This is the latest post in our series Responses and Retrospectives, which features archivists’ personal responses and perspectives concerning current or historical events/subjects with significant implications for the archives profession.
In January, Netflix launched its new reality show Tidying Up with Marie Kondo, based on the bestselling book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing. The show is just the most recent iteration of Marie Kondo’s work, which has been adapted into a lifestyle blog and, surprisingly, a manga. Kondo also published an illustrated companion to her first book in 2016.
The original book introduced the “KonMari Method” of organizing to American audiences. Kondo, who has been passionate about tidying since she was a child, was a well-known personal organizer in Japan before enjoying international success as a lifestyle guru.
Kondo’s method, which is heavily influenced by Shinto practice and “places great importance on being mindful, introspective, and forward-looking,” provides those besieged by clutter with a simple rubric to begin a new life free from the mental noise of material overload. At its core, her method “encourages tidying by category – not by location – beginning with clothes, then moving on to books, papers, komono (miscellaneous items), and, finally, sentimental items. Keep only those things that speak to the heart, and discard items that no longer spark joy. Thank them for their service – then let them go.”
While the American response to Kondo’s 2014 book was unabashedly positive, particularly among interior design and lifestyle bloggers, the show has sparked an unusual amount of vitriolic backlash against its host, especially among the book-loving set.
Reacting to Kondo’s advice to pare down paper records, be more discerning about family photos, and set a limit on book collections to thirty volumes, Twitter was especially vicious, with one user going so far as to declare her a “monster.” The Washington Post’s books section even published an article by book critic Ron Charles entitled “Keep your tidy, spark-joy hands off my book piles Marie Kondo.”
Many on the web were quick to defend Kondo, and point out not only the gross overreaction to her advice, but the racist and classist undertones of the criticism levied against her as well. For me as a person whose name can be followed by the letters MLIS, however, there was one thread of tweets that flew above the rest:
I know this may come as a shock, but as a librarian, I 100% support KonMari-ing your bookshelves. Why? First, people are vastly misunderstanding her philosophy. She doesn't want you to get rid of what you love. She's offering you a way to pass on things you don't.
It's a little different, but libraries make this consideration all the time when we weed. If a book is still in good condition, we ask ourselves a series of questions – Are people reading the book? Is the information up to date and useful? Are there other copies available nearby?
If no one is reading the book, it's out of date, and there are other copies people can access, keeping it is only preventing us from bringing in something new. We aren't an archive. Meanwhile, someone else might be able to use the book we can't keep.
While Duncan’s point about deaccessioning in general libraries is a wonderful defense of Kondo’s method with regard to books, I would like to point out to her that archives don’t keep everything they are given in perpetuity either, but rather have our own methods for trying to discern what in our holdings really “sparks joy” and what actually has little archival value.
Like homes of the clutter-besieged participants on Tidying Up, our buildings only hold so much material, and we must be just as discerning about the things we keep. As archivist Mark Greene pointed out in “A Brief and Opinionated History of Archival Appraisal Theory to 2005,” appraisal theory has long been a prominent part of archival discourse. “Writers on appraisal have given us (in rough chronological order),” he writes, “’moral defence of archives,’ cost/benefit analysis, primary/secondary and evidential/informational values, appraisal based on record type, the ‘black box,’ documentation strategy, ‘total archives,’ institutional functional analysis, macro appraisal, social use, functional requirements, risk analysis, and the ‘Minnesota Method,’ to name only the most prominent.” This ever-expanding canon is meant to guide archivists in making decisions about what to keep and what to discard methodically, and with regard to an agreed upon set of best practices. No collection being alike, however, we acknowledge as a profession that some of these decisions will be made based more on professional judgement than an application of infallible rules.
In many ways, Kondo’s method of tidying up is not unlike these theories. Her method gives people who are overwhelmed by the material objects in their lives guidelines to start making measured decisions about what they do and do not need. Though Kondo makes suggestions as to how many of a particular type of item people should keep (the thirty volume rule for books simply being the number of books she keeps in her own house, not an absolute for everyone), her method leaves room for the judgement and needs of the person applying it. On her show, she never forces anyone to get rid of anything, she merely facilitates the act of letting go.
