A collecting habit

A collecting habit
Last week, when clearing my work office preparatory to a move, I decided to clear out all the ‘year boxes‘ I’ve kept since the early 1980s. These are filing boxes, and into them I have put things I thought interesting or important to keep, and at particularly busy or momentous times in my life and work there might be two or even three of these for a particular year. In my office they dominated the shelves, taking up four shelves the entire length of the room. 1984 to 2022. I started by emptying some from the beginning and some from the end and was interested and in a way surprised to find that ‘interesting or important‘ exactly characterises contents of the earlier boxes, but from about the year 2000, the contents become draft copies of articles, chapters, book manuscripts and conference plenary and other presentations. Differently interesting. My collecting habits have changed from, broadly, the signs of a busy life at an international and national level, to a working life in producing published and other public work. The latter bears a close relationship to the  lists of publications and public presentations et cetera in my CV. But what of the contents of the earlier boxes?

These are filled with letters, postcards and other exchanges between me and people, a lot of it from my work as a journal editor including of Women’s Studies International Forum, Auto/Biography, and Studies in Sexual Politics. A lot of it concerns conferences, seminar series and day conferences I have organised throughout my working life. A lot more of it is concerned with the activities I engaged in when involved in the gay movement and women’s movement. And particularly momentous parts of it are concerned with the terminal declines and slow dyings of first my father and then my mother, including things I cannot now bear to look at.

What is notable overall is that in times in which the ways and means of international and national correspondence and dialogue were difficult, there is a huge amount of material. But in later times when email and text made it all so much easier, it reduces enormously. It can be done easily, so it gets put off, rather than being responded to in a regulated and speedy way. And I’ve become much more engrossed in writing, the writing life, rather than as an organiser of events of different kinds.

When this collecting habit started, in 1984, I had imagined a point would come when I would slowly go through it all and read it carefully, and so in a way recover the forgotten detail of my political and scholarly life, with the benefit of hindsight. What has happened to more or less all of it is that it has been swiftly consigned to secure shredding sacks, because so much of it in the earlier period comes under the heading of sensitivity and risk for others. And I have glanced at the details of it all in only a cursory fashion, because I am aware the temptation is to salvage everything and re-create the collection!

There are about 12 or 15 boxes left to sort next week, and I have kept only one box file’s worth of salvaged things. These are some photographs, two notebooks from my secondary school in which I wrote essays set to improve my handwriting, two notes from a former colleague which I couldn’t read at the time and never managed to get round to asking her what they said, and some mementos of my mother. And of course I think about what I have been doing in relation to my work on archive collections of different kinds. Someone in 100 or 200 years time would relish all the stuff that I am disposing of in secure shredding. Lament I do, but short of a perpetual  office at my disposal there is no alternative.

Last updated: 27 May 2022