Some final notes

As our investigations relating to collecting practices in the Icon Age have taken a somewhat different turn since we first undertook this work, we have decided to terminate work on this Knowledge Development journey. As noted in the previous post, a wide variety of issues were revealed by the study. It made it clear that the texts selected for mark-up in the present day were often, but not always, distinct from those that had been selected many years before. This was not, in itself, surprising, but we wanted to understand what trajectories of reasoning had changed the most and this was not so easy to pinpoint. We were interested in whether things like the type of document marked up, when it was originally marked up, the place of work at the time, and the interest in the topic would make a difference to the degree of contiguity between the original markup and the new markup. However, none of these seemed to have a consistent effect. More than anything, we have concluded that understanding the nature and relevance of document markup practices for knowledge development is something that would require significant further investigation in its own right.

The story of storyboards

It’s been well over a year and a half that I displayed the second set of storyboards on the side of my bookcase – plenty of time to experience what its like to live with them. However, I can’t say I’ve given them a great deal of use. Every now and then I’ve selected another sheet, hung it on the display, and had a glance at its contents – but perhaps only a dozen times across the period. That’s not to say I didn’t find the contents interesting. On the contrary, I found I was coming across points I’d already forgotten about, or wouldn’t ordinarily connect directly with the main topic of the storyboard – a finding which I also experienced in the first trial (see the heading facts/Discovered/Re-discovered in the ESB Evaluation Results post). Other members of my family were also interested when I showed them the display and explained what it was all about – but not enough to spend any further time exploring, even when some of the topics were things they were familiar with. The fact that this set of storyboards included several other types of items other than books (which the first set was limited to), seemed to make no difference to myself or to family members. Perhaps this overall reaction is understandable since viewers have no real reason to examine the installation in more detail. Like a picture on a wall, it provides an interest for the eye but demands no closer inspection. People need to have a reason, an incentive, to do more.

Of course, the fact that this is a static, paper-based, display conceals its hidden content: it does not connect with a modern person’s notion of interactivity. A screen-based display, as originally envisaged for the storyboards, might perhaps inspire a greater curiosity; though, beyond an initial inspection, I suspect there would still have to be a rationale for exploring. Maybe such displays are, in fact, just pictures on a wall – but with an additional dimension of background links which have to be displayed automatically, in turn or in other configurations, to enable its viewers to experience its complete composition. Would that inspire people to interact with the display, or would they simply stand and watch? Well, perhaps a bit of both: at least one doesn’t preclude the other – though probably best not at the same time unless by picture-in-picture.

As with the first trial, I had created PDFs of the storyboards for display in the Sidebooks app in my iPad. In addition, I created an equivalent display in my laptop. The latter was able to link out directly to associated items held elsewhere on the laptop (as opposed to including all the material in a single PDF for the Sidebooks display). I did look at the Sidebooks storyboards occassionally in order to follow a particular link. However, I rarely, if ever looked at the laptop version. I guess the iPad was simply closer to hand and provided more immediate access. The laptop version is certainly a powerful beast providing access to the complete version of the books, for example, which were not included in their totality in the Sidebooks PDF. However, on trying it out while writing this post, I found that it annoyingly shuts down the master front-end index PDF when a link is selected and another file is opened. No doubt this will fixable somehow or other, but it’s another example of how there will always be glitches when trying to interlink systems and files.

Inspiring viewers to access storyboards may be a little difficult, but that is the least of the challenges associated with such displays. Their production demands some creative energy and is extremely time-consuming: individuals would need a huge incentive to undertake the work for rewards which are way in the future. Perhaps, it would be easier to undertake the analysis as each item is acquired, instead of trying to produce a whole set in one go. However, people have difficulty in just labelling and placing newly acquired items in an organised store, let alone going through such a rigorous analysis process as well. In discussing this with my son, he pointed out that, in any case, one’s feelings about an object may be very different at the point of acquisition from those several years later. This thought prompted him to develop the notion of revisiting an object periodically to build up a picture of how one’s feelings for an object were changing over time – a development that could be displayed graphically on a screen. However, this would demand yet more work from innocent owners who just want to add something to their collections. There is one piece of information which would not require any work to generate and which could be used by a system to generate a timeline display, and that is the date of creation of the digital object. That might be interesting – but would only be factually correct if all the items were born digital; the date of items which were acquired in physical form and digitised later would bear an incorrect acquisition date.