I find nothing professionally problematic with the KonMari method, and, hopefully, knowing that even archivists and librarians aren’t opposed to tidying sets even the most anxious mind to rest. However, if, as an archivist, I was going to advise someone who was interested in applying Kondo’s method to their own collections of papers, photographs, and books, but was worried that doing so might lead them to destroy what could potentially be a valuable resource for research someday, I would give them my own complementary rubric to ease their concern. Instead of asking if the materials “spark joy,” they could instead ask:
Why do you value the material?
Is the material unique, or could similar items be found elsewhere because the material was mass-produced?
Does the material speak for itself, or would you have to explain its meaning if taken out of the context in which it was created?
Who, specifically, might be interested in the material besides you or your family?
How do you think this material might be used by people in the future?
I would like to emphasize that, at the end of the day, personal belongings are just that. Very few of us think about the detritus of our lives with posterity in mind, and people should be empowered to hold on to things that are meaningful to them, and rid themselves of material sources of stress without fear.
This post was authored by guest contributor Alexandra Bisio, Lead Processing Archivist in Special Collections and University Archives at the University of Oregon. Alex earned her MSLIS in Archives Management and MA in American History from Simmons College, and her BA in American History from Santa Clara University. Before joining SCUA at the University of Oregon, she served as the Associate Archivist of the Jesuit Archives: Central United States in Saint Louis, Missouri, and the Archivist for the Critical Theory Archive at the University of California, Irvine.
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Geof Huth and Karen Trivette are the husband and wife team behind An Archivist’s Tale, a podcast featuring “archivists in conversation with archivists, discussing their work and passions and how they care for the historical record and present the storied past.” Geof and Karen have had a remarkably productive year since releasing their first episode on February 10, 2018, with 47 episodes available as of this writing and more on the way. In this post, COPA member Chris Burns flips the script and interviews the interviewers, asking Geof and Karen why and how they created this podcast and what they have learned along the way. [Full disclosure: Chris was a guest on Episode 7: There’s an Archivist for You.]
Chris Burns: Where did you get your idea and what inspired you?
Geof Huth: I had the original idea to do the podcast, which was inspired by the convergence of a few facts of my life at the time. First, my daughter (the almost famous Erin Mallory Long) has had a podcast for years, one focused on the television show Friends. Truth be told, I’ve barely listened to that show, since my interest in Friends is deep enough but not nearly as deep as my daughter’s.
For the last couple of years, I’ve had two other realities in my work life: I have spent at least 30% of my time working on my feet as my records management unit arranges and describes about 12,000 cubic feet of old court records (old meaning back to 1674), and the physical process of merely arranging such volume had left me with lots of empty air time in my head. Atop that, I accepted an additional position as Chief Law Librarian, which required me to drive three hours from Manhattan to New York’s Capital District and then back at least once a month to be with my unit based there. My life had become filled with empty air, and I always have to fill empty air, so I began to listen to podcasts (almost exclusively political ones—maybe not a good idea) to fill that space.
One day (January 10th, 2018), while listening to podcasts as I drove back to Manhattan on the New York State Thruway, I said to myself, “If Erin can do a podcast, then I can too, and I’d love to have deep talks with archivists about their work.” (Well, maybe not exactly those words.) After driving a few miles, I thought, “Wait, I’m married to an archivist! Karen and I should do this together, and an additional voice will make it more interesting.” Not to mention she has a beautiful voice. As soon as I arrived home, I began chattering to Karen about this idea, and we began to draw up a plan for the podcast.
In case it’s not clear, Karen and I are married. That helps us run the podcast because we can discuss issues as we walk places or have dinner or sit on the couch.
Karen Trivette: Geof was the chief inspiration behind my involvement in the podcast. That said, I felt I had an interesting career path or paths (academic and professional) and wanted to share them with others in the field. More so, I always enjoyed hearing how others came to the field of archives management and learning what drives them to stay engaged with and impassioned by the work. I love what I do for a living and love the fact that others do, too; the details are mesmerizing!
