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:
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.
 Kerri Jarema, “The Marie Kondo Books Debate Has Classist & Racist Undertones that Can’t Be Ignored,” Bustle, entry posted January 2019, accessed January 28, 2019, https://www.bustle.com/p/the-marie-kondo-books-debate-has-classist-racist-undertones-that-cant-be-ignored-15796044.
 Mark A. Greene, “A Brief and Opinionated History of Archival Appraisal Theory, to 2005,” Society of American Archivists: Fundamentals of Acquisition and Appraisal Pre-Readings, posted November 7, 2016, accessed January 28, 2019, https://www2.archivists.org/prof-education/faa-pre-readings.
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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