Summing up my experiences with my two sets of storyboards, I have to conclude that, while the results are very interesting, the work to produce them is probably going to be too great for most collectors. Perhaps the circumstance which would provide the greatest incentive to undertake such work is when a collection is to be digitised prior to the disposing of the physical items – as was the case in my first storyboard trial when I digitised 36 books to remove them from my book shelves and destroyed them in the process. The heartache an owner might feel in undertaking such a final no-going-back act, might inspire the production of a set of storyboards in memoriam.

Practice Hierarchy writings

About a year ago I reported that my colleague, Peter Tolmie, and I were working on a book about digitisation’s impact on collecting, based upon all the investigations and writings already described in this blog, as well as auto-ethnographic investigations of a variety of collections that Peter and myself have been associated with. The book will expand many of the notions put forward in the OFC tutorial, and therefore I shall continue to provide updates on our progress on the book, within this Order From Chaos journey.

Since my last report, we have moved on from the auto-ethnographic investigations and derived a draft Practice Hierarchy for collecting, which has eight upper levels – Initiating, Equipping, Acquiring, Depositing, Using, Revealing, Maintaining, and Disposing. We are now in the process of fully verifying, describing and illustrating all the elements. Having done that we plan to analyse and describe how digitisation has affected all these practices – though it may take us several months to get to that next stage.

Placing PAWDOC

Construction of the book on collecting that I’m writing with Peter Tolmie, is now well underway. However, this Personal Document Management section of the OFC website doesn’t seem an appropriate place to report on the development of such a wide-ranging text. Instead, I shall record details of our progress in the Order from Chaos section of this blog.

This journey on Personal Document Management has nearly run its 40 year+ course. I summarised my findings on that extended trial in some entries a few years ago; and there is only one remaining aspect that I am actively investigating – to find a permanent repository for the PAWDOC collection. Its going to be challenging: despite contacting several possible institutions over the last seven years, and publicising my goal in various forums, I’ve had no success so far. Just to be clear, this is what I’m offering:

  1. The PAWDOC digital collection of 31,000 documents dating mainly from 1972 to the present day, fully labelled, and documented in 17,300 index entries; and all of them in Windows folders under the control of an established Digital Preservation maintenance regime.
  2. Two archive boxes of some 330 PAWDOC items that were judged worthy of keeping in hardcopy form, and for which the reasons for keeping were recorded in a spreadsheet and described in the unpublished journal paper ‘IV in PIM: The applicability of Intrinsic Value in Personal Information Management’.

  3. A few other associated documents that could be included with the collection, such as a leather-bound volume of 63 reports of visits to UK, European and US organisations during the period 1979 -1982;  a bound copy of the organisational documents, proceedings of, and delegates to, the first European CSCW conference in 1989; a bound copy of reports on, proceedings of, and delegates to, the first US CSCW conference in 1986; a signed and bound copy of ‘The Network Nation’ by Hiltz & Turoff annotated with notes for the 1983 book ‘Introducing the Electronic Mailbox’; and copies of the books ‘Sorties into the IT Hurricane’ and ‘Meteor: a story of stamp collecting in the eye of the IT hurricane’.

Anyone interested should get in touch with me.

Reflections on a visit to the Gallery

It’s been nearly a year and a half since the simulated Electronic Trophy Gallery was completed and hung on my study wall. Since then, I may have looked at it seven or eight times – certainly not a great deal more: I’ve had no special need to consult it. Perhaps, the main prompt to inspect it has been to establish if a particular item has been included – and I’m pretty sure that there was one occasion in which I determined that a deserving candidate wasn’t there. Herein lies one of the shortcomings of the simulation: to include an extra item would require substantial effort to redesign the PowerPoint images; and to reprint the dual A3 pages, match them up, and get them into the frame so that they look a relatively seamless poster. A truly electronic system would be considerably easier to add in new items – which is certainly something I need to be able to do. For example, I self-published a book earlier this year entitled ‘Meteor – A story about stamp collecting in the eye of the IT Hurricane’, and that certainly deserves a place in the Gallery.

