The Dymaxion Chronofile and our ever-expanding personal digital archives

In 1917, Buckminster Fuller began to catalog all of his personal documents into the “Dymaxion Chronofile,” a chronological filing system that included all correspondence, newspaper clippings, notes, sketches, itineraries, daily schedules and other documents relevant to his personal and professional life. By the time he died in 1983, the Chronofile occupied nearly 270 linear feet of space. This record of a human life divided into 15-minute increments is now the centerpiece of the Buckminster Fuller Archive at Stanford University.

Buckminster Fuller

Whenever I think about the Dymaxion Chronofile, I find myself wondering if there exists a small subset of compulsive hoarders who are both completely functional and meticulously organized.

Although this type of record-keeping may initially seem shocking when one considers the sheer amount of paper involved, many of us might be surprised to realize that we are unwittingly engaged in the same basic undertaking in the digital realm. Today I have 97,839 emails in the archive folder of my mail client. I can easily search through all of them with just a few keystrokes and they occupy just a small fraction of the space available on a laptop hard drive that is roughly half the size of a pack of cigarettes. In fact, it is completely reasonable for me to assume that my personal digital archives will one day surpass the size and scope of Fuller’s Chronofile.

As long as we have tools that enable us to easily organize and manage our ever-expanding personal digital records, should we really worry about the overall size? I’m interested in reading what you think about this question.

42 Comments for “The Dymaxion Chronofile and our ever-expanding personal digital archives”

  1. posted by lh on

    If Moore’s law ( holds true, and I can’t see a reason why it wouldn’t, electronic storage capacity will continue to expand at a rate faster than the average persons ability to fill it. There’s very little incentive to spend time cleaning out one’s digital archives when 1TB drives cost less than $100. I think this is perfectly reasonable. Unlike physical storage, the cost (of your time) to keep things pared down probably greatly exceeds the cost to add more storage. Current search technologies make finding anything trivial, so it doesn’t even need to be that organized. I do highly recommend putting things you’re not actively working on in an Archive folder or disk to avoid cluttering things up (this is Unclutterer after all).

    I think a much bigger concern for people accumulating a digital ‘chronofile’ is permanence. It’s a lot easier to lose 1TB of data than 270 linear feet of paper. If you expect to be able to access things in 10 or 20 years, a good and tested backup is imperative. Something like Time Machine alone isn’t enough — you need a copy that doesn’t reside at the same location as your computer. That is, of course, unless you really don’t care if you lose all that stuff (which may be the case for many people out there).

  2. posted by Tim Carlson on

    David Allen of “Getting Things Done” fame claims that as long as something is out of your head and is not actionable, you can put it in “reference” and forget about it. He also says that it really doesn’t matter how big your reference file is, because it is no longer on your mind.

    I struggled with this after reading his book, because everything I’ve done in the past year (after discovering this site) has been about getting rid of items that are no longer useful (one category of which is “I might need it someday”). I would say there has been an overall net benefit to my emotional health, but there have been times when I wanted to reference something or reminisce before realizing that I purged the item.

    With digital storage, and a virtual “archive” type system that hides items from the active workspace in which you typically operate and exist, I don’t see any problem with holding onto the tens (or hundreds) of thousands of emails or other types of files (as long as your archive is not “inbox”!).

  3. posted by Peter (a different one) on

    @th – give me a match and some gasoline and I’ll show you how fast you can lose 270 linear feet of paper – lol!

  4. posted by Barbara Tako on

    With physical or electronic clutter, I think items must be retrievable. If you can’t locate it physically or with an electronic word search, it doesn’t make sense to hang onto it because it is as though you don’t have it anyway. I apply this concept to clients’ paperwork and newspaper clipping activities.

  5. posted by Erin Doland on

    A great question, PJ!

    I don’t see much of a problem with archived digital data because it’s not distracting me the way other clutter does. I can’t “see” it, I don’t think or worry about it since I have it backed up externally and online, and it doesn’t keep me from pursuing things that matter more to me. That being said, I think archived data should have at least some organizational structure and a hefty search engine to access it so that you can find what you need when you need it.

  6. posted by noclutter on

    For me, having lots of computer data, even in an organized manner, can be very annoying; additionally, it seems like clutter even though you do not see it. My theory is to sort through it periodically and delete anything that is not necessary.

  7. posted by Greg on

    I can’t even have email files that are just archived. If I see no use for them, I can’t delete them fast enough. Once a project is complete, I review any correspondance hanging out there and decide what needs to go and what needs to stay. Most of it goes.

    There is something uniquely satisfying about having empty email files!

  8. posted by Anita on

    My take is this: just because you have space to store it doesn’t mean you should keep it. I’d apply that to digital storage as well as physical documents.

