Since I first found myself in the preservation world a little over a year ago, I have tried to make sense of how I ended up here. I’ve been a fiction writer by instinct since I first held a pen, and more recently by training; I know more about the construction of a sturdy narrative than I do that of a wooden-frame house. So, I’ve been building one out of my memories to assure myself that there are no real holes in the plot of my life (and the very fact that I am doing that, I think, makes me a preservationist).
As I suggested in my previous post, I have identified a preservationist gene bequeathed to me by my grandparents. Another thread in my self-explanation is that I have long suffered from the accusation of being a packrat. While I can’t deny an aversion to spring cleaning, I refuse to admit to rodent tendencies of any variety. What some call packratism, I call preservation, and the essential difference is the act of curating.
I like to think that I approach my own life with an archival mindset, for my own sake. My collection is not nearly as organized as that of my grandmother. Hers is like the archive of a national museum, mine more like a local department of buildings. I keep things that most people might consider garbage (or preferably recycling matter): tickets, receipts, bottles. Contrary to the common belief among my loved ones, however, this collection is not a slovenly compulsion but follows a standard protocol: I keep an item if I associate it with a memory, and if I know that throwing it away will drastically decrease the likelihood that I will ever experience that memory again. Sometimes I wonder if this practice is shamefully materialistic, but what I value is not the material itself so much as the history it represents.
I feel exactly the same way about buildings. James Marston Fitch, who founded my graduate program, referred to historic preservation as “curatorial management of the built world.” The reputation of our field would benefit, I believe, if we could promulgate the understanding that preservationists aren’t just saving buildings because of an inability to throw anything away.
Preservationists are not hoarders; we are curators.