Despite this difficulty, the simulated Electronic Trophy Gallery has substantial advantages. For example, when I decided to write this evaluation piece, I stood in front of the frame and picked out an image of a rugby cap labelled A19. I picked up my iPad, opened Sidebooks, found the section on ‘Paul’s Trophies & Certificates’ and selected A19. The cap appeared in full technicolour. Subsequent pages displayed it at different angles, followed by, to my surprise, some pages in The Mountaineer (the magazine of my school, Mt. St, Mary’s College) with descriptions of some of the games with my name mentioned twice, and the final page recording that Full Colours that year had been awarded to S.J.Bolger, P.A.Wilson, and A.Maggiore: that was what the cap was for. This was a most pleasing collection of goodies to find, particularly as it was so easy get at. Had I really forgotten those pages were there? Well, yes. There are over 200 items represented in the Trophy Gallery and I can’t remember every page that I assembled as I constructed the iPad version of the Gallery a year and a half ago.

I looked up some of the other items in the Gallery. Some had just the images (like the front, spine and award plate of the Black Beauty book I got as a class prize at school); whereas another contained the text of a conference paper I gave together with the preface by the conference chairman and the contents of the whole book of proceedings.

It is the immediacy of being able to open up items on the iPad, and the ability to find more information about an item so quickly, that is the most striking aspect of this installation. If I had to choose between the physical artefacts and this simulation, I would say that you’re asking the wrong question: It would be totally impractical to assemble all this material and their adjuncts in the physical space in my study. This simulation is the only way it would work unless you had a very large house, lots of money, and access to presentation specialists. A more appropriate question would be whether I would be prepared to destroy all the physical artefacts and make do with just the digital versions? The answer to that is ‘yes’ for some things and ‘no’ for others. Some things, such as the trophy I won for winning a pool competition in a hotel while I was on holiday, was destroyed long ago; however, the physical books, journals and magazines in which my writings appear, are all stored away in a bag in the loft – relatively inaccessible but still in existence.

Am I likely to look at the Gallery very much in the future? Well, no, I don’t think so. But that’s not really the point. Having it there is the important thing. Knowing it’s there, containing a complete set of the things I regard as trophies of my achievements, and being available for access whenever I so desire, is the value afforded by this installation.

Obliteration Findings

The original objective of this Object Obliteration journey was to eliminate some of the physical mementos and letters that I have, and to store them in more effective containers in less space. In the event, I destroyed relatively few physical items – just 88 or 12% of the total 710; but do now have much more satisfactory containers, though unfortunately taking up slightly more space than before.

The most prominent reasons for keeping items were that they were reminders of people or events special to me, and a desire to have particular items visible and easily accessible to peruse at my leisure. Underlying these reasons seems to be a feeling that a physical folder makes its presence known to you every time you notice it, and that the items within it are somehow a limited number of special objects which are there to be looked at. Having the items in the physical folder means that they won’t be forgotten. A set of digital files, however, is essentially invisible, and you have to make an effort to go and look for it. Furthermore, it doesn’t feel like a self-contained entity with a specific set of contents that you are perusing – just an indefinite series of very similar entities on a single flat screen. In summary, I think I was keeping the things I would definitely want to look at again, in the knowledge that they would be placed in a physical folder which would mean I wouldn’t forget them and could get at the whole set easily and quickly without having to do any searching.

The other prominent reason for keeping items was that they, in some way, told a significant story about me, my work and my life. I wanted to be able to revisit that material, and/or for others to be able to have easy access to that material after I am gone. Having said that, I was under no illusions that most of the mementos and all of the letters are of little or no interest to anyone but myself, so any thoughts of others looking at the material at any time and be interested by it, was really just wishful thinking which, nevertheless, did influence my choices.

Two interesting observations emerged from the exercise. First, as I moved the mementos into their new, more ordered homes, I began to think they would benefit from some kind of index, or even a summary of their contents. I wondered if this is a generic phenomenon: that, as things become more orderly and are housed in more prestigious containers and spaces, so the urge rises in us humans to provide guides to, and information about, the material.

Second, two different sets of material gave me cause to think they would be easier to access and read digitally than in their original physical forms. These were a set of 8 pocket diaries, and a whole series of greetings cards. Both types of material are a little more difficult to store than a plain page of paper; and access to both can involve more than a quick look at a single image (an obvious point for the multi-page diaries, but it also applies to larger cards which have to be stored in their folded state). Since, I have a digital copy of every item, whether it is retained in physical form or not, this realisation simply impacts how I access the material: the decision to keep or destroy such physical objects will usually be dictated by other rationales as illustrated by the variety of reasons for Keeping and Destroying recorded in this journey.

