Are we overdocumenting our lives?
By Alyson Ward Star-Telegram Staff Writer

Fort Worth Star Telegram
October 24, 2004 Our relatives send us 500 photos to sift through online. If there’s an event, we have a videotape of it. Technology makes it easier and easier to catalog our lives — but does that mean we should?

Jill Caren saw a storage-space shortage in her future.

Her 2-year-old daughter, Rachel, has started using crayons and fingerpaints and glue. The result: lots and lots of art projects, too many for the refrigerator door.

“She’s 2, and I probably have 15 art projects,” Caren says. “I thought, ‘This is the part I’m going to start struggling with.’ “

As the years go by, Caren knows the construction-paper creations will pile up. And she knows she doesn’t really need to keep every single one. But at the same time, “that’s my little girl drawing and gluing and painting,” Caren says.

Caren’s solution: digital scrapbooking. She can scan the artwork into her computer, print out a flat, clean, colorful page, and then toss the original. That’ll save some shelf space, she hopes.

In fact, the New Jersey mom has turned her digital know-how into a business; she uses her home computer to make memory books for people all over the country. Many of her customers call because they are buried in boxes of photos and souvenirs, overwhelmed by keepsakes but unable to throw them away.

And when they call, “the first thing out of their mouth is usually, ‘I have all these pictures, and I don’t know what to do with them,’ ” Caren says.

She herself has had to stop keeping every photo she takes of her daughter. She knows how quickly the photos can get out of hand.

“When I first had Rachel, my focus was to take pictures,” Caren says. “You take pictures until your thumb is sore. But then I started to realize — this is getting ridiculous. Why am I saving every one of these?”

Technology as an enabler

Why, indeed?

Plano psychologist Susan Fletcher calls it “hoarding.” Caren calls it “the American way.” But some instinct makes us want to keep the things we collect along the way, to hang onto the mementos that tell the story of our lives (and sometimes, even the ones that don’t).

And modern life affords us the opportunity to save everything. Digital photos can be stored by the hundreds on CD. Video cameras are more affordable than ever; we can make home movies of family and friends. E-mail programs can hold thousands of messages, so we never have to delete anything but spam. Cellphones double as cameras — we can take photos wherever we are and send them to our friends. And blogs, those ubiquitous online journals, allow us to catalog the personal details of our lives and publish them worldwide; we can record the most mundane details of each day, then save them indefinitely in electronic archives.

But wait — there’s more. Even the tidbits of information we consider transitory — text messages and voice mail — are starting to gain permanence. With new software called Lifeblog, Nokia cellphone users can save, organize and display on their PCs every text message and photo they send or receive. And there’s a project under way to create an electronic vault that will store voice-mail messages, says Schuyler Brown, director of trendspotting for the New York firm Euro RSCG. That means you’ll never have to delete that sweet message your boyfriend left two years ago; it can be saved for years, maybe forever.

All of this technology is only encouraging us to keep more and more stuff as we go along, Brown says. As a trendspotter, she has tried to trace this documentation proclivity to its roots. She thinks that, besides technology, maybe we’re also encouraged by reality TV.

“Suddenly, my home videos look exactly like the TV that’s being shown,” Brown says. “There’s a blurring of the line between fiction and reality.”

Brown points to a current commercial for the Samsung VM-A680, a new cellphone that has video capabilities. In the commercial, a young woman holds up her phone and says, “This is a movie about my life, made by me.” The notion of making a movie about our lives might have sounded foreign or even funny a generation ago — but now, “that’s absolutely ‘on trend,’ as we say,” Brown says. “People are documenting their lives.

“We have more tools at our disposal,” she says, “and we’re all sort of becoming digital masters and professional librarians.”

In fact, the movie Tarnation, which opened in Dallas last weekend, is concocted entirely from filmmaker Jonathan Caouette’s family photographs and home movies, along with some video journals and old answering machine messages. He arranged the collage of film clips and images — the same sort of photos and videos we all have around the house — on his home computer, and the result is one of the year’s most fascinating and acclaimed feature films.

Music fans keep their favorite songs on personal iTunes playlists; amateur photographers have computer archives full of digital photos. And the nondigital stuff of life — the playbills, the birthday cards, the party invitations — aren’t left behind, either; about 25 million Americans are carefully pasting those things into scrapbooks. Which, in case you hadn’t noticed, are taking over the world.

“The stats on scrapbooking in this country are crazy — they will blow your mind,” Brown says.

Ready? According to the Craft and Hobby Association, which collects this sort of data, sales of scrapbooks and supplies reached $2.5 billion — that’s billion — in 2003.

The people who scrapbook

Creative Memories is a Minnesota-based company that direct-sells scrapbooks and supplies at home parties, much like Tupperware; its 90,000 consultants are responsible for about $400 million in sales last year.

