Select Few

May 3, 2011

I may regret admitting this, but from the ages of about 9 to 14 I was pretty deep into collecting baseball cards. Of course maybe I should be proud to admit it, if only to prove that I have moved beyond Baudrillard’s infantile, scatological collector’s mindset. Whatever the case, I recall that I could never get rid of any cards, no matter how many duplicates piled up. Five 1988 Topps Oddibe McDowell cards, one with a gum stain on the back? Keep ’em all and let me sort them out, in increasingly smaller piles arranged by number (first by 100s, then by 10s, then 1s…). Monetary value was one factor in my collection, but, obviously, it was not primary consideration. Just because Beckett’s Monthly categorically confirmed that those 1988 Topps were valued at 2 ½ cents for “Commons” doesn’t mean that anyone would actually pay anything at all for them.

Maybe if I had grown up in New York City I would have been more of the mind of getting rid of unwanted items by placing them on the sidewalk in front of my apartment building, as is the local tradition. I appreciate the sentiment of the practice — I can’t use this, but maybe someone else could, which is preferable to throwing it away or taking it to an overpriced “thrift” store — but I often wonder at the ideology of the situation. If you can’t use a pile of unmatched Gladware lids, do you really think they would be a great boon to someone else? And once that sweater or box of VHS exercise tapes have sat out through an overnight rainstorm, shouldn’t they just be tossed? A very odd mindset here indeed: one can’t let go enough to throw something away, but once it’s on the sidewalk, it is no longer one’s responsibility no matter how long it sits untouched.

But enough on my localized pet peeves of navigating Brooklyn sidewalks and tripping over cheap Ikea furniture. What prompted these thoughts were a couple of articles I recently read related to the concepts of selection and deaccessioning. One might say that these are some of the dirty little secrets of archiving…except they’re not dirty and they’re not secrets. Or, they shouldn’t be secrets, but they are in a way because the general public doesn’t really know what goes into the practice of archiving.

This is quite apparent in the first article I read about the investigative journalist Paul Brodeur’s feud with the New York Public Library. Seems that Mr. Brodeur donated his papers to the NYPL Manuscripts & Archives a number of years ago. It sounds as if the donor agreement had the standard stipulation that NYPL had the right to return any materials they determined to be inessential to the collection. There are a number of reasons for this kind of policy — duplication, non-original or non-unique materials, content that has no bearing on the interpretation of the collection, Xeroxes, etc. Space, staff, and storage resources are highly limited — and researchers don’t really want to dig through more than they have to — so this kind of culling is standard practice.

However, after an extended processing period, NYPL informed Mr. Brodeur that there was X percentage of papers not desired, and he could either take them back or NYPL would dispose of them. Seems Mr. Brodeur blew a gasket over this and now is using all of his connections and muck-raking powers to demand the full collection back and shame NYPL into bankruptcy and/or revising long established archival standards.

This conflict was exacerbated to a degree by the lag between ingest and completion of processing the collection (another issue, another time…), but I feel like things were at least equally exacerbated by the lack of knowledge about archival process and the emotional ties to objects one has similar to my devotion to iconography of journeyman infielders with .250 lifetime averages. I would guess that when Mr. Brodeur donated his papers, he simply emptied his file cabinets into boxes and sent them along. As we all experience, our personal files (or desk piles) are filled with important papers, but also with all the things we didn’t want to deal with at the time and then forgot about. Junk mail that got thrown in with other papers, copies of articles we read or always planned on reading, to-do lists, receipts, Chinese restaurant delivery menus…Things mingle, pile up, and, if we’re not careful, they take over physical and mental space they do not deserve.

To the creator, just as to the person who cannot trash 3-year old packets of soy sauce from old take-out, each sheet, each object is imbued with potential significance or emotional import. The archivist must have a clearer head — What level of resources are available to care for all collections? What will researchers use most? How is the integrity of the collection and of one’s profession best maintained? These decisions may seem arbitrary, Procrustean, or insensitive to those outside the process, but the decisions (should) have a strong basis in an organization’s mission statement and collection policy, best practices, subject area expertise, and various institutional factors. Articulating these issues and how they are evaluated to donors and the public should be an important opportunity for outreach and education from the archivist’s and the institution’s positions.

Which is why I was heartened to read Linda Holmes post “The Sad, Beautiful Fact That We’re All Going To Miss Almost Everything” on NPR’s Monkey See blog. Ms. Holmes has crafted an intriguing meditation on the fact that there is more cultural content in existence than any of us could ever consume in multiple lifetimes, and so this has lead to a couple of coping strategies: Culling, the act of pre-screening what one chooses to take in, and Surrender, which is more a melancholy acceptance of the facts combined with an undiminished interest in enjoying what little we can attain.

Though this post is from the user’s position rather than the archive’s position, it still touches on similar themes and considerations that we all must face as active imbibers and cultural custodians. Ms. Holmes comes down on the side of the more lyrical strategy of Surrender, but I feel that both have their uses. Accepting that not everything will be accessed or saved is important, but it is more passive in nature. Culling, which could be considered curation in a way, is an active process for shaping and maintaining collections. Archives are living entities that require active management, not stacks of papers stored in boxes waiting around just in case someone decides to browse the contents. Archivists perform highly-skilled, highly valuable duties to help make sure that our culture doesn’t surrender too much. That’s a thought worth holding onto and putting out on the street for the public to take.

— Joshua Ranger