"Collecting" is an odd word.
When something collects dust, it's a random activity. When somebody collects garbage, it's a systematic gathering of what's undesirable. When somebody collects art, it's a gathering of what's desirable according to one person's taste. When a scientist collects specimens, it's a gathering for the entire scientific community.
What, if anything, do collecting and collectors have in common?
A Hall Center for the Humanities seminar at Kansas University is taking up the question this fall. The nine participants don't just talk the collections talk. They walk it.
One collects the works of Midwestern print makers, another the portraits of Kansas women in politics. A third accumulates recordings of Moroccan poetry.
John Simmons, collections manager at the KU Natural History Museum, accumulates books privately and collects, catalogs and preserves reptiles and amphibians for a living.
He and Marjorie Swann, associate professor of English, lead the seminar. Swann's book about collecting in 17th-century England was published in 2001 by the University of Pennsylvania Press.
I visited the seminar on its first day.
Most of those present are lumpers. That is, they want to find what might lump collectors and collections together. Swann, for example, was irritated by an article that set the private collection of such objects as souvenirs apart from professional collections.
The group's splitter is Mike Hoeflich, distinguished professor of law. He's represented collectors for 25 years, he said, adding, "I have yet to find any two who have the same motive."
The seminar debated what you can collect and still be called a collector. If you're a mountain climber who sends triumphant photos of yourself at peaks to your friends, do you qualify as a collector? Of what? Experiences?
Does a collection have to last in order to be a collection? One person spoke of a woman in Washington, D.C., who buys things until her house is full, sells them and starts over.
Then the question of motive arose again. Hoeflich mentioned a truck driver who, out of boredom, had collected more than 1,500 empty beer cans. On the other hand, you've got Sigmund Freud. He squished about 1,900 Roman, Greek, Egyptian, Assyrian and Chinese objects into two rooms. Freud even greeted a favorite Chinese figurine with a "Good morning."
Swann's book mentions a loveless childhood as one of the psychological engines of adult collecting, so was Freud's collection a sign of a traumatized childhood? Or did Freud hoard antiquities as a way of projecting a self-image or achieving status, other motives that Swann mentions in her book?
As the scholars argued, I fell into reverie about my own collections.
In childhood, it was Dick Tracy comic books. I liked his radio wristwatch and the hideous villains: Mumbles, Flat Top, Pruneface and the rest.
As an adult, my thing has been picking up rocks on riverbanks.
Fantasy has always driven my collecting. Rocks are little worlds inscribed by fossils, colored by local minerals, worn by wind and water. I fall into blissful concentration looking for them.
Like Hoeflich, I think the types and motivations of collectors are diverse. But I also think the motives are way short of infinite. After all, we're a species, all of us with a huge collection of genetic material in common. How different can we really be?
Yet the word "collecting" surely does raises questions. Is "collection agency" a proper name for an organization that keeps only a fraction of what it collects? If raindrops collect in a puddle, are they a collection once they merge? And what do you call a collection of questions for which there are no lasting answers?
Is that what a university is?