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Why Do People Collect Things?


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Uncovering the history behind collecting

by Iane Fricke

People have been collecting for centuries. These collections range from rare baseball cards worth thousands of dollars to the exotic gems that glisten dispcases, showing their wealth.

However, more collections are comprised of oddities that have little value beyond the sentiment for the collector. Even with a collection of high dollar value, it isn't often that a collector sells the collection to claim the money. Why, then, would someone put so much time and effort into amassing a collection?

Terry Shoptaugh, University archirist and instructor at Minnesota State University Moorhead, can shine some light on why people collect. In his article, "Why Do We Like Old Things? Some Ruminations on History and Memory," Shoptaugh offers the idea that collecting is based on a need to inspire recoluction. People collect in an effort to remember and relive the past.

"We use keepsakes to stimulate memory, especially to trigger fond memories," Shoptaugh writes. "But even if memory cannot be relied upon to faithfully reproduce a record of the past, it remains vital to our understanding of the past."

This may explain why people collect old war memorabilia in an effort to remember the romantic aspects of war while not forgetting the true horror of such times.

As an anthropologist from the University of California, Marjorie Akin is an expert on the subject of why people collect. Her essay, "Passionate Possession: The Formation of Private Collections," shares Shoptaugh's idea that people collect for a connection to the past and memories. "Objects can connect the collector to the historic, valued past," Akin writes.

Stetond the past, Akin also includes four other reasons why people collect. The first is to satisfy a sense of personal aesthetics. Some collect to please personal tastes. Others collect items that are weird or unusual to show individualism. Another reason is for the collector's need to be complete. Akin said she has seen people cry out in relief once their collection is complete.

While Akin says many know the value of their collection to the penny, but never sell a thing, she believes some people collect for money and profit.

Kim A. Herzinger, an English professor, award-winning author and avid collector, provides yet another twist on obsession with collecting.

"Collecting is a means by which one relieves a basic sense of incompletion brought on by unfulfilled childhood needs," Herzinger said. "It functions as a form of wish fulfillment, which eases deep-rooted uncertainties and existential dread."

Psychologist Werner Muensterberger shares Herzinger's idea. In his book titled "Collecting: An Unruly Passion: Psychological Perspectives," Muensterberger says that control of the object collected brings "relief of the child's anxiety and frustration that comes with feeling helpless and being alone."

While collecting stems from incompletion of the past, Herzinger adds that it's also a passion. "Collecting, like most passions, has the capacity to let (the collector) live in another world for a while. If I could tell you why passion allows us to inhabit another world, I would stop collecting."

Herzinger says the collector is engaged in a kind of worship. "(The collector) is experiencing the kind of sensory transcendence that we most closely associate with religion or love. And, like religion or love, his collection is a kind of security against uncertainty and loss."

The sense of completion is one of the main drives collectors. Experience however, Herzinger continues to explain that it's important for collectors to maintain a sense of control over their own collection. To collect every baseball card would be impossible, leaving the collector with a feeling of always being overwhelmed. To cure this, the collector narrows the field from baseball cards to, let's say, the New York Yankees cards. As the collection becomes more advanced, so does the procedure for collecting more cards. The collection goes from New York Yankees to Roger Maris. In this way, the collector can maintain the balance of control and completion.

Herzinger also warns that while the collection brings much love and joy to the collector, there will always be disappointment. "I once had a very good friend, a record collector, who was showing me around his jazz collection. At some point, after itemizing some of the choicest items, he fell into a kind of silent ache, apparently disappointed with my response, or lack of it."

Many people feel they have a special bond with their collection and can't help but feel frustrated that no one seems to appreciate it as much as they do.

However, if the thought of collecting due to nostalgia and need for control seem impossible to agree with, Kurt Kuersteiner offers one more reason.

In his article, "Collecting Collections," Kuersteiner says, "I believe the main reason people collect something is a basic interest in the topic."

Can it really be that simple? The debate over the reasons people collect continues to go on, but the one truth that cannot be denied is that people will always continue to collect, whatever the reason.

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Interview: Will Friedwald, Owner Of The Worlds Largest iTunes Collection

Apr 19, '07 3:16 PM

Will Friedwald proclaims he has the world largest iTunes collection. An avid listener to Jazz music, and a writer for the New York Sun, Will spends his days in front of his Power Mac G5 running "The Maxtix", his mammoth 200,000 track iTunes library.

Will took some time out of his rigirous daily schedule and took some time to talk with me about iTunes, his music collection, and how he manages it.

The question we all want to know. How large is your iTunes music collection?

I just re-compiled the main library (something that takes about six hours – I only do it a few times a year!). Here are the new stats:

849 GB | 172,150 tracks | 809.2 days

2,935 artists | 11,561 albums

iTunes library database file – 282 MB

iTunes library XML file – 259 MB

For reasons I will get into later, I also have several sub-libraries; theoretically, all my music will eventually go into the main library. I also have a separate "annex" of about 200-300 GB of stuff that I am gradually adding in to the main library. If I were to put everything together, which I am slowly doing, it will be around 1200 GB.