For both Mementos and Letters the overriding reasons I recorded for destroying items was that they were of no special interest or significance (69% of the reasons given), and they concerned someone who I only vaguely knew or have lost touch with (12%). However, it’s clear from my notes that, for those 88 items I did destroy, it wasn’t such a traumatic decision. I knew that the contents would still be intact and available in a digital copy even if the physical missive was not, and this made it easier to destroy the physical item. In the face of this unarguable fact, I didn’t feel that I had fully obliterated any of those items. They still lived on, even if in other forms. This realisation prompted me to dig a little deeper into what would constitute total obliteration from the human perspective; and, my musings led me to think about three different components of this phenomenon: a physical item, a digital copy, and the memory we have of the item in our minds. Perhaps, I thought, true obliteration requires that all three be destroyed so that the human observer no longer has any perception of the object, and the object makes no impact on the human.

Further exploration of these three types of object – physical, digital, and memory – throws up some interesting observations.

  • Originals and copies: Each of the three types of object can be an original object or a copy. Physical objects are easy to think of as originals; and they can be copied by artisans, by a 3-D printer, or in a manufacturing process. Digital objects are created in files, which can then be copied or printed out. Any thought can first be created in someone’s mind (the original memory object), and then be written down (the copy). Examples of original memory objects might be things like an idea for a painting or a storyline for a book; and the resulting painting or book could be considered to be copies of those memory objects (though uncertainty about how exact the copies are is a considerable complication).
  • Adjustability: Physical objects would seem to be less easy to adjust than digital objects; while memory objects seem to be much more fluid and may not only be adjusted by circumstances or time, but also be embellished by related items or events. Furthermore, I know from my own experiences, that memories of objects, at any given time, may or may not be incomplete, inexact or sometimes, just plain wrong.
  • Transitions: an original object of any one of the three types can be transitioned into a copy in one of the other types. For example, a digital photo can be taken of a physical original; a digital file can be copied into a physical book; and an idea in someone’s memory can become a digital PowerPoint slide. However, such transitions always incur both the gaining and the loss of some characteristics. For example, in the transition of a physical object to a digital copy texture is lost and code is gained; and from digital to memory (as when looking at a digital photo) the ability to expand is lost, and the memory of it is embellished by the place in which you saw it.
  • Transmission: From the human perspective, memory enables the transmission of information and knowledge within an individual from one day to the next; from one year to the next; and from one part of life to another part of life. The transition of memory to verbal, written, or other form (either physical of digital) enables the transmission of memory from one human to another within a lifetime, and across lifetimes.
  • Obliteration of originals: If an original is obliterated (say, a physical object is destroyed, or a digital object is deleted, or a memory object is completely forgotten) the object may still be available to be perceived in a physical or digital copy, either within the originator’s lifetime, or sometime in the future.
  • Actions on object types: An interesting way of comparing the characteristics of such objects is to look at whether humans can carry out various actions on them. The table below examines the following actions: Perceive, Describe, Adjust, Combine, Transmit, and Destroy.
Perceive Describe Adjust Combine Transmit Destroy
Physical Yes Yes Maybe Maybe Yes Yes
Digital Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
Memory Yes Yes Not explicitly Not explicitly Only by transitioning No
  • IT Impact: IT has introduced a massive number of new original and copy objects, and made the transition and transmission of memory objects and physical objects much, much easier. In addition to introducing all these completely new objects, IT has also had an impact on physical and memory objects as summarised in the table below.
Perceive Describe Adjust Combine Transmit Destroy
Physical original Computer imaging and magnification enables greater detail to be seen No impact By physical machinery controlled by IT By physical machinery controlled by IT By computer managed transport No impact
Physical copy Computer imaging and magnification enables greater detail to be seen No impact By physical machinery controlled by IT By physical machinery controlled by IT By computer managed transport No impact
Memory original No impact No impact No impact No impact No impact No impact
Memory copy No impact No impact No impact No impact Digital files/email enable thoughts to be stored and sent Digital material can be deleted
  • Other questions: A number of obvious questions might be asked after considering the above material. For example: Are Physical, Digital, and Memory objects actually objects in their own right regardless of whether they are originals or copies? Does being an original confer greater authenticity? Is a digital object containing a part of a digital original, a copy of that original?

