December 11, 2019 – 8:23 am


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Philip Cheah remembers what others may want you to forget.

I was once struck by a written image of the Vietnam War where a planeload of soldiers was described as being “disgorged” onto the tarmac. That image was so pregnant that till today, I’ve been fascinated with watching how hordes of people can be swallowed into an airplane and then expulsed on landing. As a result, I’ve never felt impatient about getting on or off an airplane. The process of cantering and decantering is such a marvel to behold that I enter a trance. My mind zones out and I feel calm and empty.

It mirrors my feelings about collecting. Collections come and go. One day, they are neatly stacked up and admired, the next they become fodder for paper or plastic recycling. As a lifelong collector, I must confess that I find no more joy in accumulating. In fact, I sometimes gaze at my hill of DVDs, my mountain of CDs, and my Everest of vinyl records, and I shake my head and think: “what the hell for?” None of this will mean much to anyone without that same experience of history that I felt. None of it is going to save my life either.

As philosopher Walter Benjamin noted: “The phenomenon of collecting loses its meaning as it loses its personal owner. Even though public collections may be less objectionable socially and more useful academically than private collections, the objects get their due only in the latter… Only in extinction is the collector comprehended.”

My exception to this quote was a day when my friend asked me to visit his deceased father’s home. He had to empty the house before it was sold. As I stood there amidst the clutter of shelves and narrow passageways, I just couldn’t understand why this guy had complete boxes of pencil sharpeners (well ok, they were all shaped like Chinese pandas), crates of plates and crockery and cupboards of teapots. I don’t think any of us who visited that day could comprehend this guy.

All collectors are obsessional to a degree. We live in fear of the moments when those who cannot comprehend us say: “Get a life!” But we do have a life. We are the custodians of ordinary history. While most national libraries in the world have become repositories of official or even state history, the Americans have gone even one better - presidential libraries! Man, those guys really don’t want you to forget anything… about THEM!

Well, we don’t want to forget anything either. When Occupy Wall Street began in 2011 to protest income inequality, the People’s Library was accidentally started when a library science student left a box of books as donation. The protest organisers picked up on the idea and soon volunteer librarians organised and collected more books from the public. When the police cracked down on the protest, one of the first things they did was to destroy the 5,554 books collected in The People’s Library. When people get to think for themselves and when they see what’s really going on, they become a powerful force by themselves.

And this is the real meaning of collections. Collections are repositories of knowledge that help to preserve the history of knowledge. But collections are meant to be shared, and not hoarded away. While Walter Benjamin spent his whole life and all the money he had in collecting, he died in 1940 on the French-Spanish border while escaping the Nazis, with only one suitcase. But during his life, he liked to generously give away his collection to friends. That was the same impetus that gave birth to The People’s Library. Collections might not save my life but it might save yours. As long as collections are cantered and decantered, in the process of being shared.

So next time, you express impatience with a collector, please remember that we might be the only ones left who remember what they want you to forget…

Note: This essay was first published in the 14th Jogja NETPAC Asian Film Festival catalogue in November 2019.

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  1. One Response to “THE PEOPLE’S LIBRARY”

  2. I can relate to this. I am a collector, but when i had to empty my father-in-law’s house, there were few items from his collections that I wanted. He had videocassettes, CD’s & LP’s, but they were mostly easy listening music from the 1940’s-50’s. He had over 2000 books, but they were not the kind that I collect. He had several Victrolas and hundreds of 78’s. He had a player piano and nearly 100 QRS rolls. He has hundreds of Super 8 movies of Laurel & Hardy, Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd. And he had a few hundred bottles of wine from the 9170’s that had all gone bad.

    In the end, we got rid of 99% of his collections. None of it resonated with us.

    By Blair Frodelius on Dec 11, 2019

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