How long have you been using iTunes to manage your digital music collection?

I started using iTunes when I made the leap to OS X, which was in 2003, the year I bought my G3 iBook (which I am still happily using four years later – am typing this on it, as a matter of fact).

Originally, I planned to just transfer a few CD artists into the library – Frank Sinatra, Duke Ellington, Bill Evans, Louis Armstrong, John Coltrane, Ella Fitzgerald, Miles Davis. Then, the next thing I noticed was that iTunes was great for listening to box sets: I could take, for instance, the 18-CD that I did on Nat King Cole (Mosaic Records actually won a Grammy for that in the early '90s) and instantly find the track that I wanted to hear.

No more opening a big clunky box, fumbling around to find an individual CD, and then looking for the right track! It was astonishing that as soon as I typed "You Must Be Blind," there it was! I started transferring all my big boxed sets – especially the Mosaic and Bear Family boxed sets almost immediately.

When was the takeoff point where the library started to drastically grow?

I could tell you "when" in terms of the theoretically breakthrough, if not precisely in terms of calendar time. For the few months or so, I went back and forth between listening via iTunes and listening to standard compact discs.

Then, at a certain point, I realized that I was doing nearly all of my listening via iTunes. In fact, I gradually reached the point where I am now, and that is the only time I listen to standard CDs now is when I am "auditioning" them to see if I want to put them into iTunes.

Early on, I didn't want to make my iBook internal hard drive work so hard to house all that music, so I purchased my first of many external drives (it may have been 160 GB, which at that time I thought would last me forever!). Then I bought a used blueberry iMac just to run iTunes – and that held me for a while.

But basically, it was at the point that I began doing all my listening via iTunes that the library began to grow exponentially. When I started to put every piece of music I thought I would ever listen to again, I began referring to the iTunes music library as "The Jazz Matrix" – although since then I have shortened it to just "The Matrix."

How many tracks do you add to your library each week?

I couldn't really estimate in terms of a number; the way I work is, this week, for instance, I did a feature article for my paper (The New York Sun) on Charles Mingus, which ran today (Monday 4/16) in honor of his the 85th Anniversary of Mingus's birth. Since I wanted to listen to as much of his music as possible, I loaded all of my Mingus CDs into The Matrix. I have about 50 albums by Mingus, some of which were already in there, but I added all the others.

It's an incredible tool for someone writing about music, to be instantly able to listen and compare every recording of "Fables of Faubus" and see how they differ from one another.

Right now I have two Mac OS X desktops – a G5 Power Mac and the G3 iMac – I use them both for importing. There are some days when I just keep the iMac going all day long; I just keep feeding the beast, when The Matrix yells "feed me!" It's the only way to tackle some of the more prolific artists in the history of recording, and massive projects like the 17-CD Complete Art Pepper Galaxy Sessions box.

I also have also added massive amounts of material that otherwise only exists in the analog domain – CDRs transferred from LPs and 78s that have not been digitally remastered.

What do you like about using iTunes to manage your library?

iTunes is, without a doubt, the best and most intuitive program out there for transferring, archiving, and listening to music – not to mention buying it from the store and putting it on an iPod. There's nothing I've seen that has its ease of use, and its flexibility – especially with the aid of the applescripts made available by Doug Adams.

With a smallish library, especially, it is incredibly easy to compile playlists, to search for songs using any criteria. I particularly like that you can search by criteria other than recording artist; much of the time I look for music by composer, so I do a search under "Gershwin" or "Ellington" and all of a sudden, every recording of a song by thousands of different performers magically appears. If anyone has a better music program, bring it on!

What things would you like to be added/improved within the application?

I've actually written an editorial essay about the limitations of iTunes (which hasn't been published yet), where I talk about some of these issues, but it to boil it down to a paragraph or less:

Essentially the problem is that iTunes was designed for people to buy music from the store, to put CDs on their iPods, and then, perhaps lastly, to store some of a personal CD collection in the library. It was NOT designed for what I am doing with it, which is to store, manage and access a major music collection of nearly 200,000 tracks. As a result, when I am working with the full 800 GB library, it is painfully slow, getting around the library, doing searches, and editing info on individual tracks or whole albums just takes forever!

As an example: when I want to edit the information on an individual song – the "metadata" as technically-minded people call it – I highlight the track, then I press Apple-I. With a small library (under 50-100 GB), the edit info window comes up instantly. But with my 800 GB Matrix, I have to wait three or four minutes before the window comes up. That's time enough to go to the bathroom, make a cup of coffee, or entertain myself with 99% of the clips on youtube!