At a recent local “crop” — a scrapbooking session in which customers purchase supplies as they work — a handful of women parked their sedans, their Mustangs and their SUVs in Mary Ellen May’s southwest Fort Worth cul-de-sac. Dressed for comfort, they approached the house toting supplies in airtight plastic boxes, or wheeling large black suitcases full of equipment.

Ready for work, the women spread out pictures of parents and grandchildren, weddings and holidays, birthdays and vacations, ready to paste their memories neatly onto acid-free pages designed to last a lifetime.

May, a Creative Memories consultant and unit leader, has dedicated a room of her house to the album-making sessions; she’s been making albums for nine years and selling supplies for six. She is about to start her 11th family album, but she has made other books, too, dedicated to holidays and vacations, along with one called “Pets Are Family, Too.” May also has a “Treasures Album,” full of photographs of items in the house; she and her husband have written the history of each item so their kids will know the stories.

“Now my children are trained,” she says. “If they’re here and they go to a ballgame, they lay the ticket stubs on the kitchen counter because they know I want them.”

Album-making has changed the way she collects mementos, May says.

“Once we begin making albums, the way we take photographs changes,” she says. “On a trip, we always take pictures of the sign of a hotel now — we never used to do that before.”

Jean Carmena is working on an album for her daughter, Angela, who is also into scrapbooking. It’s nothing big or overwhelming, she says, just a collection of “nips and pieces of things” that Angela can set out on her coffee table, maybe show to visitors.

Jari Emmons, meanwhile, is dedicating a different album to each of her grandchildren. She knows that her grandchildren might not want to carry a pile of old family scrapbooks through life, but they will definitely be interested in their own history.

Family historians

Susan Clough Wyatt, who grew up in Fort Worth, stumbled across some scrapbooks from her father’s youth a few years ago. She and her brother were helping her mother move a few years ago, and she found six “huge, crumbling scrapbooks” full of photos, postcards and newspaper clippings.

“I found them in the garage,” Wyatt says. “[My mother] said, ‘You can take them if you want, but otherwise, I’d just as soon throw them out.’ “

Wyatt took them.

“To me it was just a gold mine,” she says. The scrapbooks, compiled between 1927 and 1941, told her more about her father’s life before she was born. She plans to use the books to write his biography.

Even so, Wyatt doesn’t plan to keep the books in the family. Because her father was a member of the Southern Methodist University band in its 1930s heyday, she’ll eventually donate the books to the SMU library.

“I know my kids are not going to want all these scrapbooks,” says Wyatt, who now lives in New Mexico. Instead, she has found another solution: To condense the family history, she is writing down the stories.

Her first book, the self-published Thirty Acres More or Less, came out last year; it’s about the seven years her family spent fixing up a farm in Virginia. Now she’s writing about the two years she spent helping her first husband re-open an American Embassy in Yemen in the early 1970s. In the process, she is sorting through piles of old letters, journals and photos.

“You can save your children and other people a lot of storage space if you go ahead and do the writing and condense it,” Wyatt says.

Consumed with documentation

Condense, condense. Perhaps it is the modern version of Thoreau’s call to “Simplify, simplify!” Modern life affords us the capability to keep everything; we must decide what we should keep. Though documenting family history valuable, the results can become burdensome, especially if the documenting is taken too far.

The problem with scrapbooks and photos and videotapes, of course, is that they take up space. If we pass a dozen albums down to our children, perhaps we are burdening them with too many souvenirs. If we dedicate a closet to our keepsakes, will our children be eager to do the same? Even if they are, what happens when they add their own accumulations and pass down two closets full of souvenirs and family history to their children? At what point are we giving the future too much of our past?

Just because we can document much of our lives, it doesn’t necessarily mean that we should. The constant recording and remembering of life can begin to interfere with the living. We’ve all seen the mothers and fathers who watch entire awards assemblies and piano recitals through the lens of a video camera. And we’ve seen people who won’t relax and enjoy a party because they have to take pictures of everyone present. At what point does the need to preserve these moments keep us from truly relishing them?

Brown, the trendspotter, says that thanks to the wealth of photos and the ease of technology, we might also be saddling our friends and relatives with more information than they want.

“Whether it’s a blog or camera phones or photos online, we now share all of our photos with everybody,” she says.

When her friends want to share pictures of their weddings or their new babies, Brown says, they’ll usually post the photos in an online album through Yahoo, Snapfish or a similar service. Instead of sending along a couple of choice snapshots, “they’re sending a link to their entire photo album,” Brown says. “I’m looking at pictures of people I don’t even know.”

Beyond cluttering our closets and computers, all this documenting may have one more effect on us, individually and as a culture: It might, perhaps, cause us to focus inward so much that we forget how to see the world without our own faces in the frame.

