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 testified 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.

It has to be just as I see it

I feel I must write about where I’m up to because there’d be a huge gap in the story if I didn’t. My main motivation for trying to reduce the number of my physical mementos was to make space; but, as I’ve been going through each item, the same thought kept recurring: what’s this for, why am I keeping it? These questions prompted others: will I ever really look for this again? What would prompt the inheritors to be interested enough to value this? Are some of these objects so inherently integrated, complete and whole, that they deserve an existence in their own right? In the meantime, I’m wondering if I will ever regain any space; and I get back to “what’s this for?”. Round and round. Inevitably it comes back to me; to what I want. Whether it be what I want for my future self, or for the owners who come after me, it has to be how I see that story. There seems to be no black and white; it’s a subjective thing. Its how I see it; or how I want it to be. Its my choice. If an item survives it has a place in the future and has an influence, tiny or otherwise. If I destroy it, it is removed from the canvas. It may still have an impact by its disappearance, but it may only be missed by me – or not – and very probably not by anyone else; and life will go on as though it was never there. Whatever life is; and whatever going on is; and whatever there is.

Bobbing thoughts and questions

Despite my last post providing extensive musings about objects, a few additional aspects have occurred to me and I’m feeling the need to explore them before I start work on my first test objects. These ideas are unresearched and not particularly erudite or novel, and I only set them down here to stop them bobbing about on my lake of thoughts.

Objects can be anything, large or small. In fact, so far as I know, all objects are actually made up of large numbers of very, very small atomic, and even sub-atomic, objects; and these basic objects can combine to be objects of any number of different sizes including very large objects such as stars.

Of course, this description of objects is a purely human notion – an idea which enables us to make sense of our surroundings. Somehow, we are able to recognise individual objects when we see them – we perceive them as distinct entities with specific forms (though, we need to be aware that we may only be perceiving a subset of an object’s characteristics, for example, we don’t sense the heat radiated from objects). Fascinatingly, humans and all lifeforms are themselves objects in their own right.

However, perhaps the most interesting thing that humans inject into the world of objects, is that we actually MAKE objects. Objects such as toasters are unlikely to emerge from the simple interaction of matter with the laws of nature. Humans choreograph the laws of nature to combine objects of various sizes and types into novel objects which they can recognise and use. It’s not just humans that have this ability; the animals on earth have similar capabilities, for example, birds build nests, and ants build ant hills; and the corollary is also true – both animals and humans can shorten the natural lifespan of particular objects or obliterate them completely.

Obliteration means the total destruction of something – or at least total destruction as perceived by humans . Most of us find it quite easy to envisage such an event: it brings to mind images of something being smashed to smithereens, or of being reduced to crumbling ashes in a fire, i.e., what was an identifiable object with recognisable characteristics, has had its form removed to become just a collection of smaller objects. However, these concepts are not so clear cut in the digital age, in which a digital version of an object can be retained indefinitely even after the physical object has been destroyed. In absolute terms there is no question that obliteration has occurred; however, from the human viewpoint, the digital version can convey some part of the fully formed essence and integrity of an object. Which begs the questions, which parts; and what’s missing; and can obliteration be said to have truly been achieved if both the physical and digital versions have been destroyed but not the memory of the object in a human’s brain?

With all that said, its time to get stuck into my first group of test objects….

Templates v3.0: DONE (after a 7 year journey)

Life has become a little more relaxed in the last few days as I completed the 2021 digital preservation maintenance exercise on my PAWDOC document collection. I cracked on through the most onerous parts of the of the project – converting 1000+ old Word documents to XLSX format, and 300+ old Excel documents to XLSX format – such that I finished some two weeks earlier than planned. I guess I just really wanted to get it out of the way and was able to spend the time getting it done. However, those reasons are probably irrelevant. The key in these exercises is to be able to avoid running over the timescales you have planned – which, of course, is dependent on making realistic plans in the first place. Chicken and egg I know – but I do think its preferable to make a plan that’s doable and beat it, than to make a plan that’s iffy and fail to get there. Of course, that’s why I set great store in doing a lot of pre-work in digital preservation exercises, so that, when it comes to creating a project plan, you have a clear idea of what is to be done and how long it will take.

Anyway, I’ve now been through two cycles of preservation exercises with my large PAWDOC collection of 105,00 files; and also two cycles through much smaller collections of photos (18,000 files) and mementos (800 files); so I’m now pretty familiar with what has to be done and am simply following the maintenance plan documents that I have in place. That, of course, was the purpose of starting this Preservation Planning work in 2014 – to  gain clarity on how to do it. That clarity is now encapsulated in the four template documents that I have developed and refined; and which are now issued as final fit-for-purpose versions:

The documents steer the user through the process steps that need to be taken, as well as providing the clarity of written reference text describing what a particular collection consists of, what has been planned and what has taken place. The documents are also available on the DPC web site with a summary of the background to their development, the challenges they have helped me overcome, their key features, and their applicability.