    Several posts on this site promote the idea that it’s ok to keep every irrelevant scrap of document you want, as long as it’s on your computer and not occupying physical space. Which, really, is not unclutetring, but just displacing clutter. Buying additional digital storage when you have files on your drive that you could delete without much consequence is, to me, akin to moving into a bigger house or getting a large container for your junk rather than getting rid of it.

    I’d say, once again, that the same rules you apply to uncluttering your house should apply to your computer’s hard drive. The question I’d ask is “if I didn’t have a computer, would I keep this in paper form?” If the answer is “no”, then it’s safe to say it can be deleted. As an amateur photographer I try to use this method for my digital photos, and it’s done two things: (1) it kept photos from filling up my hard drive, and (2) it’s made my portfolio much, much better, since it is reduced to my best work.

  9. posted by Hypatia on

    Life, Facts & Artifacts on PBS web site tells more about the chronofile and Bucky’s Guinea Pig “B” experiment.

    Gordon Bell still carrying out his “My Life Bits” experiment and generating new tools in the process… and his new book “Total Recall” is well worth reading.

    And Kevin Kelly has written best about Lifelogging


  10. posted by enestor19 on

    Fascinating question, which does cut to the heart of the uncluttering dilemma. Timely, in that I finally attacked the work e-mail archive project just yesterday after 18 months of dodging the dreaded Outlook limit.

    @lh, I agree that IF you must have such an archive, it must be searchable and properly backed up. Yet how many of us genuinely need a reference collection of such volume? And is the question, the dilemma, drawing the line between need and want?

    Which leads me to @Anita — the precise methodology I use for my personal electronic stuff. In my work as a construction project manager at a large university, it’s a little more difficult. The bottom line is that I hold onto everything even remotely relevant until the project’s closed out, then purge the chaff and hardcopy archive anything legitimately needed for the project record. A touch antiquated, but aligned with our document retention policies.

  11. posted by Danielle on

    I think how much space those files would physically take up if they were printed out is a moot point. Technology has developed for a reason; to condense, unclutter, and make sharing information faster and availible to more people.

  12. posted by Glenn on

    I wrestle with this issue in my mind every now and then.

    When deciding “to keep or not to keep?” maybe one needs to
    determine WHY they are holding on to it. Just like we probably
    do for physical items. If you sometimes need to find information
    contained within those emails – even if it’s just to re-read
    ones that contain fond memories, keep them.
    Otherwise, why are you keeping them?

    I am not strong enough to complete this task yet. But I do know
    why I keep them.

  13. posted by Dave on

    As for organizing and filing for referance later and being able to serch for it, a chronofile works by when it happened, I file most things that way, I have be calling it archaeology filing, how far down the stack do I need to go to find it, with computers just sort by date modified, I use the date and time and name for naming files now.

  14. posted by Louise on

    I am in the camp of getting rid of it when you are finished with it. Clutter isn’t a physical issue, it is a mental one. “It might be useful someday” is a slippery slope. It is a habit of the mind to decide now whether something is worth keeping, rather than wait some undetermined length of time for the item to “prove” it is useful.

    This habit has worked well for me. In 45 years, I have regretted purging perhaps 4 or 5 items. Compared to the millions of files, papers, doodads, socks, etc. that have been eliminated, it is an exceeding small price to pay.

  15. posted by Daphne on

    This is a wonderful question! It is so easy to keep things that are essentially invisible, especially when we have so much digital storage space that it doesn’t seem to matter if we keep everything or not.

    I wonder, though, whether some things are actually detrimental to our happiness to keep. Maybe the things we have saved are things we should let go. Maybe they are keeping us stuck in the past instead of being rooted in the present. Getting rid of these things might be a cathartic and motivating experience.

    So it’s not about physical/digital space. It’s about mental/emotional/spiritual space.

  16. posted by JC on

    I’m not sure I would want my life documented in such a detailed way. I know next to nothing about my ancestors earlier than my grandparents- and I wish I knew more- but, I’m also the kind of person who has redacted my own journals.

    I’m in the very long and tedious process of dealing with paper- boxes of paper that hasn’t been sorted or filed for years, including a contested estate action lasting two years and a 7 year legal case involving the construction of our house.

    I have set up my computer files to mirror my Freedom Filer paper files, with a few extra file virtual filing cabinets for the court cases. Most of the paper will be scanned and then either trashed or shredded.

    I have decided however, that there are many things I do not NEED to save either electronically or physically. I took a deep breath, and proceeded to shred my bank statements and checks from 1993 – without scanning them first. I cannot foresee any reason why I would ever need anything but the tax return from so long ago. It’s been a bit scary as well as liberating.