Washington Post writer Hank Stuever stopped in a NASA souvenir shop just three days after pieces of the Columbia space shuttle rained down on Texas in early 2003. While the national memorial service for the astronauts went on nearby, Stuever writes, he saw a woman buying NASA stickers for her scrapbook. “I just finished my Sept. 11 memory book, and here it is something else,” she said. “You can’t keep up.”

It begs the question: When does national tragedy end and art project begin? And where do you draw the line?

The lost art of throwing things away

The line does need to be drawn somewhere. Nationwide, we have lost control of our souvenirs. Consider this: Digital cameras allow us to have fewer photo prints cluttering up our cabinets. But this month’s issue of Wired magazine devotes a four-page article to helping readers find their photos in the vast, disorganized computer files they now have instead.

Sunny Schlenger is a professional organizer and the author of How To Be Organized in Spite of Yourself (Signet, $6.99) and Organizing for the Spirit (Jossey-Bass, $14.95). She doesn’t believe there’s such a thing as clutter — “everything around us has a meaning,” she says.

But Schlenger says we are keeping too much as we go through life — not because we really need it, but because we just never decide to get rid of it.

“Because we’re a society of consumers, there’s no way around that,” Schlenger says. “We just never keep current with ourselves.”

The piles of photos and mementos, then, comes from “a series of unmade decisions.”

Some things we have just because we failed to discard them, says Lesley Alderman, news editor for Real Simple magazine, a publication devoted to keeping readers organized.

Other items, Alderman says, stay around because of nostalgia or sentimentality.

“You think: ‘Oh, this was the matchbook I got on my trip to Paris,’ or ‘My mother gave me this,’ ” she says. “At some point, you can’t let go of anything.”

Regular editing keeps that from happening, she says. An item shouldn’t gain sentimental value simply because it’s been around a long time. And it doesn’t have to be valuable just because it belonged to you or someone in the family. We should choose the things we have around us; we shouldn’t let them choose us.

When Schlenger’s children were young, she sat down with them every summer, just before they entered a new grade at school.

“I’d say, ‘You’re older now, and you’re entering a new grade. Let’s be sure your room matches the way you’d like to see yourself.’ “

The children decided what they had outgrown; they tossed or donated some items, and the truly meaningful pieces went into storage.

“You have to learn how to discern,” Schlenger says. “It becomes part of your routine. Instinctively, when you add something to a collection on a shelf, you look it over to make sure there’s nothing that has outlived its usefulness.”

She does the same thing with photos.

“When I get hold of pictures,” Schlenger says, “I immediately get rid of the ones that are not my favorites. Once in a blue moon, I regret it, but usually I forget they were ever taken.”

Her memories of the event, however, are still there — they’re just not taking up space in her closet.

“As a society,” says Brown, the trendspotter, “the only danger is our obsession with material — the idea that if we don’t catalog something, then it didn’t happen or it didn’t exist.”

Once we let go of that idea, she says, we realize that “memories don’t actually need things to live on.”

Tips for managing your memories

We collect life’s souvenirs every day, whether they’re photos or postcards, playbills or e-mails. How do you keep it from becoming an overwhelming mess?

Lesley Alderman, news editor at Real Simple magazine, says you should edit as you go. It forces you, she says, to “think about the things you keep — you have to think, ‘Will I really miss them if I don’t have them?’ “

This, she says, makes you realize what is essential and what can be discarded.

“Stop today and look at what you have,” adds professional organizer Sunny Schlenger. “Maybe something was meaningful three years ago, but it’s certainly not today.”

• Go through photos immediately. “The minute you get them back, go back and save the five or six you like, with the negatives,” Alderman says. You never end up with several photos of the same thing, and you can collect two photographs and move on.

• If you tend to collect too many digital photos, get a camera that holds fewer images, which will force you to self-edit.

• Set boundaries on how much you’ll collect. If you allow yourself only 10 e-mail messages in your in-box at any time, you’ll get rid of the excess every day.

• Don’t use storage space just because you have it. Don’t stow things away because you can. Make sure that everything you’re keeping is something you really want.

• If you have children, encourage them to edit their own collections. If they’ve outgrown their stuffed animals or their children’s books, allow them to keep a few special ones — then donate or sell the rest. The longer they keep everything, the harder the elimination process will be.

• Don’t go after every technological advance available; it may complicate your life. When these gadgets and gizmos appear, “some people feel like it’s expected or it has value to society because somebody has created this product,” says Susan Fletcher, a Plano psychologist and author of an upcoming book on parenting. You don’t have to save every text message just because you can.

• Be sure that the items you do keep, whether they’re photos or letters, are clearly labeled; in fact, their significance should be clear to someone besides you. You and your children may remember all of the great-aunts and second cousins in the photo album, but without vital information, in a couple of generations, those photos may be meaningless.

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