I realized I was a bit of a sentimental hoarder
September 14, 2022 7:49 AM   Subscribe

« Buy storage », they advise, « back up », save, save, save. All Is Not Vanity. An essay by Noga Arikha.
posted by Mchelly (23 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
Oh joy. Another humanist who does not recognize that librarians and archivists, y'know, exist and are not frozen in the 1950s.

(I'm sorry. I've just read SO MANY of these clueless screeds that erase me, my colleagues, my students, and basically everything I do.)
posted by humbug at 7:55 AM on September 14 [6 favorites]

(I'm sorry. I've just read SO MANY of these clueless screeds that erase me, my colleagues, my students, and basically everything I do.)

If librarians and archivists are responsible for cleaning out our dead parents' homes and through that, working through our relationships with them, uh...I will admit I had no idea about that.
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 8:15 AM on September 14 [28 favorites]

I read a short story years ago (well over a decade by now) about a digitizing service that scanned and digitally inventoried a hoarder's house, and their child wound up with the same impulses, only for the digital version. I don't know if it would hold up, and I haven't been able to find it since...
posted by MengerSponge at 8:22 AM on September 14

I would 100% hire a therapist/librarian who could help me go through all my old and my family's old papers, and learn what and how to hold on to the things that are important and how to let go to of the tangible and intangible past. As a writer who is the child and grandchild of writers, with a long paper trail of family history, and a lot of inherited stuff (again, tangible and intangible, but some of it quite valuable) and a family business I am trying to work through, this would be enormously useful to me.
posted by thivaia at 8:27 AM on September 14 [8 favorites]

I would even venture that we (I included) obfuscate with picture-taking our melancholy inability fully to inhabit the perpetually fleeting, complex, ungraspable present.

I would venture, respectfully, that the author is projecting some of their own neuroses and fears on the world at large. Perhaps unconsciously, they are saying that "If this is something we, as a culture, are prone to doing then I, an individual human, don't have to reckon with my own personal reasons for doing this."

If I were not being respectful, I would continue the line of thought "...and by turning the story outward and mixing it with ruminations on Diaspora Judaism, I can have my story, which would otherwise be submitted to Reader's Digest, published in the premiere issue of a new journal."
posted by The Pluto Gangsta at 8:33 AM on September 14 [3 favorites]

That was a beautiful and thoughtful essay. I often think of a verse from World Without End by Laurie Anderson:

When my father died we put him in the ground
When my father died
It was like a whole library had burned down.
World without end
Remember me.
posted by gwint at 8:36 AM on September 14 [12 favorites]

When I moved recently, there was a lot of pressure to get rid of the things we weren't using anymore. I had a couple of smallish boxes of what, I felt, was already carefully whittled down remnants of my past.

I almost never opened them but I couldn't bring myself to *gasp* throw the items away! Better with me than in a landfill? Who else would want these things? But I remember feeling distinctly that I would be able to let go of them if someone would sit and just listen to me talk about each item.

But they ended up being moved on to the next place. Sigh.
posted by 7ajax7 at 8:46 AM on September 14 [5 favorites]

Another humanist who does not recognize that librarians and archivists, y'know, exist

Noga Arikha studied at the Warburg Institute in London, which, famously, is organised around the library and archive of Aby Warburg. Samuel Beckett's letters to her parents, Avigdor Arikha and Anne Atik, are archived at the Lilly Library, Bloomington, Indiana. So I think we can safely assume that she is well aware of librarians and archivists and the valuable work they do, even if in this essay she is reflecting on a slightly different topic, namely the archive of personal memory.

The essay resonated with me because I've just been reading Alain Corbin's The Life of an Unknown and was struck by this sentence from the introduction: 'No resurrection can be anything other than a prelude to ultimate erasure.' In the long run every memory will be lost, every archive will be destroyed. But that shouldn't discourage us from trying to preserve what we can, while we can.
posted by verstegan at 8:49 AM on September 14 [16 favorites]

We users of the tech have grown to trust, rashly, that the background save is there.
This user hasn't. Background save can be nice when it works but it's a pain in the arse at least as often and I like to know how to turn it off when circumstances suit.
We rely on the witnessing by a non-human, neutral third party that « knows » more about us, and retains more memories of our lives, than we ever could.
Personally I distrust and am repelled by such "neutral" third parties, go to some lengths to avoid using services that actively require their involvement, and otherwise blind them wherever possible.
« Buy storage », they advise, « back up », save, save, save – and so we store personal chats and emails, some of which may become useful archives of information, and all of which are the traces of conversations mostly forgotten, inert strata we never dig up.
I buy storage. I get it from disk drive manufacturers, and what I store on it stays on media that I own outright. If I store stuff online as well, it's only ever a copy of what I store locally. And my stored chats and emails are, considered as quantities of information, an insignificant fraction of my data hoard; I store them because that's easier to do than to avoid.