Having toyed with all these thoughts, I returned to my original notion that true obliteration requires that all three representations of an object (physical, virtual and memory) – be destroyed; and I’m inclined to think that is the truest position to take. After all, if I have memory of an object and can talk about it and write about it, the object is clearly still having an impact on me; and, to my mind, it is ‘impact’ that obliteration is intended to eliminate. Unfortunately, memories are not either there or not there – they get forgotten, become less precise, and get recalled as fragments – so this isn’t a very precise or useful notion. The only thing we can be sure of is that an individual’s memory of an item is destroyed when the individual dies (at least, that is currently the case). So perhaps it’s best to leave human memory on one side, and to just focus on physical and digital originals and copies. These, at least, can be perceived and assessed with a degree of certainty. My conclusion from this narrowed perspective, is that obliteration involves the destruction of all physical and digital originals and copies. This would exclude mere references to an object in a document or a verbal description of an object by an individual – though it would also have to entail the destruction of an object (such as a photo) which is included within a larger object. I’m not too sure if this is a useful conclusion, or that these deliberations have been worthwhile; but at least the question about what object obliteration means in the digital age, hasn’t been left unexplored.

Pragmatic Container and Space Considerations

The 4-Ring binders and plastic wallets that I bought on the net, have turned out to be just fine for my purposes. Although relatively cheap they are sturdy and capacious, and I have eventually ended up with most of my entire collection of letters in three such binders, one of which has a good deal of spare capacity for future additions from my wife and children (such future additions likely to consist mainly of birthday, christmas, father’s day, anniversary, and valentine’s day cards). I anticipate making very few additions to my collection of missives from other people given the general demise of letter writing in the face of widespread use of email, text messaging and, more recently, video calls.

I ended up retaining all of the 79 airmails dated between 1967 and 1974 from my mother and father, rather than a subset as I originally envisaged, for two reasons: first, it would have been a very exacting job to pick out particular ones to keep; and, second, I was putting them into a smaller ring binder of their own (which I had retrieved from the loft) and found that they all neatly fitted into it, so there didn’t seem to be any point in trying to weed out some of them: pragmatic container and space considerations can often tip the balance in such decisions.

Overall, I retained 392 of the 453 physical items; the 61 items I destroyed only being some 16% of the total – rather less of the draconian clear-out that I envisaged. This despite having a digital copy of each and every missive. However, at least my objective of replacing seven or eight floppy containers which didn’t stand up on their own, with just 4 sturdy ring binders (as shown in the picture below) has been achieved.

More intimate but humbler things

Despite thinking I would be more prepared to destroy physical letters than physical mementos, this has proved not to be the case. I haven’t got the numbers yet, because I’m going to make some final decisions when I put the letters into the folders I’ve ordered. However, perhaps the numbers aren’t important, because, as I went through all the material, I came to realise that it was the very personal nature of these artefacts that was making the difference. Generally speaking they generate a much greater feeling of intimacy than most of the mementos I was looking at earlier in this study.  These letters are things I become immersed in and that I’m drawn into, to wallow in the words that speak directly from the individuals concerned and in the backdrop of shared experiences and emotions that the sentences create in my mind. Consequently, I’ve concluded that anything I retain will just be for me. They are of no interest or value to anyone else, and will almost certainly be destroyed after I’ve gone. Apart from my own gratification, the only other consideration is whether I have the space to accommodate them. Hence my decision to delay selecting items from the airmails from my mother and father, and from the cards from my wife, until the folders arrive and I see how much space all these missives are taking up.

There is one salient point that occurred to me as I was thinking about the large numbers of Xmas, Valentine, Birthday and Anniversary cards I have from my wife. These are rather more bulky and with less writing on them than an ordinary discursive letter, and, as such, may be a lot easier to just flick through on an iPad. This is perhaps the first time that I’ve been inclined to think that an iPad experience may be better than looking at the real thing in a plastic wallet, and so I may dwell on that thought for a while. It might be interesting to replicate the folder collection I end up with, on the iPad; and then to actually try looking through both. One thing’s for sure, as noted many times in this blog, the iPad version will be a lot easier to store, look after and access than a great big 4 ring binder.

