Directions: You are going to read a list of headings and a text about Backlogs of History. Choose the most suitable heading from the list A-F for each numbered paragraph (41-45). The first and last paragraphs of the text are not numbered. There is one extra heading which you do not need to use. Mark your answers on ANSWER SHEET 1. (10 points)
[A] Passion for personal and familial archival collection.
[B] Reception of a hospital delivery bill.
[C] Overabundance of trivial personal documents.
[D] Explosion of public documents.
[E] It is imperative to put archival policies into perspective.
[F] What tactics should be adopted in document-saving?
One morning a few years ago an envelope arrived from my parents containing the bill from New Rochelle Hospital for my delivery, in 1952. The contents of a basement or attic were being culled, and the bill had turned up in one of the many cardboard reliquaries that have long lent a kind of ballast to my childhood home. The hospital's total charge for a five-day stay including drugs and phone calls, came to $187.86. I was amazed at the cost, to be sure. But I was also struck by something else: that among all those decades' worth of family documents my parents had looked through, the delivery bill was the only thing they thought of sufficient interest to pass along.
At some point most of us realize that having a personal archival strategy is an inescapable aspect of modern life: one has to draw the line somewhere. What should the policy be toward children's drawings and report cards? Toward personal letters and magazine clippings? People work out answers to such questions, usually erring, I suspect, on the side of over-accrual of rubbish documents. Almost everyone seems to save - or "curate," as archaeologist says - issues of National Geographic. That is why in garbage landfills copies of that magazine are rarely found in isolation; rather, they are found in herds, when an entire collection has been discarded after an owner has died or moved.
I happen to be an admirer of the archiving impulse and an inveterate archivist at the household level. Though not quite one of those people whom public-health authorities seem to run across every few years, with a house in which neatly bundled stacks of newspaper occupy all but narrow aisles, I do tend to save almost everything that is personal and familial, and even to supplement this private hoard with oddities of a more public nature - a calling card of Thomas Nast's, for instance, and Kim Philby copy of the Joy of Cooking.
I cannot help wondering, though, whether as a nation we are compiling archives at a rate that will exceed anyone's ability ever to make sense of them. A number of observers have cited the problem of "information overload" as if it were a recent development, largely the consequence of computers. In truth, the archive backlog has been a problem for millennia. Historians obviously have problems when information is scarce, but it's not hard to see a very different problem emerging as source material becomes spectacularly overabundant.
Leave aside the task of assessing an entire epoch and consider what is required in purely physical terms to preserve even a single prominent person's lifetime documentary output. Benjamin Disraeli's correspondence survived down to the level of what today would be an E-mail message: "My darling, I shall be home for dinner at 1/2 pt 7. In haste, Your, Dis." Woodrow Wilson left so much behind that the historian Arthur S. Link spent his entire career at Princeton University annotating and publishing Wilson's personal papers, in sixty-nine volumes.
Is it preposterous to begin thinking of some of our archives as the new tells are the mounds that layer upon layer of former cities make; they are everywhere in the Middle East, harboring the archaeological record of thousands of years of human history. But there are too many of them for more than a few ever to be excavated systematically and understanding what's in even those few takes decades if not centuries.
Don't get me wrong: I am not proposing that we discard any thing at all. One rarely knows in advance what will turn out to be of interest or importance and what should have gone directly into the oubliette. It is always delightful when something is discovered. But information does have its natural predators, and it may be that sometimes natural processes work out for the best.