After I die, if anybody wants my data hoard they're welcome to it; if they don't, I'll be in no position to care. And even by then I expect it will occupy well under a cubic foot of physical volume, which is far less of a pain in the arse to store and move than the endless reams of personal papers I dealt with after Mum and Dad died.
Yet we continue creating our « digital memories », so clean, so free of historical dust.
Oh, mine has plenty of historical dust.

Given the pace at which the physical space occupied by stored information continues to shrink, and that at which the information content of individual items of interest continues to grow, the entirety of all previous generations' digital data hoards will never occupy even half of the space in the current generation's even if everybody chooses to keep a complete copy of everything in perpetuity.

I can see no reason at all to be even the tiniest bit selective in what digital data I hang onto. If I've ever had a copy of it then I still have a copy of it somewhere, and unlike the dreadful physical mess of random acquisitions currently filling the cabin that I ludicrously still refer to as "my office", that's simply not capable of causing a moment's inconvenience for anybody else unless they care enough to go spelunking through it - at which point I honestly can't see why I need to be expending effort now to make that process any less random and uncertain for them than it is for me.

Finding buried treasures in layers of backups of virtual filesystems in obsolete formats is pleasurable work for the same kind of person who enjoys finding fossils in rock strata. And I'm quite sure that as the centuries wind on there will be as many Just So stories told about our digital fossils as there are about our geological ones.
While we live we make traces; we mark and delineate a path, or try to. ... For a well-lived life is one in which the trace-leaving in a full present never stops.
Some of us find our greatest contentment in leaving only footprints, and the fewer the better.
posted by flabdablet at 8:50 AM on September 14 [4 favorites]

We’re still wrestling with what to do with all the photos we inherited when her father and my mother died. My mom’s pics are especially difficult to deal with, as a good many of them originally belonged to her mother, making many of them close to 100 years old. They’re typical pics you’d take at family gatherings and such, but they are also images of the lives of people of a bygone era. History, if you will. They are also objects in their own right, beyond the image they hold.

I get the “scan ‘em then trash ‘em” impulse, but it’s super hard to accept that mindset when you’re holding a 100-year-old photo in your hand. At least, it is for me. I just wish there was some obvious repository for them. Places that take and hold old pics like these.
posted by Thorzdad at 8:56 AM on September 14 [10 favorites]

Thorzdad (and everyone), have you reached out to any university libraries or local history societies? What you describe sounds like a valuable addition to an "official" archive. Especially if there is some topic or area highlighted--WW2, sports, foodways, education, religious life, etc. are examples of areas of study where special collections are actively collecting.

They can take these photos off your hands, slip them into mylar sleeves, and store them away for posterity and research availability for as long as they remain in existence.
posted by knotty knots at 9:03 AM on September 14 [2 favorites]

Oh joy. Another humanist who does not recognize that librarians and archivists, y'know, exist and are not frozen in the 1950s.

(I'm sorry. I've just read SO MANY of these clueless screeds that erase me, my colleagues, my students, and basically everything I do.)

This seems like a very uncharitable interpretation of what this essay is about and who it's for. But maybe that's just me.

Personally, this essay hit hard, like the author, both of my parents are dead—my mother just six months ago. This notion of the digital fingerprints we leave after we're gone is one I've been thinking about a lot.

Perhaps the most impactful moment for me was about two weeks after, and although I had been through this before, I was feeling somewhat guilty that maybe I wasn't grieving enough. I was having a hard time accessing sadness (which it turns out is absolutely normal, everyone grieves in their own way).

One afternoon I happened to turn on her TV and a notification popped up about the hard drive of scheduled recordings getting full. I went to the recording list and there were all of the shows she watched on a regular basis: her local news, Jeopardy, the veterinary shows, all of those had been faithfully added to the queue day after day.

Seeing that list of recordings and the patterns of her life and likes hit me like a freight train, it turns out that seemingly trivial item was the catalyst I needed to trigger emotional catharsis of sadness.

There's something so achingly sorrowful about systems customized to make our lives easier when we're alive, and then continuing after we're gone: autopay, emails, texts, notifications on our watches reminding us to get up and take a walk. It's like those sci-fi stories where the robot continues doing its tasks even after the owner is gone.
posted by jeremias at 9:31 AM on September 14 [20 favorites]

I was deleting text messages from my phone today and came across a thread between me and one of my best friends from high school. I hadn't heard from her in a few days in the summer of 2020, so I wrote, "Hey, you still alive? You have to write back and tell me if you're dead."