Having completed the refinement of these templates, my own journey into Digital Preservation has come to an end; I am now settling into the regular maintenance cycles for my various collections. However, before I do, here’s a couple of suggestions for anyone reading this who wants to find out more about the topic: a) take a look at the Digital Preservation Coalition’s (DPC) website which has a wealth of useful information; and b) consider subscribing to the JISC Digital Preservation Mailing List which provides a window onto the numerous digital preservation activities going on around the world. I have found both extremely useful over the last 7 years, and thank both organisations.

Towards final versions of Templates

The first scheduled Preservation Maintenance operation on the large and complex PAWDOC collection started on 1st September. Well, actually, it started a bit before then in early August when I started to investigate the items in the ‘Possible Future Issues’ section of the PAWDOC Preservation MAINTENANCE PLAN. There were 15 such items; most relating to files that had proved inaccessible in the initiating preservation exercise three years ago, but four concerning CDs with numerous contents, that had been included in the collection. Two of these proved particularly demanding: one is a disk that was distributed with the April 2001 issue of PC Magazine; and the other is the Nautilus disk – a 1991 attempt to issue a technology magazine with lots of software, advice, news, and multimedia files on disk. I couldn’t get either to open; and without an interface there’s no way of knowing what they contain or whether the contents still work; so I decided to try and create guides to the discs by going through all the contents. It was a laborious process (the PC Magazine disc had over 1000 files and the Nautilus disc had 540+), but I did get a result, and guides to both disks now reside alongside the zipped up contents.

The challenge presented by the huge volume of files on CDs, as illustrated above, was also manifested in the maintenance process proper that I started at the beginning of September. The process requires that an inventory is made of all files in a collection (which I achieved by using the National Archives’ DROID tool); and that an attempt is made to open two or three files of each type. Problems identified in this investigation stage can then be addressed. The CDs in the collection (now all residing alongside the rest of the collection in Windows folders) comprise a large proportion of the overall collection, and this overloads the analysis and investigation process. However, many of the CDs are installation disks for the collection’s document management software (no longer used) and for old versions of its indexing software. In subsequent maintenance operations, all such sets of files will be excluded from the DROID analysis: I have decided that the mere presence of such material in the collection is sufficient to signal its previous inclusion – there is no need for it to actually work going forwards. Perhaps this is an example of a sort of additional decision that may have to be made with a digital collection as compared with collections of physical objects. Digital collections are very different animals.

The culmination of the investigation phase is to produce a Project Plan with tasks which are specific enough to enable effort and elapsed duration to be reliably estimated. I got to this point yesterday, and, as per the first task, I have started converting 28 Help files from the old .HLP format to the HTML based .CHM format. The plan prescribes a finish date of 3rd December. After that I shall be producing the final updates to the Preservation Planning templates which I have been refining since 2015, and which are published in the Website of the Digital Preservation Coalition.

Musings on Physical/Virtual Objects

I’ll be exploring the practicalities associated with destroying physical objects by rationalising my mementos, letters, and a few books. However, before diving in (my analogies are influenced by the Olympics which are underway), here’s an attempt to try and order my thoughts about the subject.

Digitisation has added another dimension to the world we perceive: in addition to the physical objects we’ve always had around us, now there are virtual objects that exist in either physical objects we can see and touch such as laptops or hard disks, or in some remote place we refer to variously as system, web, internet, cloud etc.. Some of these virtual objects, such as on-line games or tik-tok videos, are new entities that did not exist previously; other virtual objects have actually replaced physical objects that would have been created, for example, letters, LP records, printed photos, brochures etc.. A third category of virtual object replicates physical objects, for example, a scan of a physical document/painting or a 3D scan of a piece of pottery. I don’t have any numbers associated with the objects in each of the above categories; but my instinct tells me that the quantity of physical objects that we humans are now dealing with is somewhat less than it would have been if digitisation had not occurred – this despite the undoubted increase in physical objects spurred by digitisation and the growth it has spawned. My instinct also tells me that the ratio of digital to physical objects that individuals interact with is steadily increasing year by year; and that our perception of the things that make up our lives, is changing from being almost totally physically oriented to one in which the virtual is assuming a growing normalcy and importance.

