like tears in the rain (except they’re kept in a container in your freezer)

For a while now I’ve been wondering about the feasibility and the need for a project: which for want of a better term I’ve been calling the “co-operative archive”. When my friend Martin Skidmore died last year, his wish was that those who knew and loved him gathered at his flat and divided up whatever of his collections — of comics, records, books, art catalogues and more — that we variously wanted. It struck most of us that day, I think, that there was something more than just sad about splitting up what he’d put together so carefully, over many years: he was a highly intelligent man, a scholar, in fact, especially when it came to comics. Was there a way this archive could be maintained?

But there wasn’t time: the practicalities — where could we find to store it all? — intervened. His colleagues in the comics world were adamant that his comics be rescued as an important resource, but much of the rest, inevitably, was scattered to wherever unwanted books and CDs go.

Anyone my age, in my trade, will have experienced something similar, I imagine, when that friend passed on who’d filled his flat or house with curiosities, sometimes going back decades. And sometimes it’s a collection that’s focused and specific enough that official institutions — museums, libraries, universities — can be persuaded to take it, preserve it, make it available for future study; especially if the collector was an artist or author or anyway a “person of note” whose work will likely generate research. But these institutions are all under enormous funding pressure — public libraries especially — and what I suppose I’m getting at anyway is material that would tend to fall outside an ordinary museum’s or library’s archival remit. Or — to put it slightly more polemically — would possibly stretch the institutional or bureaucratic imagination beyond its (fund-finding) limits.

One person I chatted with was semi-seriously wondering if his large collection of obscure films taped off the telly wasn’t a resource — and of course it probably is. Yes we live in a time of apparent cultural plenty, with “everything” in instant reach — but it really ISN’T everything, quite a lot has quietly been left out of the easy-access cornucopia. And the cornucopia is only possible through quite rigorous formatting and pre-emptive categorisation, and both these can strip out historical context and (for want of a better term) the traces of social curation; the why of the original gather, the principles of use-value in the first quirky instance. And it’s the latter that nags at me: that put in mind the idea of the co-operative archive. Of some sort of resource of this kind of material, “curated” — in the sense of gathered together and kept safely, somewhere where it could be accessed when needed — in some kind of (yes, massive handwave here) crowd-sourced fashion.

The basic problem for orthodox public archiving is space: suitable buildings are expensive, and need extensive staffing. Because space and funding is limited, there’s a constant process of triage — things not being selected, things being deselected, prey to exactly the streamlining decisions, about value to the public and such, that will cull the material I’m imagining being archived. My tentative proposal is what’s already having to happen be what’s further encouraged and enabled: that these collections, though they have to be dispersed physically, will be moved into spaces owned by friends, colleagues, admirers, and looked after there.

But they will all also remain linked on a centrally maintained database: which contains details of the original collector, what’s being held and where. The masterlist of items would be public searchable and accessible — the specific details of where held perhaps to subscribers, along with message-boards for information exchange and discussion, and potential for enquiry and suggestion — ways people can be put in touch with one another. There’d be a cost to maintaining it, certainly — accurate inputting is dreary and timeconsuming and should be appropriately reimbursed, but this cost is nothing to the problem of housing the material. There’d be issues of security for some items perhaps — though the point I’d stress here is that this is largely (by self-selection) material which has value in the setting provided, but very little once split away from it.

Could this be kickstarter-funded? Would it be a charity? How would it work? Could it work? Does it already exist? What haven’t I thought of? Who would be interested in participating? Do people know of material that might fit this? (Tell me in comments!) I see it as a map of eccentric passions, a crowd-sourced network of minor wunderkammern — inevitably incomplete, partial, skewed towards the relevant interests of those likely to become involved (the self-documenting classes?) but this would be a strength rather than a weakness. Not excluding records or books or quite ordinary items, if there was something interesting about the mind behind the collection, and that mind’s world, that’s apparent in the collection. Is there something to this?