  17. posted by infmom on

    I agree with Anita. Just because you’ve got space to store it doesn’t mean you should. Would you look at a large, empty room in your house as someplace to stack every piece of mail, magazine, catalog and newspaper you get from now till you’ve filled the room to the brim? If you wouldn’t do that, why think of your hard drive(s) as just another place for dead storage?

    Saving electronic stuff “because it might come in handy someday” is no different from saving tangible things for the same reason.

  18. posted by sue on

    I can understand keeping notes, photos and finished documents, but once you start treating dry cleaning bills (as stated on his website) with the same obsessive reverence, I think it’s over the edge into hoarding.

  19. posted by Brenda on

    So true Barbara,
    “If you can’t locate it physically or with an electronic word search, it doesn’t make sense to hang onto it because it is as though you don’t have it anyway.”

    I have spent an hour last night looking for a crochet hook, finally deciding, I just needed to buy a new one.
    I have spent hours looking for digital files, with no luck.

    Your comment has helped me rethink the way I store both physical and electronic information, and how much I really need to keep.

  20. posted by willow on

    For me, saving electronic stuff needs to have a more specific purpose for me that “maybe it will come in handy someday”. I delete fairly relentlessly.

    For physical stuff, I keep lots of stuff that “might come in handy for something”. I keep doing it because the items in question do often come in handy to complete a task or make a repair, or to be re-used, or re-purposed. This practice has saved me untold amounts of both money and time. Not having to take time and gas to go buy something to fill a need when I already have something on hand.

  21. posted by Kalani on

    I think it depends. Personally, going through and deleting unnecessary files would clutter my time up more than just keeping them. Then again, it depends on the files. Many times I want to access things I’ve made a long time ago, or wish that I had the larger file versions of photos, etc. However, it depends on space. Piles of extra external hard drives just to keep old emails and fifteen different file sizes of the same photos that you’ll never look at again can be a drain on your pocketbook. I think everyone needs to answer this question for themselves, depending on their budget and time constraints.

  22. posted by Kathryn Fenner on

    As a lawyer, I would suggest you consider whether you would wish to have to supply it in response to a subpoena. If you have purged it well in advance, it’s gone.

    Remember Richard Nixon.

  23. posted by chacha1 on

    As someone whose life & work, now or in the future, is of little or no interest to others, I don’t see the need to document it. I keep only material that has a foreseeable use, and try to keep it organized in a way that, if I get hit by a bus, my DH or other executor can figure out what is needed to clear things up.

    Exception: I keep “scrapbook” type material related to my marriage. It is statistically unlikely that DH will outlive me, and so I anticipate several years alone. I am relatively certain that I will find this personal “archive” to be a comfort in that event – and, if in fact I drop dead first, he is the type who would appreciate it as well.

    For those who have noted their businesslike methods (JC and enestor19 particularly), thank you – those are great and will help me further refine my system!

  24. posted by Sky on

    Kathryn Fenner, so true.

    I’m all for uncluttering everything. Why keep stuff anywhere if it isn’t needed?

  25. posted by CJZ on

    A canonical figure archiving his material for future scholars to use should not be compared to meticulously organized compulsive hoarders.

  26. posted by Irulan on

    It depends on the nature of the documents or data that you’re saving, especially in terms of privacy issues. For example, I purge my experimental data after 5 years due to ethics committee rules. I make sure to perform any relevant (and some extra) analyses right away because that data has a shelf life. I also make sure to keep it separate from all of the other documents on my computer.

    For other documents, I think that keeping them is a better option, especially for anything directly work or expense-related. The threshold for what counts as work related vs. what counts as spam is different for everyone, though.

  27. posted by Fazal Majid on

    Many hoarders keep stuff out of anxiety that they might need it someday. That kind of clutter is far less harmful when it is confined to bits on a hard drive than actual physical space. One well-known trick to get people to throw away clutter that has some residual emotional value is to take a photo of it, then dispose of it. The same applies to paper, and inexpensive high-speed document scanners make it easy to plow through mountains of accumulated paper.

  28. posted by T-mag on

    @ Sue
    Dry cleaning is tax deductable. I’m keeping every one. As well as for tools, uniforms, gloves…

  29. posted by Chrissy on

    Another thing to keep in mind is data rot:

    I also don’t think we need to worry about how much space we’re taking up. But just as much as we need to worry about permanence, we need to make sure that the data we store things on, can be used 10,20,30 years down the line. Will that 1TB hard drive be compatible with the computer of the future?

  30. posted by Dave on

    I keep all my email, yahoo email, free unlimited storage, every month I make a new folder, and move everything into it,end of the year, I move it into a year folder, I have it going back to about 2002.

