The mania for tidying up initiated by lifestyle celebrity Marie Kondo could have damaging consequences, destroying valuable history for future generations.
A paper published by Australian Catholic University historian Associate Professor Noah Riseman has identified personal archives as a key resource for historians.
Associate Professor Riseman said while historians traditionally depended on either official archives or oral histories, the private papers, notes and cuttings in an individual's shoebox could fill in important gaps - particularly when official sources were hidden or redacted.
Personal archives can be particularly valuable when exploring the experiences of previously under-represented groups such as women, LGBTI individuals and racial minorities.
"People keep all sorts of documents that might not be in the official file, or you might not ever find: correspondence, notes, newspaper cuttings, drafts. These documents can throw light on what happened and give us a much fuller picture of the past," he said.
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Throwing out personal papers and unnecessary objects is fashionable, thanks in large part to Marie Kondo, the Japanese "organising consultant" whose mania for de-cluttering has spawned a multi-million-dollar empire, including four books and the Netflix reality show Tidying Up with Marie Kondo.
The trade-marked "Kon-Mari" method urges followers to discard anything that does not "spark joy". That would certainly include personal notes about the methods of Australian Defence Force police investigations into his private sexual behavior, which former serviceman Richard Gration kept for more than 20 years.
But Gration's personal archive, and others like it, have proved a gold mine for Associate Professor Riseman and his colleagues, who are conducting an Australian Research Council-funded study into the history of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) military service in Australia.
In a paper published in the latest edition of Archivaria, The Journal of the Association of Canadian Archivists, he urges archivists to value the ad hoc and incomplete personal archives, for the insights they give into emotional life and the relationship between individuals and institutions.
"When we conceived this project, we expected that we would derive most policy information from records in the National Archives of Australia (NAA) and most information about lived experience from a mixture of media reports and oral history interviews.
"What has astounded us, though, has been the extent to which several service members kept their own personal archives of documents - most of which related to their personal service and some of which did not appear in the NAA catalogue. In other instances, interview participants' testimonies or personal documents raised topics that sent us to uncover other uncatalogued archival records," he wrote.
Personal archives can also corroborate - and sometimes challenge - the recollections of oral histories, which are essential when historians try to recover the voices of people who were forced to be silent. In one case, a woman, who had been secretly investigated by RAAF police after being falsely accused of being a lesbian, told investigators that she had never received an apology but her personal archive revealed a letter from the deputy chief of air staff which included an unreserved apology.
Associate Professor Riseman said the inconsistency was valuable information in itself, exposing how the personal response to trauma had affected the subject's recollection. "Understanding how and why she has composed her memory this way is as important as the inconsistency with the document."
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