Wednesday, November 22, 2006

The Concept of Collecting

I'd like to dig a little deeper into the concept of "collecting," especially as it's sometimes indistinguishable from hoarding. IMHO, true collections go through three stages: accumulation, consolidation, and definition.

1) Accumulation
-- This is when a collection is born. The collector actively seeks out more items to fill the collection. Whether the collector can articulate it or not, the goal is simply to get more. Let's take a stamp collection, for example. This would be the stage where any and all stamps are welcome -- new, old, foreign, domestic.

2) Consolidation
-- At some point, the collection begins to take shape. The collector, who now has a greater knowledge of his or her field of interest, finds some aspects of the collection more interesting than others. At the same time he realizes that it's impossible to collect every object in the field. The collector becomes more discerning with his purchases, and may even begin discarding peripheral pieces. Our stamp collector finds he likes US commemoratives, and sells or trades his foreign stamps to further his acquisition of American stamps.

3) Definition
-- As consolidation continues, the collector further narrows the theme of his collection. This kind of focused collection can usually be summed up in single, detailed sentence. Our philatelist might define his collection as US commemoratives issued between 1960 and 1977, mint condition only." The goal has changed from accumulating one of everything to obtaining the best possible examples of the collection's focus. While the collector may keep some items that are outside of the core collection -- a rare foreign stamp, or his first plate block -- most fall within the narrow confines of the collection.

Hoarding may seem indistinguishable from accumulation as I've defined it. Both involve gathering more and more things. Hoarding is usually a physical manifestation of unresolved emotional issues; building a nest of objects where one can feel safe. The accumulation phase of collecting is similar -- one object gives me pleasure, so ten should give me ten times as much. And most people don't move on from phase one, like the lady at the office who collects pigs -- ceramic, stuffed, large, small, realistic, whimsical or anything -- and has for years. That's the kind of collecting that can quickly turn to hoarding.

Notice, though, that as a collection moves through its life cycle it may actually shrink in size. The definition phase is a good time to dump items of marginal quality, duplicates and so on. And collectors in the definition phase may go months or even years without adding a new item (as opposed to those in the acquisition phase that can be adding stuff daily).

Healthy collecting can be a good thing. The accumulation of stuff just to have more – whether old newspapers or big-ticket electronics -- is not. And it could land you a place later on in the fourth circle of hell.

- Ralph

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