The Irony of the Archive

June 05th, 2008 | Category: Essays

My parents have been living in their current house for over twenty years. My Moms’ part is a stockpile of paints, fabrics, and other craft supplies. Dad tends to save anything that he thinks might be useful later. Their combined efforts have amassed an archive that escapes any scheme of organization. I’ve overheard both mention recently that they had to go buy something that they knew they already had because they couldn’t find it among the clutter.

On a recent tour of pawn shops and thrift stores in southeast Alabama and northwest Florida, I have experienced a similar problem. The item I was looking for very well may have been in one of those jumbled piles, but there was no efficient way to find it.

The same dilemma has plagued the online world of information since it started amassing and spreading across the globe. in 1994 Jerry Yang and David Filo created Yahoo! as a simple index of websites in an attempt to make things on the web findable. In the meantime, we’ve seen portals, search engines, user-driven encyclopedias and folksonomies all attempt to make things findable.

The problem is worse for the former as items on shelves are limited by the rules of the physical world. They can be filed in one category, on one shelf, in one place (what David Weinberger calls the first order of order). Items on websites, in databases, and other digital storage spaces are not limited as such. They can be searched, browsed, alphabetized, tagged — all at the same time (Weinberger’s third order of order). These orders of order also apply to encyclopedic information — Wikipedia’s bits as opposed to Encyclopedia Britannica’s atoms.

You need to do more deletin’ and less savin’.
— Common

The merging of these two worlds (cue the RFIDs), where certain bits correspond directly to specific atoms, will be a boon to physical organization, but the world of bits often isn’t any more organized than its atomic sister. In a recent Wired article, Clive Thompson describes himself as “drowning” in bookmarks, tips, blog posts, etc. searching for one piece of data for a story. “I’d saved so much,” he writes, “that I could no longer find the really good stuff.” His savior? An email containing a new piece of useful data.

[Minutia mongers take note: I just spent fifteen minutes digging through stacks of papers and magazines to find the article mentioned in that last paragraph.]

Letting go of the things that might prove their worth later is difficult. I move often enough that my possessions tend to stay fairly slim, and even so, it forces me to go through them regularly. A few months ago, during one of my two planned moves this year, I forced myself to unload my library — by far the bulk of my belongings. I’ve gone from nearly forty heavy boxes of books to one (from nearly a thousand volumes to about two dozen). Another article in the same issue of Wired tells the story of a dad whose apartment building is being demolished forcing him to get rid of a large cache of computer equipment, but he still ends up keeping two storage spaces full because the stuff is “too valuable to throw away.” As we all know with electronics, Aldus Huxley’s dictum that “ending is better than mending” is true more often than not.

A recent issue of Real Simple had an article listing guidelines for clearing the clutter from one’s life, but I can’t find it. Really.


Common. “Hungry” from One Day It’ll All Make Sense. Relativity, 1997.

Huxley, A. Brave New World. New York: HarperCollins, 1949.

Marris, E. “The Collector.” Wired. 16.05 (May, 2008).

Thompson, C. “Information Overlord.” Wired. 16.05 (May, 2008).

Weinberger, D. Everything is Miscellaneous. New York: Times Books, 2007.

[Art by Jessy Helms]

Further Posting: