For my freshman and sophomore years of college, my work-study job was in the university's rare books library. The actual tasks I was assigned weren't challenging--I paged materials, reshelved them, and worked on photoduplication orders--but it was entertainment enough for a nosey and bookish 19-year-old. I'd wander among the stacks and pull out illuminated books of hours or slivers of papyri just to gape at them, and I'd do my photocopying very slowly indeed, reading as much as I could of Ezra Pound or Edith Wharton's letters and trying not to drop the boxes in shock when I came across another American writer's hokey but very nude photographs of teenaged boys.
In the long run, this job turned out to be a useful introduction to archives and archival work. In the short run, it made me an object of mirth among my friends as I started adopting some of the library's organizational systems for my dorm room.
Take my correspondence files. I was once a serious letter writer, and up through my late 20s I still routinely wrote and received longhand missives. (These days it's dwindled mostly to cards--albeit sometimes with substantial notes inside--and at best a few letters a year.) Inspired by the manuscript collections I worked with, I started filing my correspondence the way they did in the archive, and I continue to do so today: I slit the envelopes along three sides, unfold the pages or splay open the cards so that they lie flat, and use the envelope as a loose jacket or clip around the relevant pages. Then I order them chronologically within file folders labeled by correspondent and alphabetized by last name.
I suppose it's a little eccentric to treat these letters--some of them going back to when my correspondents and I were 16--as if they deserved the care accorded to Pound's or Eliot's. However, not only is this the maximally efficient way for me to organize and refer to my correspondence, but it also encourages as healthy and non-sentimental an attitude as it is possible for the kind of person who hangs onto all her letters to have. Sure, it's lovely to take out the missives of an old friend and see her handwriting and familiar stationery. But keeping her letters in a file cabinet implies that they are, ultimately, historical and biographical records rather than objects to fetishize.
When it became clear that my ex and I weren't getting back together, I printed out all the emails I'd saved for one reason or another over the years, deleted the electronic copies, and interleaved the printed versions chronologically with the cards and notes I'd already filed. Then I wrote a terminal date (2001-2007) next to his name on the folder tab, slipped it back among the 30 or 40 other folders in the drawer, and rolled it shut. It felt like an agreeable bit of housekeeping: I wouldn't be stumbling upon shoeboxes of letters under the bed or stay email messages when I wasn't expecting them, but neither would I live to regret shredding or burning or deleting those items in a misguided attempt at "closure." If I needed them, they'd be there--along with hundreds and hundreds of letters from the more important and more enduring people in my life.
I'm pretty certain that none of my correspondence will be sought after by scholars of the future, but I have a mania for organizing and historicizing my own life: hence that box of old journals I lug with me every time I move, those files and files of letters--and, I suppose, this blog. Perhaps it's a disease peculiar to academics.