As I see it, there are two possible solutions (other than using multiple libraries, which I am doing now, but which is more of a temporary workaround than a long-term solution):

The first (which is quicker but more expensive) is to get faster hardware, although I am not even sure if one of the new 8-core Mac Pro desktops could process a 1000-GB music library as fast as I would like it to. (Not that I can remotely afford a fully-outfitted new Mac Pro!)

The second is a vague but hopefully optimistic possibility for the future: I find that more and more individuals out there are getting saddled with these mega-libraries like mine. Also, at a certain point, institutions like The Library of Congress, The Smithsonian, and, most importantly, the Rutgers Institute of Jazz Studies, are going to want to make their collections of recorded sound available in a digital system. Right now, as far as I know, the technology to do that does not exist – it certainly would be very difficult to do that using iTunes as it currently exists.

What I would like to see Apple do is build a specific program to address this need. The same way that there are several levels of Final Cut, why couldn't there be an upgraded edition of iTunes – something like iTunes Pro or Super-iTunes? This new program, obviously wouldn't be a freebie, but if it could do what I want it to do I would gladly pay Apple almost anything that it wants. $200 for new software is a lot cheaper than having to spend $4000 for a new Mac Pro!

How much time are you spending building, organizing, and listening to your music on a daily basis?

Way longer than I should! I usually start the day by importing a few Cds as I answer the morning email and downing my first cup of coffee. As I'm working on a story, I keep on importing – somethings transferring two discs at once simultaneously on the G5 and the iMac. I'm forever tinkering with the library, several hours a day, often when I'm on the phone, sometimes even when I'm watching TV (on the extremely rare nights when I'm not out covering live music).

What genres of music do you most enjoy listening to?

I'm essentially a jazz guy: I review jazz in New York for The New York Sun, which boasts the best arts section of any NYC newspaper (even the Times – it's true!). I've written a bunch of books on jazz and pop singers, but I write mostly about instrumental jazz for the paper.

Lately I've had more of an appreciation for classic rock, though there's still very little from after 1970 that I listen to, pop-music wise. I also have nearly every original Broadway cast album in the matrix, and lots of classic country. When it comes to classical music, I've been using Rhapsody, since I don't have enough of my own personal classical CD collection to make it worthwhile. As of now, there is no Classical Matrix, but maybe someday soon.

What hardware are you using to run your mammoth collection?

In 2005, I invested in a single-processor G5 PowerMac, and that has powered the collection ever since. The Matrix is currently housed in a mirrored SATA RAID array of three four-hundred GB drives (3 x 400) in a Transintl enclosure. (I have recently learned, to my great annoyance, that I can't get PCI-X on my G5, which might have helped to speed things up a bit.)

I also do frequent back-ups, using a PCI magic bridge and three barebones external SATA drives.

849GB, 172,150 tracks, and 809.2 days of listening pleasure.


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So Steve, would you classify your Led Zeppelin collection in the realm of worship? :D And it would seem that the collection is never quite done.

I have small collections of things just because I love them and in some cases it just happened.

Blue glass for an example. I inherited a few pieces from my great-grandmother and my grandmother. I have added a few more pieces. Nothing overwhelming though. Have a few collector plates on the walls.

I do like to find beads of different shape, sizes and colors to use in my jewlery making hobby.

My hubby, on the other hand, would collect more vintage cars if we had the room. We have about 5 now and that is quite enough. He did go through a phase of collecting old time radios and old radio shows. We have about 200 radios from different decades going back to 1928. Now he has GAS. Gear Acquisition Syndrome. Currenting has 10 guitars and always on the hunt for a new deal and has 9 amps.

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So Steve, would you classify your Led Zeppelin collection in the realm of worship?

Collecting as a form of wish fulfillment that eases deep-rooted uncertainties and existential dread reasonated with me the most. I am a very sentimental person; for me things collected do continuously conjure up good thoughts and memories of people, places and events from the past.

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Good topic. My wife thinks people who collect things are extremely smart, etc, etc. Last night we saw the movie Wall Street. There was a line in the movie about collectors being insecure and obsessive compulsive.

I went to an art show recently. One of the featured artists took pictures reflecting peoples obsessions with collecting (and the negative toll it took on their well being). One photo showed a pile of fortune cookies on one side of a table. On the other side of the table was a pile of the actual fortunes.

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Interesting topic. My husband (and Dad, and father in law) collect coins; my husband also still has his sports card collection, although he isn't adding to it anymore.

I have a small collection of lighthouses (started out as Harbor Lights replicas of lighthouses I've actually visited, and then people started giving me lighthouse themed stuff); a small Harry Potter collection and a lot of other books.

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My bobblehead collection. I have to keep it in the office since my husband says I'm not allowed to have it in the house... :)


It's grown quite a bit since this was taken. I think I'm genetically a packrat...but I'm trying to get better.

