re not living things, but it’s alive,’ he added, his eyes brightening. ‘There’s something there. You put it in the VCR, and it comes alive.'” … “Anyway, she added, using videocassettes ‘feels like an old Korean tradition kind of thing.'”). We have the characters storing tapes every which way but loose as they struggle with inadequate space and facilities (“Mr. Matsoukas is now saddled with about 40,000 videocassettes, a vast majority of which are stuffed into the boxes and garbage bags that clog the shop’s basement. Others line bookshelves, or are stacked in blocks on the floor and the counter.”). We have the characters unwilling or unable to deaccession (a kinder way of saying hoarding) because there might very well be something unique among the ruins (“Mr. Matsoukas offered a practical reason for his devotion: not all tapes have been transferred to more modern formats, and among them may be a rarity, if not the only surviving copy.”) or some person somewhere some day may be looking for something (“Mr. Sangotte and other shop owners said that as long as there remained a possibility of eking out some revenue from their cassette stock, they would suffer the clutter.”). This is coupled with the dream of monetization, that somehow there is the chance of realizing direct monetary exchange for materials that cannot currently be sold 10 for $1, or less (“The last time he tried to donate some to the public library, he said, he was rebuffed.”).

One day last summer I was walking in my neighborhood and passed a man setting up a table full of VHS tapes. He was telling a bystander, “I’m going to stay out here all day and sell every on of these.” I imagine he’s still there.

Common characters. Common struggles. Common discussions. But here’s where the Archivist typically (or typically should) differ — by taking action. Items might be unique? Take an inventory and do some research to find out for sure. Can’t deaccession? Develop a policy and enact it. Have your tapes stored in garbage bags? Take them out and put ’em on a shelf. Want to monetize your collection? Well…Quit archiving and purchase or license some other kinds of materials out right.

Sorry. No easy answers for any of this. There no getting around the fact that resources are needed to take action, but, in truth, it’s our training and our duty. It’s what we should strive towards doing. I reckon moaning to the New York Times is one form of advocacy, but I would prefer the human interest on me to be about an archiving success, not my problems. Well, about an archival success or about how many marshmallows I can stuff in my mouth and still say “Chubby Bunny”. I’d take that as well.

— Joshua Ranger