As for the physical storage I have ordered, I deliberated long and hard about what to get. The easy decision would have been to replicate what I bought for the Mementos – smart looking leather covered 4D ring binders with special acid free plastic wallets with various numbers of pockets on each page. However, I calculated this would cost me upwards of £150, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to spend that much on things that I had now realised were to be purely for my own benefit. I then looked at more substantial wallet folders with 100 or more integral plastic pockets, but concluded that I did need a loose leaf system to enable me to add new material to a group of letters from a particular individual. So, I finally ended up choosing two plain white 4D ring binders with large, 9cm, spine widths for £4.07 each; and 300 55micron plastic wallets for £7.97. The major expenditure was £22.50 for 50 2-pocket plastic wallets (these I used before for some of the Mementos). Without inspecting them in the flesh, I’m not totally confident the binders and 55 micron wallets will be suitable – but I’m crossing my fingers. This experience has highlighted my different attitudes towards the two sets of material: the Mementos are all indexed and numbered, and somehow I seem to imagine they might be of interest to others in the long term; so they were given VIP treatment in luxury leather binders and acid-free plastic wallets. The Letters, however are not indexed, and are just for me, and so are being provided with bog-standard, cheap, binders and plastic wallets which may or may not be loaded with acid. I await their arrival with interest to see if my internet punt has paid off.

Musings before starting on the Letters

My initial thoughts before starting on the second, letter, phase of this journey, are that I am much more interested in preserving the content of letters than the physical artefact. Perhaps this is partly because most letters are manifested on very similar, relatively uninteresting, physical objects – sheets of paper. Of course, when a missive is transmitted in an unusual physical format, such as a rolled-up scroll for example, then I know that that did influence my keep/destroy decisions in the first pass I made through my letters 6 years ago. However, generally speaking I think I’m quite happy just to be able to access the contents of most old letters electronically.

Of course, letters and cards from people I am particularly emotionally attached to – such as those from my wife and children – are a different kettle of fish. I have a feeling they are the items that are going to present the biggest challenge as I try to slim down my collection of physical letters. On looking at what I’d written about my earlier experience of digitising my missives and disposing of many of the hardcopy versions, I see that I retained just over 400 letters and cards out of an initial total of about 1900; and that 131 of these were from my wife, 85 were early letters from my parents when they were in Singapore and I was at boarding school, and 31 were from my children. I see that I also identified the following four reasons for not keeping the items I disposed of. They were: embarrassing content, embarrassing event, not interesting or special enough to keep, and won’t fit into storage container. I wonder if any of those reasons will come up in the exercise I’m about to embark upon – if I manage to dispose of any items at all.

Interim debrief: mementos

The uncertainty and confusion reflected in my previous post were dampened down a little as I finished assessing each item to decide if it should live or die, and started to move those items earmarked for survival into their new binders and boxes (more of those later). To remind you, the main driving factors in this exercise are the need to make space; and the need to move the retained objects into loose leaf storage containers that won’t fall over. This first stage has been looking at mementos; the second stage, which I shall start once I’ve finished this interim debrief, will be looking at letters, cards and other such missives.

I started out by building a spreadsheet to record my thinking, and developed it over the first few objects I looked at. It ended up with some 22 headings intended to fully document my reasoning about why an object was being kept or obliterated. The first objects I considered were two prayer books and a hymn book which were with me through eight years of boarding school. I’m no longer a church goer, but these books and I have history; so, it was a good test to get stuck into the process. I ended up choosing to destroy the three volumes, and the spreadsheet suggests that I did so primarily because a) I had no use for them, and b) they were dirty and torn. How did I feel afterwards? The spreadsheet records ‘Should have done this long ago’.