It turns out she did not in fact have to do that.

Someday I'll lose this phone and that thread.
posted by The Monster at the End of this Thread at 9:40 AM on September 14 [10 favorites]

I would 100% hire a therapist/librarian who could help me go through all my old and my family's old papers, and learn what and how to hold on to the things that are important and how to let go to of the tangible and intangible past.

This is pretty much the niche of (some) professional organizers. They aren't officially therapists or librarians, but they'll do a little of both. Depending on how much money you want to pay them, they might help you set up systems for doing the actual work -- guidelines for what to keep and where to keep it, action plans for getting rid of the non-keep papers and things -- or sit and hold your hand through the whole process. Or something in between -- my organizer helped me set up the systems and then gave me homework and came back every few weeks to check on my progress and fine tune things. She didn't do the hand-holding -- though that was a service she offered, because it was more hours than I had the budget to pay for.

Home improvement TV shows tend to show the outcome of organizing as, like, now your closet is in colour order and everything in your snack closet is in pretty baskets, but a great organizer will do a lot more than ROYGBIV your tank tops.
posted by jacquilynne at 10:21 AM on September 14 [4 favorites]

Great post, thanks very much for sharing this.
posted by ivanthenotsoterrible at 10:24 AM on September 14

I found this a lovely read as well, thanks. I tend to be the opposite person, overly unsentimental such that I've probably tossed out too many things, gotten rid of documents and cards and notes that I might have picked up at some point in the future and looked at and remembered an event or a person or a place. That is even more important to me, since I find that my memory of events from my childhood or similar times is so damn vague. Other people around me seem to have such good memories of events, or perhaps they've just told those stories so many times that the details stick in their minds.

Still, when I'm trying to tidy up the house, I pick up these ephemera and I think, "What am I going to do with this? If I put it in a box or something, will I ever look at it again? If not, why should I keep it?" And then 9 times out of 10 I just toss it in the recycling. Good for my kids when they have to clear out my house after I die, or will they wonder why there is so little left by which to remember me?
posted by dellsolace at 11:34 AM on September 14 [3 favorites]

I just went to an estate sale and found some diaries and letters that I knew AMPAS would love to have, and so I went up to the person in charge and told her. She was amazed, I gave her the contact info and now I have a part-time gig for the estate sale company.
posted by Ideefixe at 11:47 AM on September 14 [2 favorites]

will they wonder why there is so little left by which to remember me?

If my experience with losing my parents is any guide, the parts of you they will remember are the ones that they have chosen to keep alive in themselves in the hope and confidence that those will be of use to the children in whom they live on in their turn.

I neither know nor care where the people who raised me got their kindness from; the kindness is enough in and of itself, and the practice of it is the essential memory of it.

Replication and sharing are the keys to preserving digital data, and likewise to preserving every part of being a person that's worth paying attention to preserving. The media on which we preserve those parts is us, and there is nothing the slightest bit wrong with allowing such patterns as hurt rather than helping to sink gently into the benthic mud of bit rot, as they will do of their own accord once we just stop digging them out and fiddling with them.

I don't think we need to remember lost loved ones by anything. We know who they were because they're part of us now.
posted by flabdablet at 12:24 PM on September 14 [11 favorites]

Lovely way of putting it, flabdablet! Thanks.
posted by dellsolace at 1:30 PM on September 14

"When an old man dies, a library burns to the ground."

This is, I believe, an old African proverb.
posted by Ayn Marx at 4:41 PM on September 14 [2 favorites]

Thoughtful and beautiful essay, thanks. I think focusing too much on literal archives and what forms they take misses the deeper philosophical musings.
posted by blue shadows at 11:23 PM on September 14

When an old man dies, a library burns to the ground

If the old man was any good, it had long had an active inter-library exchange program and only token fines for non-returns.
posted by flabdablet at 3:38 AM on September 15

This is a very good piece. Thank you so much for sharing it.

I feel a deep need to turn family data (videos, photographs, timelines, narratives, genealogy, genetics, possessions, tax records, recipes, paintings, journals, etc) into information

Changing data to information is the key. Data says where my ancestors were born, information says why that matters to me.

I imagine a few tools would be very useful. Something that automatically sorts, tags, dates, and cleans photos. Something that lets me generate time lines that can be viewed by different categories. A map interface.

Is this already something that exists?
posted by rebent at 5:54 AM on September 15 [1 favorite]

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