The Daily Heller: Once They Were Just Boxes, Now They Are Archives

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Design historian and publisher Jens Müller is on a roll. His Düsseldorf-based OPTIK Books has published Collecting Graphic Design, the 10th volume of the A5 series. It includes 10 collections from around the world—from privately initiated projects to institutional collections—along with conversations about the pleasures and burdens of collecting design.

Among the featured collections are Canada Modern, the Vignelli Center for Design Studies, the Kunstbibliothek Berlin, Letterform Archive, the Swiss Graphic Design Foundation, the Buenos Aires–based IDA Foundation, the graphic design documentation center of AIAP Italy, and the ingenious collection of DNP Tokyo.

Both the word and the physical form of an archive have many definitions. An archive is a cataloged collection of past and present accomplishments that is structured in different ways for numerous purposes, including scholarship, reference and preservation. Archives can be public, private, personal, institutional, professional and cultural.

They are wellsprings of history—repositories of past and present as resource for the future. Archives are more than just warehouses; they are greenhouses for the nurturing of narratives. Out of archival seeds, mighty stories grow.

Many of them exist or are currently in the making. However, there is limited physical space to house, and few devoted experts and erstwhile amateurs to maintain them. Regardless of who or what comprises a specific archive, they cannot contain everything an individual or business has ever produced. The resources do not exist. So who decides who or what deserves preservation? It takes commitment and vision to divine what will make the cut—and sometimes, wrong decisions are made. How often has valuable material been mistaken for inconsequential junk? What is extraneous is sometimes essential, and vice versa.

A proper archivist is a prospector who pans for archival gold, then pans and filters it for essential raw material that scholars can interpret, shape and transform into stories. Archivists rigorously search not just for physical outcomes but for the plans, notes and iterations behind those outcomes. In every bag or box, envelope or file, there’s no greater satisfaction than when an archivist finds “gold in them there hills.” And that gold can be on moldy paper or pristine files.

One person’s posterity is another one’s garbage. Printing and type samples, even when saved by their producers or creators as records of work, are not always preserved for long-term posterity. There comes a time where the output of an individual, studio or business’ work exceeds the ability to contain and catalog the artifacts they’ve produced. The question of what to keep, what to dump and, more important, what to archive, is a day of reckoning.