Where Does the Knowledge Go?

In July, we moved our office.  Even though we were just moving across the street, moving is moving.  Books, articles, reports, journals, files (I’m not paperless as much as I try), drawer contents—everything needed to be boxed and labeled.  Intentionally, I had accumulated articles that filled two large file drawers—all the ones I collected in graduate school for my thesis, and the hundreds of others that incited my interest over the years.  It was relatively easy to give many of the older books to my staff and other young evaluators who live in D.C., as well as eager students, thanks to my colleagues at The George Washington University.  I was glad that much of this knowledge would be passed on.  Sadly, there was little interest in many of the articles that lived in the two large file drawers.  I suspect that when people looked at them they wondered, “Who is this person?” or astutely noted, “If this is any good, I’ll find it online.”

My interests have evolved, and I believe less is more, so I couldn’t rationalize keeping articles that felt out of sync with my current pursuits, like articles on collecting practices; recycling the paper those articles were on was a fairly easy decision.  And the very dated articles about computers—easy decision.  Then there were the classics—that was a fairly easy decision, too; they were keepers.  Screven - The Museum as a Responsive Learning Environment_Page_1“Exhibits: Art Form or Educational Medium?” by Harris Shettel appeared in Museum News in 1973.  My copy has highlights, underlines, and notes in the margins.  It was then, and remains now, a great piece and my copy feels like a personalized artifact.  All of Chandler Screven’s articles, such as the 1969 article, also from Museum News, titled “The Museum as a Responsive Learning Environment” (yes, it’s about participatory experiences); and then Molly Hood’s 1983 piece, “Staying Away: Why People Choose Not to Visit Museums” (yes, these reasons haven’t changed over the years) (also from Museum News).  I no longer refer to or reference them, but recycling the paper would be like throwing myself into the recycle bin, as I have learned so much from their work.

Decision making became a challenge when I was looking at the piles of folders with articles that I still found interesting even though their contents rarely entered into my current thinking.  They were neither the classics nor the outliers—they were somewhere in the middle—fascinating content and solid pieces but dated and no longer relevant to my work.  And this dilemma caused me to wonder, if I recycle the paper they are on, where will all that knowledge go?  Will the contents of these pieces just dissipate into thin air?  I really struggled with these neither-here-nor-there pieces.  I usually don’t fret about getting rid of stuff, but clearly this stuff had a different hold on me.

Then, while our move preparations were swimming right along, someone thought the piles of folders were forgotten, not as keepers, but as piles that never made their way to the recycle bin, and off they went.  I was away on travel so I couldn’t protest, and I can see the thinking—they weren’t in a box and they were no longer in their original home.  I had shared my dilemma with only one other person in the office—so no one else knew of my struggle until after the fact.  They were just there, piles of manila folders (all neatly labeled with the authors’ names), and if they were neither here nor there, then they were nowhere.  Thus, my dilemma about what to do with the pile of articles that were no longer central to my work was resolved by someone else for whom the folders had no meaning whatsoever.  I felt a weight lifted from me but I wasn’t entirely sure what else I should feel.  I wasn’t mad that they were discarded, but I felt that there was now a black hole; I still haven’t figured where the knowledge might go if I recycled the paper, but I suppose I have plenty of time to think about that, and if I should realize that I needed to guard the knowledge in those pieces, I suspect if the ideas were good enough, the knowledge will re-emerge and live a more contemporary existence in someone else’s article.

5 Responses
  1. Maria Quinlan Leiby

    As a fellow “seasoned” professional, who has moved a number of times, I relate to this totally!! I will think of you the next time I have to sort files.

  2. Knowledge is currency in our profession. Coming from a teaching background before entering conservation I’ve amassed an array of literature, books and articles related to my areas of specialisation (mostly textiles). I am also reluctant to discard tried and tested materials and methods. I’ve recently purchased a scanner to digitise my paper files. I’ve spent the last couple of months backing up ten years of files onto a hard-drive. I haven’t even started on the paper files. I’ve given some resources to beginning teachers and donated my research papers from a thesis about Sydney sandstone to the National Museum of Australia in the hope that another conservator will pick up where I left off.

  3. Kris Morrissey

    Randi’s dilemma resonates with so many experiences I’ve had as I sit in my small cubicle with a pile of early Curator journals not far from my feet! I think there is a significant trade-off in over-valuing the detritus of our professional careers and and not recognizing the value of occasionally clearing space for new ideas or iterations of old ideas.

    I ascribe to the philosophy in Randi’s concluding thoughts. . . . . knowledge and ideas intermingle in our complex memories and once we’ve paid attention to an idea, it has begun to shift and attach to other ideas in our memory and lives on in new formats. Thanks for sharing, Randi!

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