It’s January, and some of us made decluttering one of our new year’s resolutions. We’re making space in our closets, in our children’s toy boxes, in our kitchen cabinets, on our bookshelves, on our phone and computer hard drives, and in our Dropbox, Google Drive, or other cloud-based storage. We’re following tidy-up guidelines based on variations of the quote, “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful,” attributed to William Morris, an English textile designer associated with the British Arts and Crafts movement. Most tips for decluttering have to do with getting rid of the old, unused, or worthless to make space for the new, useful, and desired. They’re about living in the now.
Tossing seemingly useless objects and documents out is practical for my daily life, but frightening when it comes to my work on an archives project. I imagine someone in need of physical, mental, or emotional space and who doesn’t know how their photos, ticket stubs, journals, or books a used bookstore didn’t give them enough money for could ever be useful to anyone, throwing them away. I want to yell, “Stop!” and snatch their hands from the drawstring of the trash bag. A bit overdramatic perhaps, but when historians, students, journalists, and other researchers put together narratives of lived experience from the previous generation or century, they find material in the everyday things that, if we kept them, might make us seem like hoarders, not archivists.
This is true even when it comes to records of resistance. We’ve been asking the public to define resistance and tell us who their Philadelphia resistance heroes are. So far, not one person has defined resistance as a public protest or participation in other mass action. So far, most of the people named as heroes are anonymous or are known in select communities. They are family members, community elders, artists, poets, self–names unlikely to make it into a K-12 or college textbook but imperative to our existence now, important for personal or community self-determination in the future, and a career highlight to historians who know how challenging it is to find voices of “everyday people” in the historical record.
So before you toss that embarrassing box of notes you passed to and received from your friends in fourth grade, rethink how useful, beautiful, and valuable your history is.
And if you just don’t want the stuff in your house, perhaps you can learn from Democratic political strategist and author Donna Brazile’s decluttering experience.