We struggled initially with what to entitle the program; after much give and take, we arrived at “An Archivist’s Tale,” since that’s what we wanted to elicit from the conversations. I must admit, I was influenced by the PBS television series, “A Chef’s Life” when I came up with this title; I love how Chef Vivian Howard introduces each episode and thought it would apply well to our endeavor.
Chris: How do you decide who to interview and what do you ask them?
Karen: We have two standard formal questions we ask each subject; first, we ask, “What is your archivist origin story?” Or, “How did you become an archivist in the first place?” It is truly amazing how very different everyone’s story is… I must give credit where credit is due: Bob Clark, Director of Archives at the Rockefeller Archive Center, and the first person we interviewed, proposed telling his own archivist origin story. We adopted the language immediately and it prompts nice introductory content.
From there, we usually have many other questions from the subject. Usually, the exchanges flow quite naturally and conversations develop organically as we go along. The second fixed question is posed about two-thirds to three-quarters the way through each interview, the question being, “What keeps you passionate about the work you do?” Again, the responses never cease to amaze and inform. They have actually caused me to rethink my own motivations and inspirations to do the work I do day in and day out.
Geof: Choosing who to interview is a strange balancing act having much to do with availability. We began with well known archivist friends of ours who were planning to visit New York City. Being based in Manhattan is a boon to us, since so many people come here for work and pleasure. But we are not always in New York, so when we travel—to conferences or for fun—we reach out to archivists to schedule conversations where all of us will be.
What we are really looking for is diversity—of everything: type of work, location of work, ethnicity, race, gender, anything we can think of. Yet we’ve not always been successful finding interviewees who could talk about specific topics. We’ve been turned down by the archivists in public libraries we’ve reached out to, and the one community archives we contacted did not respond to our request. We are a good venue for the voices of archivists, but we are also certainly not the big time, so we don’t always expect a yes.
Beyond diversity, we have developed some themes, areas we focus on. One has been the Archives Leadership Institute, which I attended in the first year and Karen attended this year, ten years after me. I’ve been present at ALI for most of those years and helped run it for the last six. Because of our connection to ALI, we have recorded a number of interviews with people who have attended, run, or taught at ALI, including the entire steering committee I served on.
We also look for people working on special projects or working in an interesting niche that’s not quite archives but which is archives enough for us. It’s important to note that our focus is not on famous archivists but on archivists in general. Some people think they are not important enough to interview, so we tell them why we want people to hear their voices—why we want to document all kinds of archivists and all kinds of archives and records work. Our tagline is “Giving Voice to Archivists,” and that is truly our goal. We want archivists to tell our shared and diverse story.
Chris: What are some the unexpected things you’ve discussed with your archivist guests?
Geof: Maybe the first thought that comes to mind here is how I’m surprised when archivists know something I didn’t imagine an archivist would know, such as you, Chris, knowing of my poetry writing professor Hayden Carruth. It makes sense that you did, since his papers are in your university’s collection, but it is still a surprise.
I’m amazed by what I learn about the people we talk to. Who knew Stacie Williams was a Sconny (or what a Sconny was until she told me)? Why didn’t I know that Vin Novara was formerly a professional musician, which then made sense he worked at a repository focused on music? I’m surprised by how deep conversations reveal facts about people I know well, but facts they may not have otherwise mentioned.
Sometimes, I’m startled by my own reaction to guests, such as when I went into a passionate oration about IBM’s importance to our understanding and management of knowledge because it has been willing to play the long game—having spent generations thinking about and improving information management, often in ways that have helped archives.
And the podcast has changed my thinking, as the conversations have taught me more about archives. For instance, I used to be fairly rigid in my thinking about archivists doing oral histories. I wasn’t against our doing that work, because I saw the value of it; I simply didn’t see it as an archives’ function. But now I accept archivists as the initial creators of records, and I think about how other meta- or para-archival activities (as I varyingly call these) add information to our stores of knowledge, and I accept that archivists can be the best people to do this work.