With this positive start in my drive to make space, I embarked with some confidence upon assessing the 285 Ref Nos with physical items in my Memento collection (the other Ref Nos exist only in digital format). The first thing I did was to go through the index and identify those items that I definitely wouldn’t get rid of and designated them ‘Not a candidate’. I reasoned that there was no point in going through a time-consuming analysis process if obliteration just wasn’t on the menu. This eliminated 140 of the 285 items. Next, I identified those items that were not stored in the plastic wallets or presentation folders in my study cupboard. There were 28 of these stored in various places such as the loft, display cabinet, bookcases, chest, and frames on the wall (our lives are rarely straightforward….). I then used the spreadsheet headings to analyse the remainder; but the result was disappointing – I ended up by only destroying 27 items – about 10% – a meagre amount compared to the 41% of original items that were excluded from the collection in the first place when it was being assembled; and the 69% of those that were included in the collection, being destroyed and retained only in their digital form. Given that perspective, my latest attempt eliminated relatively few; but perhaps it simply underlines that the previous sorting had truly separated out the items I really wanted to keep? After all, it wasn’t as though I had breezed through the exercise. I had had to think hard about each object, and, as the exercise went on, I found it harder and harder to understand why I was keeping things – but, for the most part, keep is what I decided to do. In the end, I came back to the obvious conclusion that these were my objects and therefore I could decide to do whatever I wanted with them. Other considerations such as what would happen to them after I’ve gone, or whether the family or, indeed, the world, would have an interest in them, were peripheral.

Interestingly, there were 12 items which, despite either being initially categorised as ‘Not a Candidate’ or which the analysis process had designated as ‘Reviewed and retained’, were eventually obliterated in the final stage of moving them to the new containers.Eight of them were pocket diaries which one would have thought would have been prime candidates for keeping; but, no, I realised that they are far easier to access and read on the screen, and they are highly inconvenient shapes to store in quantity. They went.

The other four items were two long newspapers articles, a spoof issue of The Times, and a self-help booklet on managing one’s time – all of  which I eventually concluded I would never, ever, read again.This whole experience seems to suggest that, while there is a bedrock of basic criteria and feelings that apply when an individual is deciding to keep or obliterate, it is, nevertheless, always a little pliable around the edges.

One other observation came through strongly in this exercise: the decision to obliterate is much easier to take if a scan of the object already exists. I had already scanned every item when I organised the collection in 2014, so there was no work to do in any of these obliterations: the object still lived on in the digital world whatever I did to it in the physical realm (as testfied by the above pictures).

Regarding the act of obliteration, I discovered that my primary concern was to ensure that, when it was in the recycling bin, it was clear that it was done with: I wouldn’t have wanted the opportunity to reconstitute it myself, nor for anyone else to think it was still current. This was usually achieved by tearing the paper into four or eight pieces. I had no desire to completely obliterate it (that would have taken far too much effort): I just wanted to put it into an ‘out of action’ state. I suppose objects do get reconstituted after being merely damaged – but not the material I was obliterating. The few tears did the job. Those items will never be the same again.

Perhaps one of the most interesting observations from this exercise was that, as I moved the collection into its new binders and boxes, I perceived it becoming much more organised and accessible, and, concurrently, worthy of a comprehensive index – perhaps with an accompanying precis of the events represented by the collection’s objects. The leather ring binders and the accompanying plastic wallets of varying configurations (single pocket, 2 pocket, 3 pocket, 4 pocket, 8 pocket etc.) all came from a company called Family Tree Folk. The binders are good looking and spacious and will make it easy to look through the thinner material housed in the plastic folders. I also acquired a sturdy clamshell box from the same organisation. Together with a couple of box files that I already had (the Butterfly and Around the World boxes in the picture below), these containers house the thicker material such as booklets, magazines, phone directories etc..

The box containers are so much better than the plastic wallets that flopped about on the bookcase shelves, and provide much easier access to their contents. However, inevitably it’s the leather binders that will get flicked through, and the boxes will remain opaque repositories of hidden objects. I mused about how references to those objects could be included amongst the leather binder pages, and then realised that this was really just a sub-plot to the bigger problem that all this stuff is tucked away and rarely looked at. I should really apply my own OFC mantra – to use and exploit the objects that one keeps. I’m not sure what I’m going to do yet – but the whole question of bringing this material to life is certainly on my mind.

Going back to my original objective of freeing up some bookshelf space, I think that’s a bit of a lost cause. I have undoubtedly thinned the collection down a bit – but the improved containers have taken up a lot of that extra space. However, I’m going to have to live with that as I don’t fancy going through yet another painstaking analysis and selection process. Perhaps the letters which I’m going to tackle next will be a more fruitful culling field.