(Kitten’s Wedding (detail), from eccentric Victorian taxidermist Walter Potter’s Museum of Curiosities: my friend Dr Vick took me to this in Cornwall a few months before it was closed, its items unexpectedly split up and sold off — Damien Hirst had wanted to buy the whole collection and keep it in one piece, but for reasons both melancholy and unclear this didn’t happen.)

13 thoughts on “like tears in the rain (except they’re kept in a container in your freezer)”

  1. There is a (not very) interesting philosophical discussion around the worth of archiving – is it the stuff in and itself which is interesting (as per the Ruskin collection – even if lists of names may seem meaningless), or the collection in and of itself, and how that is emblematic of the collector even if the contents aren’t in and of themselves all that rare.

    I’m not sure how I feel about this, but then I have always been a lousy collector, amassing stuff has often felt like a bad thing to me (and if items become totemic to an individual there is no reason why that would be the case as part of a larger archive, let alone an archive that denudes it from the personal. The more Marxist, “stuff for everyone” side I wholeheartedly approve of.

    1. Yes, if I wanted to be fancy about it I’d be all “WALTER BENJAMIN SAYS, d00ds” 😀

      But at this stage I’m just tentatively poking round practicalities and mechanisms — and gloomily aware that the institutions that keep stuff on hand for study are under significant pressure to downsize, when the amount of stuff that could be being studied is actually probably rising. (Of course there’s a pretty large question of what SHOULD actually be studied — but in a key sense you can never tell that till after the amazing groundbreaking study arrives, and in another, equally key sense, you shouldn’t simply hand the pre-judgment over to the implacable triage of the market, or worse still, of uninvolved beancounters second-guessing the market…)

  2. I often muse that there is no longer any point in keeping CDs in my collection which are (and now forever will be ) easily available in the broad world of spotify / file sharing / whatever comes next.

    To achieve the kind of distributed archive you’re talking about, would you simply need a list of things, and where those things can be got? Then individuals could be the curators of any of those things which are not readily available in the downloady domain, and labelled as such, then as those things became downloadily available, the list could be amended but the collection would remain?

    1. At a rough first estimate, I’d say such lists are the minimum requirement, and what I’m looking for entails more than just lists — which would emerge to some extent out of the social context created by the machinery put in place. Which means that how we fashion this machinery must be linked to the nature of the “more than” I’m feeling around for. It’s not a guarantee of quality — or even of interest — but it is a guarantee of the potential for connection (as in “only connect”, I guess). The collection was built round the connections the collector made — though these may be very fugitive indeed, far from well or clearly and truthfully stated. But its curation is built round the way the collector connected with his friends, colleagues, admirers, and such — and these modes of connection may well be in some tension!

      (ie SOME of the people I’m imagining have such collections being isolates or eccentrics — people of rich sensibility but bad at communicating it, or wary of doing so… And others will be cheerfully meticulous — but interesting — hoarders whose gathering plan is apparently quite straightforward, but whose self-taught antennae suggest new ways to see things, or link them up, or explain or explore them… )

  3. As a cataloguer by trade I’m definitely interested in projects that describe physical collections and make the information about them discoverable to the interested researcher/collector/thinker/browser of the internet regardless of the physical location of the archive contents. A ‘distributed archive’ could be problematic for the long term because there aren’t really any institutional guarantees of preservation, or environmental controls etc, but the collaborative and interactive ‘mapping’ side sounds great. Happy to contribute some cataloguing advice/time, although archives aren’t really my area of expertise… I do think there are Kickstarter precedents for this kind of thing (eg which funded physical curation/storage aspects).

