Six impossible things before breakfast.

A library science student's perspective on life, the universe, and everything.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

The art of keeping

Whether you are an archivist of important government documents or a personal information manager for the most ordinary person, "any scholar with a little intellectual ingenuity can find a plausible justification for keeping almost every record that was ever produced."

Everyone has experienced the classic tragic situation of giving away information (or some object) just a little too soon. Inevitably, something has never proved itself useful, but, as soon as it is no longer in your possession, the perfect occasion arises where it could finally have been helpful. Most recently this happened to me with a Latin dictionary. I have never taken Latin and don't really know any Latin whatsoever, but I had held onto this book for years thinking it might be useful. Before I started grad. school I did a book purge to clear some room on my bookshelves, and donated several tall stacks to a local library. I went back and forth on the Latin dictionary for a while until finally deciding that it really should go into the exile pile. Naturally, less than a month later something came up where it would have been most helpful to have such a book on hand.

Now I'm not saying that this is proof of why we should keep everything, just that until someone masters the skill of divination, it is impossible to fully and accurately predict exactly what will be useful in the future and what will never be looked at again. Our options are to preserve everything, keep things at random, or make the best guesses we can and laugh (or cry) over our failures.

Schellenberg, T.R. "The Appraisal of Modern Public Records." In A Modern Archives Reader, edited by Maygene F. Daniels and Timothy Walch, 57-70. Washington, DC: National Archives and Records Service, 1984.

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