as little fear

archiving and synthesizing: on creating a reference library from sketchbooks

five years, stacked

A photo posted by joelle r (@okayjoelle) on

About half of the sketchbooks I currently own, photographed two years ago, right before the first time I moved them across the country.

I have a few dozen sketchbooks from 2006 through now, the end of the year 2016 under my bed. I have this ideas that I will put these years of notes, sketches, and ideas into something I can more easily access and make use of. For now, while I have a satisfying stack of papers to be able to point to and say, this is what I’ve done, the contents go unused and unreferenced. I started the process of scanning them but realized I’d have the same problem — I’m not going to search through PDFs on my computer looking for something I want to revisit or dig deeper into. I plan on taking scraps from these old sketchbooks, gulp cutting them out and repasting them into a single book, a binder that I can organize by theme, category, and project. My ultimate goal would be able to create an in-depth index to be able to reference for later projects or ideas, and have at my fingertips every idea I’ve ever head for say, a type enclosure, or line styles, or different ways of drawing faces.

The downside of this dream reference library is that I have to give up the books themselves. Twenty-some books that I’ve collected over the last six years and hauled across the country twice. From those that represent my first semesters of college spent with the cheapest Utrecht black books where the black le pen (sponsor me, marvy uchida) has since faded to yellow and the spines are separating from the pages, to the plain kraft cover moleskine cahiers that I got from my first job out of college, reinforced in the spine with a sampling of the many washi tapes we had in the studio. All the way through now, with messy, thin, often stained muji gridded sketchbooks that reflect being hauled to and from everyday in tote bags and backpacks and pulled out at lunch breaks.

For me, sketchbooks represent not only the content inside but my relationship to my work and my own thoughts and feelings. They are a physical representation of everything I generate, my ideas and my products. For that reason, they serve as markers of the past and the time and pages that pile up but the projection of the future. When I turn to a new page of a sketchbook, it feels like a new beginning. An aspect of my personality that I like and I consider to be something that makes me successful and ambitious (but also in a constant anxious state of overthinking, regret, and reflection) is my ability to turn to a new page (literally or figuratively) and imagine that everything is raw and fresh and my full potential will be realized by living out the manifestations of the contents on the page. I feel like I’m always going into a new phase and this is going to be the phase where I make things happen for myself.

I don’t set New Year’s resolutions because I’m constantly resolving. I have it in my head that each week is the week where I form better habits — I’m going to make something new everyday, I’m going to journal and keep better records of my daily life, I’m going to draw more in my sketchbook and explore more visually and formally. When I am able to achieve these things, realize the goals set out in the various lists I make each week, each month, each year, then I will be real and complete. I will be generating work. I will be learning. I will have a practice. The hundreds of pages bound up in that work represent for me seven years of potential and ambition and my optimism and intention I was setting. But they also represent a desperation for more control over myself and habits and routines that have yet to be formed and incorporated into my life. Even this project of reflecting on and archiving my past is setting myself up for a disappointment where I’ve optimistically hoped for a potentially fraught vision of myself, where I not only finish the project of completing this reference tool but I use it and I don’t at all regret scrapping the stack of books and the satisfying tangibility of them.

I didn’t consider myself to be a goal oriented person until I realized that just because I can’t name a goal like having a certain job in the next five years or something tangible and easily explained, doesn’t mean that I don’t have an idea of what I want my life and my practice to be. I want to be the kind of person who always feels new and there’s an old me and I can see the difference between old me and new me because it’s there in these notes and sketches and curly inked letters from when I wanted to hand letter book covers in college (shoutout to 2012, what a time.) But the need for the stack under my bed is shallow and is a me that clings to any form of validation that I am real and creative and that I have made things and have experiences and I have ideas. I want to be able to synthesize the various selves that I am and have been into an archive that will move me forward, instead of static pages that only let me briefly glance into a flat snapshot from time. I’m afraid of throwing these books away and feeling like I have nothing to show for it, but I feel that same old shining optimism that I will become the person that had themselves to show for it instead.

Organizing Myself

If you haven’t figured it out by now, I’m a fervent cataloger and chronicler of mostly everything that crosses my mind and comes into my world. I love knowing that I can go back and reference something I liked or learned or thought about at any point. Here are is what my personal archives consist of now, if you’re wondering:

Trello: Tasks and project ideas
For both my day job and my independent projects, I use trello to organize both tangible tasks as well as ideas. Trello is ideal for me because it uses lists which is how I think and visually organize information naturally.

Pinterest: Visual inspiration and references
I organize visual inspiration on Pinterest. Something I like about the platform is not only the vastness of the content already on the site but how easy it is to post from other sites and sources. The downside of pinterest at large as a creative person is that it feeds into a homogenity of aesthetics and perpetuates vapid trends. I also appreciate being able to organize thematically. I like experimenting with boards to be able to organize and ~curate different kinds of content, like my board that celebrates art and design work from marginalized people in history and my board that features references from one of my favorite books, The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner. Follow me over there; I really shine on Pinterest.

Evernote: Everything, writing snippets, lists, and bookmarks
Evernote is where most of my brain is. If this platform ever went down or anything happened to this information, I would be destroyed. I can’t overstate how much I use this tool and how much I have in there. In addition to everything like project ideas and subway thoughts, I’ve cataloged everything good I’ve seen on the internet in the past three years here. A couple times of year I overhaul the whole thing and try to organize. This is a snapshot of what my organization system looks like in there now. I might expand on this in a later post.

Physical sketchbooks and writing pads: Writing and sketches
I’ll always keep physical sketchbooks, though my relationship with them is obviously shaky. I am not a drawing or painting person so I rarely use my sketchbooks for the purpose of sketching or a practice in and of itself in the way that some creative people do and that I deeply envy. My sketchbooks are mostly little chunks of writing or lists and some sketches of visual ideas, more so in the past when I had a more consistent professional creative practice and was making things for work everyday. I love using legal pads for most of my writing or journalling. I feel most comfortable on paper in a format that is less precious and formal than a bound sketchbook — I feel so much pressure to spend the pages on something worthwhile. Legal pads are perfect for long rambling and journaling and fleshing out schemes and goals. I like this smaller pastel set right now.

Other platforms and tools:
Pocket: The best tool to collect everything to read and an archive of everything I’ve saved. I love the potential pocket has to share and see what my friends are reading so if you use it. You can see my archive here. 
Feedly: Blog subscriptions and an archive of liked posts. Similarly, I wish there was more of a social component here.
Google Docs: Everything everything everything, especially project plans and mini-manifestos. I’ll often start a thought in Evernote and when it becomes a thing, it will get its own Google Doc.

I’ll update this post or expand in another when/if I ever finish this project of creating an archive from my old sketchbooks, with how I organized it and how much I regret destroying my sketchbooks.

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