What Should We Keep? The R. Buckminster Fuller Archive

The R. Buckminster Fuller Archive is now maintained at the Dept. of Special Collections, Stanford University Libraries.  Stanford provides access to the archive via the R. Buckminster Fuller Collection. Readers can create an account (free) at the registration page of the Stanford Library site.

The Welcome Page of Stanford’s Fuller Collection provides a gloss of what is included: “The R. Buckminster Fuller Collection documents the life and work of this 20th century polymath, and contains his personal archive, correspondence, manuscripts, drawings and audio-visual materials relating to his career as an architect, mathematician, inventor and social critic.”

But that brief, explanatory note is just the tip of the pyramid, for Fuller’s Archive is a gargantuan pack rat’s dream, or nightmare, depending on your point of view. Stanford librarians spent six years cataloging Fuller’s stuff. Hsiao-Yun Chu, who worked on the project, explains why it took so long: “…his former archivist estimated the weight of the archive to be ninety thousand pounds” (8). Pounds of what, exactly? The rat was “polyphagous” (6), apparently: “…not only every piece of paper touched by Fuller, in chronological order [thus Fuller’s name for it, the “Dymaxion Chronofile”], but newspaper clippings, recordings of speaking engagements…tons of papers, thousands of hours of audio and video footage, and hundreds of models and assorted artifacts” (6). Imagine never throwing away a receipt, a bill, a cancelled check, a napkin on which you’ve outlined your next invention, for the archive also includes, according to Chu, “…outgoing and incoming personal and business correspondence, receipts, greeting cards, business cards…photographs…the ephemera of his life” (7). Fuller lived from 1895 to 1983, a full life, and it’s probably just as well that he never saw Facebook or Twitter.

Why the obsession? Chu says that the archive “is a central phenomenon in Fuller’s story, arguably the most important ‘construction’ of his career, and certainly the masterpiece of his life” (6). There is, of course, a paradox, for the archive seems anti-Thoreauvian in its lack of simplicity, a value Fuller shared with Thoreau. Yet the filing system was simple. Things were filed according to “when,” not “what.” Fuller argued, Chu explains, that if he could remember “when” something had happened, he could find “what” he was looking for (9). And we shouldn’t necessarily look for the kind of economy of scale sought by business plans, for, as Chu says, “The amassing of the archive was a lifelong creative act that can easily be seen as a masterpiece of conceptual art” (9). Yes, but we can imagine the work of art being wrapped by the artist Christo, for what do we do with all our stuff, and what should we keep?

But maybe there was another reason for Fuller’s obsession to collect everything: synergy. Fuller defined synergy as “…behavior of whole systems unpredicted by the separately observed behaviors of any of the system’s separate parts or any subassembly of the system’s parts” (78). There isn’t anything in any of the separate parts of the Fuller Archive that predicts, explains, or contains R. Buckminster Fuller. Fuller, like the universe, “…is synergetic – unpredicted by its separate parts” (79). And the archive would also seem to fit into Fuller’s definition of universe: “…the nonsimultaneous and only partially overlapping, micro-macro, always and everywhere transforming, physical and metaphysical, omni-complementary but nonidentical events” (68). Who’s got the tab?

Not only have I failed to keep much in the way of a personal archive of any kind of obviously worthless stuff, but I’ve thrown away potentially valuable personal archival material, at least twice, that I now miss and regret tossing, including a collection of letters written when I was on active duty, and a big storage box of old writing, assorted notebooks, college papers, that had been sitting in the basement for years. Not that Stanford would ever have shown an interest, but some close to me have indeed expressed a bit of frustration at my giving up perhaps prematurely what the family might someday have shown an interest in. So it goes. But still, what should we keep?

Not too long ago, the consequence of a grade school reunion, an old friend sent me a clipping from a 1964 El Segundo Herald (see insert, above left). So far, I’ve not thrown it away, but it doesn’t exactly constitute an archive, and hopefully we can see it’s not really me, synergistically speaking.

Fuller, R. Buckminster. Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth. First published, 1969. New edition, Baden/Switzerland: Lars Muller Publishers, 2008/2011 [Edited with Introduction by Jaime Snyder]. Print.

Chu, Hsiao-Yun. “Paper Mausoleum: The Archive of R. Buckminster Fuller.” New Views on R. Buckminster Fuller. Eds. Hsiao-Yun Chu and Roberto G. Trujillo. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2009. 6-22. Print.