Within this shifting landscape, the options we have for dealing with physical objects are changing. Where we once chose paper, we might choose to go paperless; where we once filed we might choose to scan; where we once kept an object we might choose to simply keep a photo; and where we once may have simply destroyed an object we now might digitise it first and then destroy it. These are the sorts of choices most of us are now making quite often; and they have a number of potential impacts:

  • All these choices affect the number of physical objects in the world.
  • The changing mix of physical/virtual objects in the world, and people’s perception of both types of objects, are probably going to affect what people collect, and the composition of collections eventually acquired by curating institutions.
  • When we choose the virtual as an alternative to creating a physical object we are reducing the number of physical objects that our future progeny will encounter.
  • When we choose to replicate a physical object virtually, and then destroy the physical object, we both reduce the number of physical objects that our future progeny will encounter, and prevent our future progeny being able to experience the physical essence of the object – something will have been lost.

The decision to destroy an object is often considered with either an impulse of certainty (as in the case of destroying evidence of a crime), or a tinge of regret (as might be the case with old love letters). Sometimes both emotions may be present (as perhaps with writings produced in our youth which may be both embarrassing yet integral to our past). Such feelings are not the only things that affect the decision. Others include:

Space: a shortage of space may dictate that some things have to go.

Relative age: at 70, an item from one’s youth may or may not be more or less precious than an item from your 70s when you are 90, or an item from your teens when you are in your mid-twenties.

Representation: the emotions that an object conjures up by reminding you of people or events.

Uncertainty: the possibility of wanting or needing the object again in the future must be set against the certainty that the destroyed object can never be reconstituted.

Legacy: the knowledge that other people will be encountering the objects after one’s death, and a possible accompanying desire to bequeath things to others, may inspire notions of organising and rationalising one’s possessions.

In summary, the landscape of our relationship with physical objects is changing. We are a very long way from being physical-objectless, but the direction of travel seems clear – as illustrated by this quote I read in today’s Guardian, “Zuckerberg believes the internet will take on an even bigger role in people’s day-to-day lives in the future, and instead of interacting with it via mobile phones people will be immersed via virtual reality headsets. He said Facebook would transition from a social media platform to a “metaverse company”, where people can work, play and communicate in a virtual environment. Zuckerberg said it would be “an embodied internet where instead of just viewing content – you are in it “[Neate & Rushe]. Now, of course, we should treat such conjectures with a healthy degree of scepticism – but Facebook does have over two billion users…

Whether all this really matters is difficult to say right now – things are changing at a speed which gives us little time to see impacts and make choices. However, our relationship with objects is pretty fundamental, so we should keep an eye on it and try to ensure that we understand what’s going on. My explorations in this journey will attempt to make a small contribution to that understanding.

Neate, R. & Rushe, D., Google, Apple and Microsoft report record-breaking profits, The Guardian, 27th July 2021.

The Halfway House

People have always kept precious physical objects and then destroyed some of them for a variety of reasons. However, digitisation has invaded this relationship by offering a halfway house in which a virtual representation can be retained while still destroying the object. This journey seeks to investigate the impact this might be having on collecting and collections; and on the rationales associated with keeping and discarding. I have already encountered this phenomenon in other investigations documented in this blog – in particular the Digital Age Artefacts journey, though that focused on rationales for keeping things whereas my focus in this Object Obliteration investigation will be the thinking associated with destroying things. The Electronic Bookshelf journey is also relevant since it investigated what digital material would have to be provided to persuade an individual to destroy a book (the follow-up Electronic Story Board journey may also provide further insights). However, this will be a more focused look at the issues associated with completely obliterating an object for ever, as informed by my continuing search for space in my study (space – often the final frontier on which keeping/destroying decisions have to be made) among my books, mementos and letters.

Taking Stock and Set to Go

In 2019, I started collaborating with Peter Tolmie with the aim of producing some overall results from my 40 years experience of personal electronic filing. It wasn’t long before Peter observed that my PAWDOC filing collection was just another manifestation of my inclination to keep things; and he suggested I keep a log of my keeping activities. I realised then that whatever we produced would be about more than my PAWDOC activities, and that I might as well write up my latest thoughts on PAWDOC there and then in this blog. Peter and I prefaced this summation with a post about the impact of digitisation over the last 40 years. Since then, Peter has gained further insights into my activities by investigating my attempts at understanding knowledge development; and by reading my write up of comments I made when being reunited with certain documents after many years.

We both now feel it is time to get on and do what it takes to produce some outputs. Namely, a book on the subject of digitisation’s impact on personal curation of any assemblage of materials where the assemblage is premised upon not only current but potential future use. This will be based upon all the investigations and writings already described, as well as auto-ethnographic investigations of a variety of collections that Peter and myself have been associated with. The questions to be asked range from the Use, Curation and Searching of the collections, to the Security, Preservation and Loss of the contents; all considered from both pre and post digitisation perspectives. We now have the provisional list of collections listed down the left-hand side of a spreadsheet and the questions along the top, so we’re pretty much set to go.