The Human Impulse to Collect and Preserve

We see evidence all around us of the human impulse to collect; there are libraries, archives, museums, flea markets, and antiques shops, just for starters. These re not equal in their importance, of course, serving a wide range of purposes. The differences in collecting can be seen in two recent books.

Eric Spitznagel, Old Records Never Die: One Man’s Quest for His Vinyl and His Past (New York: Plume, 2016), describes the author’s efforts to re-acquire the LPs he long ago dispersed. The number of people growing up with vinyl as the primary means of listening to music is declining; I was one of those people. I remember their weight and bulk and, growing weary of carrying them around, getting rid of them (some thing I still regret a bit).

Spitznagel, a journalist, commences his book this way: “Think about the first song that meant something to you” (p. 3). He pulled me in right away. Then he connects music listening to the physical objects enabling this activity: “Records are something different. They’re physical objects: Big, bulky, inconvenient, easily damaged objects. Vinyl is the skin that changes in good and bad ways, over a lifetime” (p. 5). Some of them even have a “distinct smell” (p. 5).

Spitznagel is interested in the characteristics of vinyl records that might enable you to recognize the precise record that once belonged to you. As a result, Old Records Never Die is a meditation on technology and memory, a personal testimony rather than a scholarly study. He writes about love, happiness, sadness, success, failure, life and death – all marked by the acquisition and ownership of certain records. For example, in hearing one particular recording, Spitznagel muses, “Hearing it again in this fresh context, blaring from an old record player, the hisses and pops were a reminder that this song existed before Julia Roberts movies, before chain restaurants put it on constant repeat” (p. 109).

Sometimes there is more system to personal collecting than we realize. For our journalist, his grandmother served as a kind of repository: “Over the past half century my grandmother’s house had evolved into a sort of walk-in safe-deposit box. It’s where we left everything we didn’t want anymore but weren’t ready to throw away, because what if we needed it” (p. 117). Spitzbagel’s book will stimulate some self-reflection about your own collecting.

We recognize how and why communities and other groups labor to preserve something of their past and identity, beyond families and individuals. Joshua Hammer, The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu: And Their Race to Save the World’s Most Precious Manuscripts (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2016) is a case study of the former. Despite the hip title and exaggerated claim, these are not the most important manuscripts – significant, yes.

Hammer, a journalist, provides us a story about the remarkable efforts to assemble, protect, and smuggle away thousands of medieval Islamic and secular tomes long safeguarded by individuals and families in Mali. He describes their initial collecting, focusing on the activities of Abdel Kader Hardara, and the subsequent cultural renaissance with the founding of government and private libraries and archives. Most of the book considers the danger posed to the manuscripts by the rise of Al Qaeda in the region. Hadara, calling on contacts around the world and assembling a wild array of archivists, librarians, family members, and volunteers, manages to get the vast majority of the textual heritage to safety into various safe houses. Hammer reminds us that while there are strong sentiments for preserving such materials that their symbolic and other values make them tempting targets as well.