The Personal is the Professional: An Archivist Attempts to Process her Childhood Archives

I am so pleased to be able to feature another guest post from Kathryn Louro. Many thanks to Kat for suggesting this great topic for these bizarre COVID-19 times. In this post, she brings her professional expertise to bear on her personal collections while adhering to the #stayhomecanada mandate. I know that many archivists (and non-archivists) will identify with her journey to process her personal records. 

The Personal is the Professional:

An Archivist Attempts to Process her Childhood Archives

Identity Area

A very special thing happens when you settle into your first long-term living situation: your parents want you to come pick up all the stuff they’ve been storing for you throughout your nomadic twenties. Like my parents, I was prepared for the two sturdy blue tupperware containers to sit in our storage room undisturbed, my own personal backlog, but then Covid-19 came roaring onto the scene. So, while self-isolating this past month, I decided it was finally time to go through the “accrual” donated by my parents and reconcile them with my working body of archives.

Plus, I had already organized and labelled my pantry and binged all of The Office, so I was quickly running out of pandemic activities to keep me busy.

Full disclosure, despite my role as a professional organizer and curator of information, I am a very unorganized person at my core. In school, I constantly struggled to keep my homework up to date, spending most of my lunch breaks catching up on school work with a cranky teacher overseeing, and digging through the layers of my backpack to recover a long lost assignment. To this day, mail stacks on my coffee table and my digital records contain such helpful titles as “IMPORTANT.doc” and “Receipt.pdf.” I forget dates and events constantly, and often get hopelessly overwhelmed in the grocery store, returning home without several necessary items for the evening’s meal because I lost my list half-way through the errand.

A quick visual of how I keep important documents. On top is my bent marriage certificate.

Despite this, there were always elements of a proto-archivist in me. To keep on top of school work I became fastidious about organizing my research hoping to be more productive in school. At dinner before we went to see Ex Libris at the VIFF, my best friend remarked on my fascination with maps and all things “old” as a child. One of my most treasured possessions as an eleven-year old was a Prince Rupert Directory from 1980 I found in my grandparent’s desk. I attached post-it notes (horrible practice, I now know) on all the entries for people I knew. I was thrilled to find the address and profession of my paternal grandfather listed, one of the only connections I had to him.

To me, maps and documents were more than just carriers of information, they were a tangible connection – a portal to the past. Unsurprisingly my archives reflect this, being less about the natural accumulation of records that serve as evidence and activities, and more about the active collection and curation of tangible mementos of the past to stabilize my narrative of select time periods.

Also, Juliette, thanks for sitting through a three hour movie on New York’s Public Library system as your Birthday Gift from me, the Homer Simpson of giving gifts.

Accrual and Custodial History

Notions of custody and respect des fonds seem inconsequential when approaching your personal records using an archival lens. I know all too well how much I have curated, culled, and designed the body of records before me. Personal archives are less the natural residue of your activities and more of a carefully measured collection, representing a myriad of creators and collaborators who actively edit and amend documents based on evolving perceptions and understandings of personal and familial histories.

In their excellent and moving article on records work and grief, Mordell, Alisauskas and Douglas speak to “the different types of actions that can be included in making and keeping recordings, including using and re-using records, creating and re-creating them, annotating them, working in and with them” and destroying them. (Douglas, Jennifer, Alexandra Alisauskas, and Devon Mordell, “‘Treat them with the Reverence of Archivists:’ Records Work, Grief Work, and Relationship Work in the Archives,” Archivaria 88. Fall 2019)

For myself, every move came with an informal deaccessioning process within my personal archives. Some intentional; the letters and love notes of an ex removed, a notebook of particularly bad ninth grade poetry destroyed, digital files quickly and carelessly deleted because of the ease allotted by the format. Other losses were unintentional; a missing box upon arriving at a new apartment, or the complete destruction of a computer’s hard-drive by a spilled extra large Tim Horton’s coffee.