  31. posted by Jim M on

    I have become quite interested in archiving digital information. Growing-up you use to be able to dig out a shoe box full of old photographs. Today we take digital pictures and assume that they will be safe on our computer hard drive, external hard drive, DVD, CD, or whatever medium we are using to archive personal information.

    I think data worth keeping follows the 80/20 rule. 80% of information is garbage and 20% is probably worth keeping for posterity or legal reasons. However, this comes down to the question of where to store it, especially in this digital age.

    Chrissy pointed out astutely David Pogue’s piece on Data Rot. Digital data has several problems data rot being the major problem with the physical medium, obsolescence and the physical degradation of the medium. The other problem is obsolescence of software to actually read the data from the medium.

    There is now a technology that will over come both of the problems of data rot. It was developed by a company in Utah. It is a disc that will store data permanently by making a physical change in the write layer of the disc using a special burner. The system is the M-ARC(tm) disc and the M-Writer(tm) drive.

    After the M-ARC(tm) disc is burned it can then be read on other DVD drives. Almost every computer you purchase today have a DVD drive. The install base of DVD drives is absolutely huge.

    You can visit to get more information.

  32. posted by Greg - Live It with less on

    Digital photos are a killer for me! We take so many photos now of the same thing to get that perferct shot.

  33. posted by Red Coyote Hunter on

    Garbage in, garbage out.

    Why is so hard to understand you have locked in your little head everything that will in fact determine a decision? You need not go to your computer and search e-mails for the supporting info. You will simply say, this is right, or this is wrong. E-mails only provide info that leads to search … or research if you prefer. So ruminate if you will, but realize your brain works without a computer … works very well indeed. Self confidence comes to play. Remember, confidence?

  34. posted by Anne on

    Whether you keep it in paper or digital form, someone, someday is going to have to deal with it. For the past year I have been going through my late husband’s belongings, throwing out things he lovingly collected. He had two computers, and I will go through them and delete the information before I somehow recycle them. Do your heirs a favour, and don’t make them do this.

  35. posted by Sarah P on

    It was hard to start, but now I’m becoming a compulsive deleter. Do I love it? No? Delete. Would I have loved it if my parents had kept it to show me? No? Delete. Is it over seven years old (legal)? Yes? Delete. Do I have a something similar that I like better? Yes? Delete. SO REFRESHING!

  36. posted by Lilliane P on

    re Greg’s photo, yes we do take several to get one good shot. The answer for me then is to keep only that one good shot and trash the others.

    As to worrying about hard drive crashes, remote drive crashes, fires in the house, and the inaccessibility of reading things in the future, I’ve moved all my files into the cloud. If a tornado arrives, I can access everything as soon as I can get back online. This, of course, poses another risk but I’m willing to bet that Google will outlive me.

  37. posted by Pam I Am on

    This article by Jesus Diaz gives a good visual understanding of storage in the age of the computer.

    I believe that Ms. Fenner gives good free legal advice above……get rid of….if and when you can, remembering Nixon.

  38. posted by Mary on

    Whether or not you have the room is a crutch question. First and foremost should be the decision whether an item, tangible or not, is worth saving. If you justify saving electronic information because it takes so little space, you’re weakening your decision muscles. They need regular exercise, or you’ll soon be surrounded by piles.

  39. posted by Patty on

    I partially agree with Anita’s thoughts. I’d like to add too that there are environmental factors to take into account. Buying a newer-bigger harddrive dispells energy and environmental impact as does throwing out the smaller information storage pieces. (Have you seen how many old/used floppy disks and cds are flying around? Monitors, computers, etc). Also as more companies offer webspace storage you have to consider that someone somewhere is taking up space with massive energy sucking super-computer harddrive machines. And a last note was to highlight that the article mentioned having digital files accessable. Ho many burned out webpages or old versions of files do you fight with daily because the world is not as organized as some individuals are. Nice food for thought, thanks!

  40. posted by The Everyday Minimalist on

    I feel like I am already there!!

    I save all of my files on digital hard drives, perhaps not all of my emails but Gmail does that nicely for me.

  41. posted by terriok on

    Bucky is spelling binding!

    Hoarding for History!!!

    I am amazed I have never heard of him!

    That sort of manic activity reminds me of someone being bipolar and evidently he was prone to depression, at least the reactive kind.

    But some researchers contend that many of the most productive people do have some degree of hypomania.

    If I kept records like that my relatives might try to lock me up (lol) and all of it would hit the trash at about the time of my demise!

    Also the compulsion to write like that is associated with bipolar. Hmmm.

    Thanks for the story and the insight! That first link is tremendous!

  42. posted by terriok on

    LOL, I mean, spellbinding! ;o)

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