Archivy etc.

opinions, occasional rants, and sometimes things that have nothing to do with archives at all. Nothing here should be assumed to be reflective of my employer's opinion(s) nor should it be assumed that at anytime afterward, this is what I still think.

Friday, June 10, 2011

How old was that again?

I've been thinking a lot about age lately.

I suppose it really started a couple of years ago when I was reading a journal article and the clearly 20-something authors grouped archivists into a variety of age categories and I had the unpleasant realization that not only was I in the "middle-aged" group, but I'd been there for several years already, unknowingly. I continue to deny this description on the grounds that I come from a long-lived family (late 80s and 90s, generally) but the truth is, when I was 20-something, I probably considered my current year count middle-aged too. And being classified middle-aged was still better than their terminology for the over-55-crowd, which if I remember right, was elderly.  Thank heavens I've got a ways to go on that. I won't mind being over 55, but I think I'm going to have to mind being classified elderly when I get there.

I know this sounds like the beginning of the middle-aged woman's rant on aging, but it's not. Really. I was hoping to go somewhere else with this. Not just as some sort of ego trip, but more for all those friends of mine who have been bemoaning their ages to me of late. 47, 50, 56, whatever (I tend not to remember other people's ages, only my own).  I don't think I have a profound answer for you, but I think I can offer some perspective.  Let's see if I get there. And let me take a stab at that by telling you about something that happened today.

I had a pending project for when we get some student labor to help out and today was the day. It was basically re-boxing and re-foldering a collection for which I'd rewritten the inventory, which was item level, by the way. Some light proof-reading of dates and such, and entering box and folder numbers into the guide too. So when our student arrived and I was showing her the project, I opened up the first folder and started to explain what I needed her to do.

I was a couple steps into my spiel when I realized I didn't exactly have her full attention. This is really unusual for our student workers, who tend to really love the brief times they get to spend with us (I think the general refrain is "it's better than shelf-reading") and who tend to want to be on the list of students who get to spend time working for us. This student in particular. So I looked over at her and realized that her eyes were about as wide open as I'd ever seen.  And she was staring at the document laying in the folder open in my hands.

It took her a few seconds to notice I'd stopped talking and then the first thing out of her mouth was: "is that a copy?" Odd question, I thought, so I just kind of drawled out "No..." as I waited for the next piece.

Turns out that while I was trying to figure out what she was getting at, she was doing the math in her head. And figuring out that the hand-written letter I was showing her was approximately 153 years old. And this student, who tackles just about any job we give her with aplomb, was stopped in her tracks by this old letter.  Even maybe a little scared to be handling the collection.

I'm used to people saying "oh, cool" when you show them something old in an archival or rare books collection, but it was her follow-up question that stopped me in my tracks. It's not a totally surprising question, I just think it was the first time I'd ever been asked it when somebody was so clearly taken with the age of a document. She said "How much longer will it last?"

Good question. To which I had, and have, no answer. The rule of thumb, of course, is that permanent is about 200 years. But in this case, I suspect that might be on the lower end of the life expectancy for this document. At 153, it's still in pretty good shape. Doesn't get handled a lot, lives in a comfortable space, protected from light, so maybe it's got a while to go.

At a loss for a good answer, I gave her a reasonable one--at least reasonable by my admittedly limited evaluation--and said "oh, probably another 100 years at least."  Interestingly enough, that totally relaxed her. I guess she decided that the refoldering work she was helping to ensure that the documents would last that long so the importance of the task outweighed the scary "I could damage this" feeling.

At any rate, the whole conversation was turning over in my head for the rest of the day. And what I realized was that this student's question more or less paralleled some of the thinking I've been doing about aging. The thing is, on a daily basis, I tend to think about age in terms of has been, not what is to be. I'm not saying I want to start calculating my age in terms of "T minus N where N is an as yet undetermined variable." But maybe I could let go of the specific digits a little. And start thinking a little less about the existing wear and tear and more about what I'm going to be capable of in future.

Apparently, I need to remember my archival appraisal techniques. Age is more about context and authority and reliability, not so much a defining criteria in and of itself. So maybe I can concentrate on content instead. And what is ahead.

I don't want to be 20-something again. I wasn't all that bright back then. I may not be all that bright now, but at least I have some experience to fill in some of the gaps. I'm finally figuring out some of those important concepts, like which battles are important to fight and which you need to let go, that pride and embarrassment are often bad criteria in decision-making, and that it's okay not to always have the answers. I won't say I'm very good at living those concepts, but I'm getting better at them. And if the current pattern holds, I'll only get better.

Yes, I have a birthday coming up soon. No, that's not why I've been dwelling on this. Truly, it's been generated by my worried friends. All my sweet, funny, smart, and yes, sexy, friends. It's not about the number, my loves, you're more, far more than that. Let go of the 47, 50, 56. Let's start looking at what is to come.

What's ahead? Good times, all, good times.

1 comment:

  1. "Age is more about context and authority and reliability, not so much a defining criteria in and of itself." Nicely put.