Karen: The most unexpected element for me is the fact that some archivists need permission to speak to us. Some archivists could not even get their supervisors or institutions to grant permission at all, while other archivists are asked to limit what they say. I find this disappointing given archivists’ mission to make information accessible.
Chris: What’s something fun that you’ve learned?
Karen: This is a difficult question to answer! It’s like selecting your favorite child…every subject brings something amusing to the table and the fact that it is a fun field to be a member of makes our exchanges full of enjoyable experiences. I’m always entertained by folks’ academic and career trajectories and the enjoyment they relay in their stories. How people arrive at their archives destination, and where they want to go further, entertains me to no end!
Geof: Just talking to people is enjoyable. Every guest makes me laugh or think or pontificate. I tend to become excited by the intellectual work of archivists and by the ability of archives to deepen and extend human knowledge. That might not sound like fun to many, but sometimes when you hear me on the podcast you can hear that I’m at the edge of my seat with excitement. It’s the way I am. I’m filled with passion about our work, which is why we have a question about passion. For me passion is purpose—as it propels us forward even as it draws people to our work.
Chris: What advice do you have for archivists who are considering producing a podcast?
Geof: Have a plan. We sat down and figured out what we were going to do first. We essentially worked out a business plan that didn’t consider money at all (except for initial costs) but focused on management and promotion. That gave us a foundation to build upon. We began this adventure knowing what we wanted to do.
The corollary to that is to be willing to change or abandon that plan at any time. Not everything works out, so we have had to change plans. We originally wanted to release an episode every week, but we ended up with so much content that we have been a weekly show since our second episode. Now, our guests have to wait a month or six weeks for their episode to “air.”
Karen: Know your equipment! I have a fraction of the understanding Geof has regarding our equipment and I am slowly getting more knowledgeable and comfortable with it. We keep things fairly spare and mobile as far as the equipment goes and it still pushes my comfort boundaries.
Geof and Karen and their mobile recording studio.
Chris: What’s next?
Karen: We are always seeking interview opportunities and we’re lucky to have so many of them. That said, we also make opportunities happen as often as possible. For example, we recently traveled internationally for the International Council on Archives section on University and Research Institutions annual conference, held in Salamanca, Spain. We decided early on to invite speakers and organizers to be interviewed. We were lucky to engage with Dr. Shelley Sweeney and Mr. William Maher. Our equipment is minimal so taking it with us, even across the ocean, is easy! Another opportunity we’ve identified is aligning interviews with professional development outlets. For example, there are a few SAA-DAS certificate training courses soon to be offered in the Austin, Texas area; I am thinking about taking these courses so we’ve considered trying to arrange to interview Dr. David Gracy while there.
Geof: We have plans. We have been trying for months to schedule a recording with two archivists we know who are married to each other. This will give us two pairs of married archivists together on the podcast (counting Karen and me as the second pair), so we’re thinking that setting up such pairings might be another theme for us. We might call these “A Couple of Couples of Archivists,” or something like that—and maybe peer a little into the workings of marriage from an archivist’s perception. And we want to record episodes in every state in the union and in more countries. We want to have reach. We want to have more reasons for people to listen to the interesting archivists we talk to.
We want people to listen to archivists, so we promote every episode we create. We owe that to our guests. On October 20th, 2018, we reached and exceeded 5,000 hours of listening. Certainly, that is a small number in the real world, but good enough in the archives universe.
We view ourselves as a media company (which is how we identify ourselves on Facebook), and so we try to act like a company, if a tiny one. We have stylish square business cards, and we add content besides links to episodes to our social media feeds so that people are reminded of us. We post an almost daily archives quotation. We post dispatches from archives conferences we attend. And I have started writing short essays (1,000 words or so) on archives and posting links to them on our feeds. I’d planned this writing as a personal way to think concisely and publicly about archives, and we thought it would be helpful to associate these with our podcast.