As a “spilled coffee destroying your laptop and leading to the loss of all your digital files from 17-21” half-full kinda gal, I feel obligated to mention that it was roll-up the rim season, and I won a free medium coffee.

Likewise, the accrual from my parents has been actively curated by them. My Dad packed up aspects of my bedroom after I moved out, re-distributing materials, gathering them together into logical groupings (books, stuffed animals, memories and records) and adding to it from his own collection of materials created by and about me, such as report cards and school honor roll certificates.

Also added was a lot of terrible high school and elementary art neither I nor my parents wanted. I did consider re-purposing this dried bean collage into quarantine rations though.

 

My dad, a bit of a proto-archivist himself, nicely labeling my fonds Kathryn (a) and Kathryn (b). Also pictured is my less than enthusiastic Archives Assistant, who was more interested in napping than processing.

Selection and Appraisal

As I spend approximately 60% of my waking life inventorying records, I couldn’t bring myself to do it to my own records. So I began by laying everything out from the boxes and taking stock of what could be kept, and what could be tossed with impunity as I was sure the donor (me!) wouldn’t be too upset about selection decisions. Included were endless notebooks and sketchbooks, several shoe boxes of collections, including one time capsule that was recently gifted to me at my bridal shower. Digital records included Hi8 cassettes, floppy disks, cell phones from my youth, and a removable hard-drive.

I’ve come to terms with the fact that I will never be able to retrieve old photos from my first indestructible flip phone, but I will keep it in perpetuity like a good archivist hoarding media they cannot access. What I haven’t come to terms with is my notebook addiction. I’m ashamed to admit how many of the pictured notebooks were only half-full.

Determining them moot to the context of my archives, the first thing I did was cull published materials (children books) that my parents had cleared out of my bedroom and put aside for me. Books that I decided to keep in “special collections” contained lovely messages scrawled within from former teachers, mentors, and long forgotten family friends, or were important and beloved to me meriting the occasional re-read. Unfortunately, the philosophical masterpiece series “Pony Pals” did not make the cut.

Didn’t make the cut

 

Neither did this poster of Benji Madden from whatever the 2004 equivalent of Tiger Beat was.

Arrangement and Description

While my living and existing fonds could be broken into logical series of arrangement: professional, academic, writing, and artwork, the accrual from my parents was much more challenging to process. A lot of this comes down to the fact that the workflow of my activities, the “doing” of my life, is intrinsically tied to the digital. The Dropbox folders I share with colleagues and friends, the professional emails developing a project, my phone; that messy portal to social media accounts which tend to tail out and build themselves.

Here, I have less control in setting the tone and the persona, which seems to be equated to a more “honest” archive in our traditional literature and conceptualization of the fonds. Comparatively, the archives of my past are curatorial: a thoughtful and measured amalgamation of objects, ephemera, and records bound together to form not a narrative of, but a connection to the past.

Much of what I accumulated from my parents, as well as new material collected by me in the past two years, fell into a category I would label “Shoe-Box archiving:” A type of record and artifactual residue based on a specific time and place, co-created by friends and family, and often based on a nostalgic rather than a functional purpose. In “Shoe-box archiving” implicit is the action of collecting. Some boxes are only a menagerie of objects purchased or found, the detritus of daily life that I found beautiful. This is not a new term, rather, it is the most common strategy used by families and individuals in the keeping of personal archives. In his article on private digital archives, Mikael Korhonen establishes the use of shoe-boxes to store family photographs and mementos in a nonchalant and unorganized fashion until there is time to process them. (Korhonen, Mikael, “Private Digital Archives – Lost Cultural Heritage?” in Essays on Libraries, Cultural Heritage and Freedom of Information, Helsinki 2013. Pp. 85-86)

The above spread shows my most recent accumulation of ‘beautiful detritus.’ Some items are indeed archival records of activities and interactions: name tags from conferences attended, collected materials from exhibits, travel mementos, postcards from friends, and proof that I was once able to run 20 kilometers in a row. Other items are collected for aesthetic reasons: old postcards purchased at the Prince George Antique Fair, and business cards from Vancouver restaurants I found visually pleasing.

