Wednesday, October 15, 2008


“The sheer bulk of modern records
makes their destruction inescapable.
The difficulty is to decide wisely and well
what shall be destroyed
and what shall be retained.”

~ William Kaye Lamb, The Fine Art of Destruction

One of those things only I would be able to recognize and laugh at, is noticing that whenever I tenaciously clean my desk area at home, I’ll do the same sort of cleaning at work- or vice-versa. It seems that if I want to clarify my thinking, the effort manifests across the boards. Years ago, when my office-studio included a darkroom, one evening while at home it occurred to me how my kitchen resembled the photo lab. Right down to the little bulletin board above the light switch. Organizing baking utensils seamlessly mirrored how I kept printing and developing tools at the ready. One of the downsides to having many avocations mixed with vocations is how each involve accumulations.

And I’ve had to focus my pursuits, prioritize how I can try dividing the time I have, and then make space by giving away what is no longer useful. In the progress of living, we invariably learn that we can’t keep everything. I’ve found that I can do many things- but surely not everything. And would I want to, anyway? More than proving multi-tasking prowess, there is greater sublimity in selectivity and simplicity. Accumulations and collecting manifest in many forms, including the tools and results of our crafts, mementos, and assemblages of our thoughts. And equally, we can bury ourselves with both material and mental agglomerations, especially without some boundaries. Aspirations are not to be bound, not as we might exercise the confines of schedule and space. Limiting personal aggregations are separate from the detriment of limiting one’s perspective and aspirations. But how else to know one’s figurative limits, aside from lived realities? Being always younger than the majority of my colleagues, over the years, I’ve seen how many establish their limits. I’m also aware not to resign myself to limiting my sense of exploration and anticipation- choosing not to be sunk by cynicism. Doing this seems to require a vigilance similar to that of cultivating a body of work, or a craft. Looking at the work I do so intently, it has been occurring to me how there are theoretical connections between the different skills I practice and the spiritual vocation I’m called to express and pursue with my life.

Theory and practice: what we say and what we do; one can evaluate the other- and surely this is inevitably how we are evaluated. Momentarily speaking from the standpoint of a fulltime working archivist, it seems that archival theory has some application to this double-theme of managing excess. It seemed ironic to me, that while I’ve been organizing major historic collections, having the charge of one such department, and even traveling the region instructing the curatorship of archives, that my life apart from work should occasionally find itself in disarrays of paper heaps and jumbled thoughts! Why keep what neither serves nor informs? If simplicity helps me think more clearly, than it’s worth the effort to assiduously keep things simple and purposeful. For a curator of the soul, there are “collections management” issues that are really the same as those affecting document archives.

In graduate school, we studied texts by Sir Hilary Jenkinson, one of modern archival theory’s innovative minds. Jenkinson entered the field in the aftermath of World War I, when the antiquated profession found itself unprepared to deal with a massive proliferation of manufactured documents. A bit like today. Suddenly, the profession had to engage in the unprecedented obligations of selecting materials for preservation- and for disposal. Jenkinson posed the question, “What is the criterion for destruction?” “There,” he added, “is the starting-point of criticism.” The crossroads, in any matter, are what get us thinking. From there, we join a continuum of advocacy for the historic record, while also evaluating documentation against context. At the prospect of reaching his archival terra incognita, Jenkinson suggested keeping “destruction diaries,” that would inventory and thus represent what had been deemed documentary chaff. Decades later, with tested records-management policies long in place, W. Kaye Lamb added that while controlling quantity, archivists needed to keep open minds regarding future potential uses of the documents in our spheres of stewardship and carefully focus preservation energies on unique and informative collections. We all have only so much space and time- for an institution it may be shelves and laborers, and for a human soul there are limits on what we “give place” to, in our hearts and thoughts*.