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"We use keepsakes to stimulate memory, especially to trigger fond memories," Shoptaugh writes. "But even if memory cannot be relied upon to faithfully reproduce a record of the past, it remains vital to our understanding of the past."

That's exactly it. I am a hopeless romantic, and deeply sentimental. (though my closest friends would be surprised by that I'm sure.)

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Uncovering the history behind collecting

by Iane Fricke


A very interesting article for me: I am a collector (but I first realized it only when I was a student and someone pointed out that the objects I had accumulated because I loved them were indeed collections) as are most of my close friends and family members. Collecting to forge a connection to the historic, valued past and collecting to satisfy a sense of personal aesthetics both resonated with me. In the case of a few of my collections I view myself only as a guardian or custodian until these are passed onto the next generation (the 1930s boyhood stamp collection of an uncle, the vintage jewelry owned by my aunt and grandmother, for example). I married into a family of collectors – for my parents-in-law, it is antiques – primarily cars, furniture and decorative arts. Among other things, my husband has a coin collection and a collection of antique toys (primarily diecast cars and vehicles – Corgi, Dinky). I collect artifacts, including antique tapestries/textiles and vintage crafts (e.g., hand-made dolls) from places where we've lived and worked in the developing world. I also have collections of antique books, prints, postcards and photographs. And then there are the boxes of rock and music memorabilia that my husband and I accumulated during the 1970s. One of our biggest challenges is storing, displaying and finding time to enjoy our collections, all of which will be left to our children when we die.

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Another reason is for the collector's need to be complete. Akin said she has seen people cry out in relief once their collection is complete.

Man, that's not me at all. It's all about the journey here! :) I can understand, though, if you're collecting something that has a finite number of objects available to collect out there...it'd be pretty cool to finally put the last piece in place!

I used to collect Decipher's Star Wars Customizable Card Game cards...believe it or not, this was what the cool kids did at my school in 6th grade. Not that I was cool - I just happened to like Star Wars, so it worked out. I couldn't believe anybody else thought it was cool, lol. We never actually played the game; we just traded them around. I still have them all...haven't looked at them in years, unfortunately. I suppose I have a book collection...unlike my music "collection" which just kind of accumulated by itself because I like music, the book collection is a conscious attempt at form as well as function: I like to save up and buy hardcovers so they look nice on my shelves in addition to being fun on the inside.

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A very interesting topic! I collect coins and currency notes from all over the world because my dad is a Marine Engineer who pretty much sails the world and brings back bags full of coins from a variety of countries! I have coins which are over 30 years old! A very interesting hobby! I also collect stampss! My dad got me into that too and his grandfather's stamp collection has been passed down through the generations! A bit fragile but well preserved nevertheless! :D

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I must admit that I'm a collector, although I'm not a hoarder - there is a big difference between the two! I know this will mean nothing to anyone on here who isn't British and of a certain age, but I collect Camberwick Green/ Trumpton figurines. Camberwick Green/ Trumpton is a cult childrens TV show from the 1970s but was also on TV when I was growing up in the 1980s. All the characters from the show have different occupations, for example one will be a flower seller, another a postman or milkman, and they're all very colourful and cute. I have them in a glass cabinet to protect them from the dust! You probably think I'm a bit mad, but trust me, they're very collectable here. I've seen rare ones being sold on ebay for huge sums of money!

My mum makes collectable teddy bears from mohair so I have quite few of those as well. I also have some antique teddy bears and a couple of original Paddington Bears. My partner constantly complains about them but they're a talking point when people come round to our house! :D

I suppose half the fun of collecting isn't just owning your collection, but adding to it, and watching it grow.

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I have quite a collection of 'Iron Horse' motorcycle magazines from the 70's to the 90's (not sure how many copies) but have seen single issues on EBAY for $10-$15. I didn't collect them for that reason as I just loved the magazine for all the unusual bikes they would feature and I also have about 6 articles they printed on my bike with all the trials and tribulations of getting it to run right and my interstate road stories. (I made $600 too). :) The editor told me that my stories were probably the most popular and back issue requests were off the hook for those issues. :)

I used to collect 'Famous Monsters Of Filmland' when I was a kid. Wish I still had those. :( I also have shelves of odd knick knacks I pick up here and there.

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I don't really collect things, I just have a terrible memory of where I put/hide things and an irresistible desire and urge to buy them again. :rolleyes:

In a previous life I think I may have been a Squirrel and/or a Magpie, for no reason whatsoever. :o

Regards, Danny

PS, I like to Hoard German Airships made from Heavy Metal, EG, Lead. ;)

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Good topic; I collect vinyl records, also cassettes and 8-tracks. :D

There's a book store here in town and the previous owner died a few years back and he had 100,000 vinyl LP's.

The new owner is now selling them through the music store. I bought a couple movie sound track ones the other day.


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