Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Treasures and Trash, Sorting Them Out

July 4 2006

Not long ago someone asked me if I had transferred my oldest files to CDs yet. Then I read an article about CDs “rotting”, going bad around the edges. I wondered if my tape cassettes were still okay. Some VCRs are more than a decade old. What about all those 5 inch floppies that I used in my computer once? Most computers don’t even come with floppy disc drives any longer. I don’t even know the names of all the data storage units that my computer can use. Most of them are magnetic media, which does degrade after a decade or less.

So, I’m wondering about all the historical information we keep in our national and international files. Is it on magnetic media that will rot? Is it being upgraded as new media are invented? Is it being copied on a regular basis to keep it from being destroyed by mold or mites or whatever? What’s become of the Watergate Tapes? How are they stored? On what media? How many copies?

Beineke Library at Yale has special air conditioning throughout the building to help preserve its older books and a very special block that houses the oldest and best books. Still they decay. You must have special permission to go inside that block, and you must take special precautions with anything on your skin or even wear gloves. I don’t know who is allowed to touch the Guttenberg Bible.

We have created Presidential Libraries to house the memorabilia of modern presidents, and I presume that special precautions are being taken to assure longevity. I remember when a shipment from someone’s estate came to Yale. Boxes and boxes of papers, photographs, tapes, films, and even Oscars were unloaded into the repository library, where they were stored in the temperature and humidity controlled basement. But, what’s ideal for books is not necessarily ideal for tapes or decorative items or photographs.

Even more important than how we store history is how we choose the history to store. Popular acclaim is the usual criteria for saving things. If you were famous 70 years ago, your memorabilia may be shoved aside for those who are more currently famous. If we save 20 film stars’ things, will we discard ten of them in the future because we need space? We placed things in time capsules, and, when they were dug up, we found that the things were meaningless to us today. Sometimes we couldn’t even guess why they were included.

This problem is great for museums and galleries. Unfortunately, we ordinary packrats have the same sort of problem. My sea chest was full of things from my teenage years through my late 40s. When I turned 60, I decided to get rid of the chest and keep only those things with lots of meaning. So I opened the sea chest and began removing my life’s meanings piece by piece. A set of miniature china from the 1950s, still in its box, I kept. The wooden box that held our flatware when we lived on the farm, I sold. The letters from the guy who supposedly died in Vietnam, I sifted and discarded. (When I checked the list of those who died or were MIA in Vietnam, his name was not on the list.) I kept smaller things, especially those that would fit on my “special” shelves (an old moveable type tray hung on the wall). I sold newspaper clippings from the Civil War and photographs of ancestors that no one could identify. I threw away the box where mice had lived for some time inside my baby pillow. I kept a few samples of my graphics design work and my magazine editing, but most went to the recycling station along with my printing paper samples (such beautiful colors and textures).

Still, I kept half of what was there and stored it in plastic containers in my garage. What’s left has meaning only to me. When I die, someone will sell the stuff or throw it away. My grandmother’s Hoosier cabinet is going to my first cousin this month along with my great grandfather’s mantle clock and coffee grinder and some other odds and ends that might have meaning for his children. He’s the only one who might care.

Many of the concerns of our personal life are the concerns of people, organizations and governments everywhere. What do we keep? What do we replace? How do we store it? Who will want it? And, worse, what do we do with our trash?

I suspect that other personal concerns are also international concerns – relationships, violence, education, tolerance, peace (don’t yell at me versus don’t have nuclear weapons) to name a few. More important are food, clothing, shelter, health care, transportation. I can take care of my concerns, and I can help a few others do the same; but for those international needs, all I can do is begin with me.

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