Friday, May 13, 2011

The archival imperative, redux

I'm starting to pack up the apartment I've lived in for the past five years, and though I have plenty of stuff that needs to be purged, the real problem is my compulsive commitment to paper.

I have a four-drawer file cabinet that's full of paper. Until a few days ago, I had nearly as much paper outside as within it (and that's not counting what's in my campus office). All this paper was well-corralled--in labeled folders, with each folder filed in a drawer, box, or wire organizer--but it struck me that I could probably winnow it down to a more reasonable volume.

Some of it was easy to get rid of, like the folders containing ancient utility bills, credit card statements, and records of oil changes for my car or rabies shots for my cats. But such household files amounted to less than one full drawer. The other stuff was. . . trickier. I had four linear feet of correspondence, dating back 18 years; a file of ephemera such as postcards, fliers, and pages torn out of magazines (label: "Schwee"); every goddamn piece of mail I ever received from my graduate program, including a complete set of letters announcing my TA assignments; and a whole raft of carefully photocopied and organized general-interest articles from places like The New Yorker.

An earlier version of myself obviously thought that I would need all these things someday--and "need" more than "want," for I experience this impulse as being about good record-keeping more than about preserving sentimental souvenirs. Sure, I have three shoeboxes full of old playbills stored atop my kitchen cabinets, but I go through them at least a few times a year, trying to figure out if I've seen a given actor before, and in what role. But with the passage of time, some of my mini-archives become mysterious even to me: I don't know why I thought I'd need an article about McKinsey & Co., or another about divorce laws in Louisiana. Yesterday I found, within a larger storage box, a shoebox with three newspapers and four magazines, all of them dated within days of September 11, 2001. The front page of The New York Times from September 12th is, I suppose, a historical artifact. But what did I ever expect to do with it?

I've always assumed that my mania for paper-keeping dated from my first years of college, when my work-study job was deep in the bowels of the rare books and manuscript library. But although that's certainly where I learned to file correspondence properly (pages unfolded, with the envelope slit to enclose the open card or letter), I discovered last month that this compulsion long predated my arrival at college.

My parents, you see, are selling their house--the house they had built almost 40 years ago and that I grew up in, and when I was out west in April they had me go through some of my old stuff. I knew that I had a bunch of papers in a box in their basement, but I wasn't prepared for what greeted me. Apparently, at some point around age twelve, I started preserving everything I'd ever written: the three books I wrote at age eight. The wacky-ass homework assignments I produced in my early teen years (I have no idea what the actual assignment was that inspired me to create a fake police case file, complete with hand-aged manila folder--but I'm pretty sure it didn't ask for that). And, God help me, the two novels that I started around the same time: hundreds of pages apiece, one a boarding-school novel, the other an attempt at an adult thriller. That box held the complete creative oeuvre of young Flavia, organized chronologically. It wasn't small, and it was full.

I don't think I ever believed that I was destined for greatness--my archival impulse has never been about preserving material for future Scholars of Flavia. But I suppose the impulse is at bottom a sentimental rather than merely a practical one: I might need that. I might want that. And when I do, I'll know exactly where to find it.

So although I did make a major purge, reducing my collection of files by some 40%, I'm still attached to a number of things whose value I can't explain. Yes, of course I kept all my diaries, all my correspondence, and every essay and short story I ever finished. But I also kept those TA assignment letters, and the notes from my DGS on the first draft of my dissertation prospectus, and the letters of welcome from the university where I taught for a year as a lecturer. Maybe in another five years I'll be ready to let those go, too. But right now, I want them. They connect me more solidly than my memories alone to the past and to the person I was then.


New Kid on the Hallway said...

Okay, I find this kind of funny, because I am packing my apartment now, too (we've only lived here three years), and I am DELIGHTED every time I can pitch a piece of paper. I keep asking NLLDH, "Do you need this?" in the hopes that I can ditch something else. I have kept some notes/cards from my aunt who passed away a year and a half ago. But I shred everything else. I just threw out a notebook's worth of medieval research notes dating from 2004-2007; I threw out all the acceptance letters from law schools I didn't attend.

I think it's just that I'm lazy; every piece of paper I can throw away is a piece of paper that doesn't have to get packed, moved, and unpacked later!

Flavia said...


It's a funny thing, because I'm generally really good at throwing stuff away, and doing so gives me a great sense of satisfaction. Lots of the paper I got rid of was easy--I didn't have to think twice about throwing out most of my undergraduate notebooks (though I kept a few, and all my major papers). I really do have a rage for order.

But there are others things I'm mysteriously attached to, and it's more true of paper than of physical objects (that is, if I haven't worn a shirt in three years, there's no chance I'd feel I should keep it around "just in case"). But those almost-form letters from my graduate department telling me I'd passed my orals, or had my diss prospectus approved, or been recommended for the PhD? Those I feel I need.

Luckily, I guess, the things I'm sentimental about take up less space than clothes, kitchenware, or tchotkes.

Sisyphus said...

Keep it! Keep everything!!!!!

Why no, I'm not a hoarder. I think.

Andrea said...

I have been doing the same thing to my work office. I think part of that urge was growing up pre-internet. If you didn't save an article, you were never going to see it again. I was able to get rid of alot by reminding myself that I could find it online. But what really helped? Scanning. I know I don't really need the grade sheets of students in my class 10 years ago at a different university but.....So I scaned anythinglike that and stored it in dropbox. Now my files contain only active materials but I still have all of that "Just can't quite let it go stuff." Hoarding in the cloud is awesome!

Flavia said...


I think your growing-up-pre-internet theory is exactly right. Looking at all those general-interest articles I'd so diligently saved, photocopied, and preserved was like trying, with great effort, to return to an earlier mindset: what was I thinking? I could find any of them again on the internet in five minutes!

And I REALLY like the idea of hoarding in the cloud. Maybe when the book is done I'll scan and upload all the articles and book chapters that I photocopied in the course of my research (many of which are not available electronically). I hate the idea of not having access to them, but they take up a ton of space and aren't anything I'll need regularly.

G-Fav said...

This is awesome: "(I have no idea what the actual assignment was that inspired me to create a fake police case file, complete with hand-aged manila folder--but I'm pretty sure it didn't ask for that)."


Anonymous said...

I had two four drawer lateral cabinets. and Little tiny scanner (Canon P-150, I'm in love) and I have been cured. All correspondence from my entire life, bins of journals (Kinkos can cut the spines off)... I have been FREED and I didn't have to give up any of it.

Flavia said...


Oh, you have no idea. I have assignments I wrote on (fake) parchment paper, with a fountain pen, and hand-bound. I have assignments presented as newspaper front-page mock-ups. Going crazily over and above was apparently my M.O. from ages 12-15.


I could never do that, I'm afraid--not with letters and journals! I want the stationery, the stamps, the actual ink and texture. I'm a sucker for Benjaminian aura of the O.G. document.

Dr. Koshary said...

Old TA assignments? Seriously? But...why? I'm solidly in favor of throwing out as much paper as you can get away with, and not letting the fading memories of this or that stay your hand. Granted, I don't know exactly what these memories of grad school are, but it's hard to imagine a parallel in my own life.

On another note, I agree with G-Fav: your compulsive overachievement in your teens was awesome. Also kind of insane.