Catherine Hobbs notes that these sorts of items, which stimulate memory and reflection, are often culled as part of archival processing activities but are important in personal archives which also record “the personal, the idiosyncratic, the singular views of people as they go about doing the things that they do and commenting on them.” (Hobbs, Catherine, “The Character of Personal Archives: Reflections on the Value of Records of Individuals,” Archivaria 51, Spring 2001. Pp. 130-131, 127.)

In my experience, these collections do demonstrate my activities and the building of both my own persona and perhaps a persona for others to engage with. As a teen, these sorts of collections were not stored in a shoe box, but were plastered on my wall. Part decoration, part curated exhibit for visitors to better understand both myself and a self I wanted to project. Overall, it was the subconscious building of identity and self in a time of my life where I felt un-moored and powerless.

Also, I was a huge fan of the movie Amelie and if I’m being honest, I may have based all my proto-archivist activities on that film alone.

 

The boxes themselves are often part of the curatorial gaze, an aspect of the “exhibit” such as the turquoise shoe box from my delicate wedding heels re-purposed to hold mementos of the day. Others were simply on hand at the time.

Curated shoe boxes below:

1) Undergrad and First Apartment

2) Teens, Pre-teens,

3) Most recent “Acquisition”

4) Wedding Day

13 - curated shoebox 1
15 - curated shoe box 3
14 - curated shoe box 2
Curated Shoe Boxes

I decided to keep the shoe boxes intact, partly out of laziness (a friend had dropped off some video games and my attention was waning), and partly out of honesty to the original order of my childhood. Like most archivists, I decided to amalgamate my photographs into a separate collection for preservation and access purposes. My photos, while taken at a certain time and place, had long lost their attachment to the school girl notes and artifacts they were once collected with. Additionally, they were stored haphazardly, bearing scotch tape scars from previous “exhibits” and they were bending maddeningly.

One of the few photos I have of my paternal grandfather showing edge damage from loose box storage. The markings on the back are from my grandparents testing pens and pencils, probably from a time before they knew this would be one of the few photos I would have of my paternal grandfather.

Access and User Restrictions

There is no finding aid, no index, no catalogue to my personal archives because they are created with me at the centre, guiding potential users, explaining unknown faces in photographs, and serving as a living source of metadata to my fonds. Because they were created primarily as a source of nostalgia and comfort, I cannot see how they could be of secondary value past my death  However, archives are predominately donated and processed after the death of their creator. (Douglas, Alisauskas, Mordell, 87)

In the end, I think of the flimsy cigarette paper of memorandum and correspondence I’ve processed during my professional tasks as an archivist: the fading and bridle newspapers, the battered floppies, poorly labelled and dusty in box. Was this an indication of carelessness? Or an act of rebellion against the future usability of the records? I think of the acts of destruction we take on separate and shared archives. I think of the precariousness of our digital selves, one failed social media company or extra large Tim Hortons coffee away from annihilation.

Do people want their archives to survive past them? To be re-organized, re-contextualized, and re-imagined by third party archivists or by family members working through their own narratives of the deceased? (Popkin, Jeremy D. “Family Memoir and Self-Discovery,” Life Writing vol.12 no.2, 2015. Pp. 128-9. See also Douglas, Alisauskas and Mordell for narrative building using records of deceased loved ones.)

Scene from “Mitchell and Webb Look”

Oy, this self-isolation is making me macabre. I need to go outside.

Archivist’s Note/Biographical Sketch

Kat Louro is an archivist living on the unceded territory of the Lheidli T’enneh and currently manages the library and archives at the Carrier Sekani Tribal Council. She is passionate about rural and Northern outreach, and community and personal narrative building through documentation and records. She’s spent most of her life travelling Highway 16 and grouping objects together in shoe boxes. She can be found virtually on twitter @KatLouro, and physically wandering around her house with her husband and cat, bummed that The Last of Us II has been pushed back indefinitely.

 

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