The Archivist (1959 to date)
I’m not a hoarder; disposal is my default setting. That said, I cling to some things as though they were treasure. They aren’t valuable in pecuniary terms, but are of inestimable significance in the context of a life lived. Some are deeply personal, others merely professional, and yet others are documentary. All form an archive, much of which surrounds me where I’m writing presently.
My mother had been personal secretary to the manager of an insurance company and, later, a library assistant for most of her career. My father graded his screws, nails, and drill bits according size in Rizla tobacco tins that he stacked one on top of the other in his workshed. Thus, the principles and virtues of organisation, categorisation, and accessibility were played out before me from an early age. Which didn’t prevent me from being a chaotic and untidy child well into my teens.
I began the archive in 1981, in the months following my graduation. I was living in Cardiff around the corner from a large commercial stationers — of the type that sells directly to offices and schools. It was there that I fell in love with box files, ring binders, index boxes, alphabetical dividers, cardboard folders, ledgers, coloured paper-clips, and all sizes of manilla envelope. They spoke of the possibility of a well-ordered existence. My ambition was to catalogue the history of my activities to date, in advance of moving on to the next phase of my life.
That year, I put papers into folders, folders into boxes, and boxes onto a bespoke shelf that I’d constructed above the bed in my undersized room. I labelled all the 35-mm slide transparencies I’d taken — including those made of artwork produced during my foundation and degree studies — indexed those artworks, began a diary (see: My Diaries), and making audio recordings towards what would become the aural diary (see: My Aural Diary).
After my parents died, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, their belongings came under my custodianship; I’m their only child. They included items that had once belonged to their parents. I kept only those artefacts that they’d shown affection for, or I which associated with them, or were of historic interest. Certificates, jewellery, wrist watches, powder compacts, diaries, letters, postcards, ration books, and dance invitation cards were dutifully wrapped, labelled, and consigned to the ‘vault’. Each box file was dedicated to a specific time span and contained both two and three dimensional artefacts sealed in envelopes and plastic bags — like forensic evidence from a crime scene. Thus preserved, today they appear in much the same condition as when first archived.
My own memorabilia included certificates of birth and qualification, school reports, notebooks, concert programmes, gallery guides, press cuttings, personal letters (sent and received), tickets, receipts, cassette and reel-to-reel recordings, and photographs that never found a place in the family album. The most intensive and consistent period of archiving was from 1981 to 1993. After that, my personal material heritage was fully accounted for. Furthermore, with the advent of children their evolving lives (and material culture) took priority over my own.
These days, I tend to digitise items (turn them into images), rather than hold onto the material source. After all, once I’ve cast off from this world, it’ll fall to my children to dispose of this accretion. Much of it will have little relevance to them. They’ll need to develop their own filter for separating the gold from the dross.
In the end, I’ve collected and archived for myself, chiefly, as a means holding on to the past while living in the present, making sense of the present, and comprehending my history with hindsight. The archive’s artefacts are like bread crumbs along the journey’s way: a traceable route from now to then.