Now consider what archival methodology has to teach about managing the extraneous. How to minimize and dispose of things and thoughts that obstruct my vision of sources that have actually strengthened me through struggles and false starts in this life. When I’m in the role of archival consultant, seemingly “parachuted” into incorrigible messes of heaped volumes, deteriorated ledgers, and rolled up embrittled maps, documents, and pictures... I begin with a survey. Resisting the impulse to stand still in overwhelm, surrounded by dusty and unlabeled piles in acidic boxes and bags (paper and plastic), I simply list what types of materials I can find- by format- getting a sense of what I’m dealing with. On such a cursory pass, I only move the stuff so I can see what there is, and to do some quick measuring. Each area and wall gets a name, like “3rd floor, north wall,” for example, so I can at least retrace my steps. All the complex strategies, labor-intensive processes, and researching follows. During those surveys, I make myself able to visualize the whole mess as a trim, finished, and indexed collection. Subsequently there are all the procedures for developing, presenting, and maintaining these collections, always looking for what may need additional conservation.

Likewise, for the archives of the soul, there will always be collections to manage, to groom, to verify, so they can be referenced well. A constant method, if you will, is that of maintenance: the tending of the soul. We are ever collecting information and impressions, and discarding them. Being our own curators implies an assessment of the vitality and value of our own inner archives of anecdotal thoughts, attitudes, and perspectives. After the type of triage I’ve described, which is needed when organizing a neglected corpus of unfocused accumulation, the follow-through comes in the forms of careful upkeep and watchful acquisition. Subsequent accessions are to be considered in light of the integrity of existing collections, their context, and pertinence. To appropriate again from Jenkinson, what you uphold must warrant your “physical and moral defence.” It may be an influence, an affiliation, a demand, an accumulation held too long after its records life-cycle, or some other burdensome digression. Here is where it becomes easier to shard away what can’t be used, by comparing whatever that is, to what is needed in order to progress to a wholeness that is a benefit to others, self, and true to a sacred vocation.

In this context, it makes a world of sense to dispose of these types of space-consuming inner archives, or even to make the effort to remove a pervading destructive consciousness of collected thoughts. But that is far easier said than done, and if what remains for a while is a Jenkinsonian “destruction diary,” then so be it- but let it be inconveniently shelved. In a spirit of trust, the obsolete and useless collections will ultimately be vanquished. The anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing observed how daunting distractions can get for those who “take up the contemplative work of love.” He advocated a healthy detachment from things material and even spiritual, from situations and projects both good and ill. “To put it briefly, during this work you must abandon them all beneath a cloud of forgetting.” In so bold an effort, repressive hindrances are effectively neutralized. A mindset of hopelessness leads nowhere and the antidote is trust in the Immutable, realizing how the Divine indeed manifests in our lives. This kind of mindfulness keeps us aware of the strength needed to artfully de-accession the records we don’t need. And in the yield there will be space for newer and more relevant archives.

* Ephesians 4 : 25-27


Anonymous said...

I only know I collect unnecessary things - material and memories, one can only consumed or store so much in one's mind and home, it's like memories - sometimes you file them away but never able to retrieve them, not in their proper form, at least not according to me since I can't seem to remember things very well

by the way, thanks for sending those postcards, at least I think the two without names are from you, the handwriting is the same and they're from Maine, I did have a few trouble reading them but it was very sweet of you to send them, thanks

D. Loon said...

As a fellow archivist I appreciate your thoughts on this. I often reflect on how my workspace remains perpetually cluttered even as I try to enforce order on the materials I work with. I've often thought that different people are drawn to archives work for different reasons, and I think that clutter and mess, for all that it irritates and frustrates, must hold some fascination for me . . .

I ought to go back and read Jenkinson and other archival "classics" again - lately my grasp of theory has gotten rusty. Have you read anything by Verne Harris?

John said...

Your images collude with the colors of your template in celebraing the warm browns and tans of the aged paper of books and documents.

Anne said...

I like how you write of the "archives of the soul". Detachment is a huge issue for me, but I never thought about detaching from spiritual practices. I can see how there is a lot to release in order to discern how it is that God wants me to come to him and to be united with him alone.

Do you ever think about becoming a spiritual director? I bet you'd be very good at it, and in a way, I suppose you already do give spiritual direction through this blog.

Thanks for your thoughts. I will be pondering the archives of my soul today, considering what needs to be kept and what may be ready to be tossed aside!