  4. Hi Archel! Yes, I think the long-term issues are large — but of course I fear they’re fairly large for established and even purpose-built institutions also. To blue-sky an argument in favour of amateur preservation&control protocols, I suppose I’d say something like — this would provide a provisional, temporary space from which (if interest emerged in the form of concrete research work) some material would graduate to more well appointed spaces. While stuff which resolutely proved unmoving to all would at least be looked after better in someone’s house than in landfill. (Not to say that some of it won’t belong in landfill… )

    I may take you up on advice at some point — thanks! xM

  5. Fantastic idea in this. Some interesting angles to it, too.

    First, like Tim says, it feels like there may be a percentage of the collection that is fundamentally a holding pen awaiting digitisation, both for the VHS TV tapes where you want to get them out of their deteriorating formats asap and for the more permanent items such as comics where having them digitised would be great, but you also want to keep the original artefacts indefinitely.

    Similar processes for this situation are actually already in place with current video archives, who extensively catalogue their contents but then only digitise them upon request. I can see that working well with this project: store, catalogue and (crucially) make the catalogue as well-known as possible. Then curious parties/the Jason Scotts/archive.orgs of the world can digitise/sponsor digitisation and make the results available, linked from the main catalogue.

    The second interesting angle is that of it being essentially a “provisional, temporary” space. If entries in the catalogue had explicit “expiry dates” (beyond which there is no certain guarantee of their storage), that would:
    a) help get the things people really wanted into safer, more permanent storage;
    b) keep the things of mild interest in circulation — rather than potentially mouldering forgotten in a shed, they move on to their next willing home when their time is up; and
    c) encourage participation — people would, I think, be much more likely to lend spare space to archive storage for a fixed period than they would be to commit to keeping things for The Rest Of Time.

    Yes, this means that some things might expire and with nobody interested at all they could possibly be lost for good. Some of archiving is knowing what to throw away, an interest-driven selection process seems as good as any other model for that. Consider: if the BBC had said at the time “we’re thinking about dumping these ToTP and Dr Who tapes, anybody want to look after them?” I’m certain somebody would have stepped up.

    Anyway, too long. I meant only to post to say I think it’s a fine idea, and would love to be involved.

  6. I don’t have a “collection” because I don’t “collect” records (or books, or…) like lifeless display butterflies. I amass things and try to find or make connections between them, and there’s a difference. Or rather, things accumulate rather than being formally assembled (unless, like TPL, I have to find some way of keeping all THAT stuff together). So I suspect that the only way these things have any objective worth would be through the connections that the owner makes with them, as described above. That in itself presupposes that the owner him/herself is sufficiently well known and/or important – such a subjective word, that – for an institution to be interested in keeping their things together in one connected place. I would ideally want all my “things” to stay together after I’ve gone, and I’ve made legal provision for that, but would anybody want to look at them without me being there to make my sense out of them? I wouldn’t be so arrogant as to think they would.

    1. Yes, FC, this is exactly what I’m getting at — the establishment of a socially robust way-station between the “subjective” (intensely personal, not necessarily well communicated) mode of importance and the so-called “objective” mode (meaning in actuality importance as determined by the judgments of institutions, the relevant authorities, the market, and so on). As I’m imagining it, those aware of (or indeed fond of) the amasser of the material (like you, I find the word collection a bit unhelpful or misleading) would be those proposing that it perhaps had a wider importance — and would (if my suggestion finds a practicable form) then have a means to take this proposal to the next step. So what I’m looking at is a means by which “quite significant to a smallish number of people” could become “of unexpected interest to many more people” — or at least, by ensuring that the material doesn’t just instantly vanish into a skip lamented but unrecorded, that this possibility remains, for a while. The structure I’m looking at — at this extremely tentative and hypothetical stage! — would very much entail discussion and exploration, evaluation in the natural sense of people with an interest in such matters collectively and publicly* assessing whatever the material is. And — perhaps with Martin still in mind** — I’m thinking too how friends and colleagues sometimes have a more confident sense of the potential value of the material, and the mind that gathered it, than the mind is prepared to believe of itself. The material’s exact meaning — what you’re calling the “subjective” sense of its importance — is bound to morph somewhat during any such process: but this is in the nature of all communication at all times.

      *In the sense of no qualification barriers to entry into a discussion, aside perhaps from a subscription fee (to cover admin and such)
      **But also for example Max Brod and Kafka!

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