Thought Leadership


By Colin Walls

What is it with collecting stuff? Most people that I know have collections of something or other. It is common to encourage children to collect things. Whole industries are built upon this compulsion to accumulate items. I am very interested in what drives people to make collections.

On the surface, it seems reasonable that, if you like something, you may want to acquire more of it. If you read one book by an author, you might want to read everything else they have written. But, unless you think it highly likely that you will re-read the books, why would you want to keep the books after you have read them? Unless they are unusual and may increase in value, they are just using up space and gathering dust. Clearly there is more to collecting than any kind of logic …

It seems to me quite reasonable for a museum to collect as many examples of a given genre of artifacts as possible. This maintains a historical record, which I will accept is a good idea, though open to some argument. As an individual, a collection makes sense if it gives continuing pleasure to the collector [and, perhaps, there friends and family]. Or, of course, a collection may have financial motivations. But it is very common for neither of these criteria to be applicable. I am beginning to wonder if collecting is a kind of sickness.

I will use my own affliction as illustration:

  • I have always loved books. For years I would accumulate more and more. Putting them in neat rows on shelves, getting more and more bookcases as necessary. I even read some of them from time to time – and then put them back on the shelf. After moving house a few times, I gradually realized that the majority of the books were just a heavy, space-hogging, dust-collecting burden. I have disposed of a great many of them. I think I am close to a “cure”. Having embraced ebooks, I am quite happy to not own the paper copy in most cases. I still want some books – but only ones that give me pleasure to own.
  • I have written before about my Monopoly set collection, which is still looking for a home. I get no pleasure from this. Although the sets are attractive to look at, I have no means to “display” them. All I have is a number of big cardboard boxes.
  • One of my main hobbies is photography. I am mainly interested in actually taking pictures and do not accumulate vast amounts of equipment like some enthusiasts. However, some years ago I started collecting “vintage” cameras. My collection of 30-40 cameras are all Kodak and span almost the entire period of the company’s existence. Individually, they do give me pleasure. If I were to install some glass cases, I could display them all and would enjoy seeing them. But that enjoyment would not be enough to justify the expense and effort. So, again, I am left with a pile of boxes. Another collection looking for a good home.

I feel quite liberated, having realized that collecting is a “problem”. My view on owning and acquiring stuff is now quite clear: every item one owns should be useful or give pleasure [or, even better, both]; if it does neither, it is unwelcome in my house/life. Someone explained to me the idea of “cost of ownership”. After you have paid to get something, there are ongoing costs: storage, cleaning/maintenance and disposal. When you are considering the acquisition of anything, try to think about these costs.

Another resolution for 2012: stop collecting stuff!

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This article first appeared on the Siemens Digital Industries Software blog at