The Sisyphean Quest


Hands up! We all have them. Magazines! Magazine collections stacked in the bookshelves, placed carefully in date order in folders, boxed and labelled before being safely placed in the attic. Magazines from childhood or current magazines around an interest or hobby. 

I’m hoping my son’s ‘Dr Who’ collection, numbering into the hundreds will one day be part of his retirement fund! My writing magazines are spilling out of the bookcases onto the surrounding floor. My science magazine collection was only recently discarded as mould had sadly attacked them. My husband’s childhood comic collection are hopefully not so ravaged and may well fund a cruise one day!  

None of these however come near the 85,000 + magazines owned by the 2012 Guinness World Record Breaker for the largest magazine collection in the world, James Hyman.

jhymanmagarchive1James Hyman started on a mission in 1990 to collect and preserve as many magazines as possible. He felt panic by the potential loss to humankind of the information and resources held in these magazines and therefore established what is today known as the ‘Hyman Archive’. He sees himself as a ‘guardian and preserver of popular culture in physical form’ and hopes to one day form a giant research library.

Currently all the magazines are housed in a huge warehouse near the Thames in Woolwich, London and 55% of his stock is not owned by the British Library and therefore not accessible to the general public. He hopes to change this. With Tory Turk, creative lead, he is busy cataloging and digitising the collection to unlock it for researchers and the general public. 

The theme for his collection is ‘Popular Culture In Print’ and  amongst the reading material he is also ‘preserving pictures, illustrations and photography’. It concentrates on print magazines from 1910 and onwards. The collection is currently growing at a rate of 20% per annum – largely through donations from the general public and there is a constant appeal for material from ‘publishers, collectors and enthusiasts’. It is already recognised as a huge cultural resource and actively used by companies and individuals alike. One example is the ‘David Bowie’ exhibition, which made great use of its resources and is now going on world tour with some of the information gleamed from the Hyman Archive.

shelvesOne can only start to comprehend the scale of the project when you see his large warehouse, shelves upon shelves of neatly stacked magazines. Corridors of information, the serious mingling with the fun – from ‘film, TV, Music, Music video, Art, Fashion, Architecture, Interior design, Trends, Youth, Lifestyle, Women’s, Men’s, Technology, Sports, Photography, Counter-culture, Graphics, Animation, and Comics’.  All set to saved for the future. ‘The New Google’ said one current user of the collection.

‘Madness that could be genius’ is how one relative described Hyman’s ambition. 

Madness however that is well on the way to becoming a reality and within twenty years it is envisaged that the collection will be ‘living, reading and accessible’. Not only is the data being digitised, James Hyman is also using ‘meta-tag, analytical tools to visualise date’ to aid all the ‘researchers, readers and students’ he believes will use the collection. 

Furthermore the collection extends beyond the printed word and picture and includes 30,000 CDs, 20,000 vinyl records plus thousands of DVDs. The numbers are staggering, the task seemingly insurmountable and almost impossible, as James Hyman has admitted, ‘a Sisyphean Quest’.  (If like me, the phrase is unknown to you, Sisyphus was a Greek King who’s punishment for his self-aggrandising craftiness and deceitfulness was to be forced to roll an immense boulder up a hill, only to watch it roll back down, repeating it for eternity.)

Have you ever felt the same concern about the information that may be lost to the future? Do you have your own special magazine collection? Do you think this collection and information would be of any use or interest to you in your work or blogging life? As always, I look forward to reading and sharing all your comments. 

U P D A T E            

Following the appearance of this post James Hyman was kind enough to visit it and to comment. In his comment he also answered many of the questions raised by others in the comments section. I am pleased to print part of his reply here for ease – I know it can be time-consuming to trawl through lots of messages.

I plan to keep the physical copy once everything is digitised as a physical artefact has its place and importance. Without going into too much technical details what is important post-digitisation is the tagging of the material to help anyone’s research (creative industries, academics, students etc) e.g. that pair of boots in that image – say, they are David Bowie’s, where was the picture taken? Who was the photographer? What is the context of this picture? (last gig as ‘Ziggy Stardust’ for example). Furthermore, careful tagging can enrich the data set and answer complex questions and provide connections that are not easy to realise. So, again, in popular culture, how does Stanley Kubrick relate to Bob Dylan in the 80s? Well, if everything is tagged, you could get a result such as a March 1987 Playboy Interview with Jack Nicholson who talks about Kubrick being his favourite director and how he would love to play alongside Bob Dylan in Kubrick’s next film.

Never forget, before the internet, magazines were the internet in many ways; they have been the zeitgeist, containing the best content from photographers, authors, illustrators, designers, and publishers. Not everything is readily available on Google. Remember, how you search and how those search results can be displayed & analysed is also of great importance and value.

Finally, if anyone wishes to donate their magazines to the archive, please get in touch via

By James Hyman


67 thoughts on “The Sisyphean Quest

  1. JoHanna Massey

    Oh is this a delicious post or what! I have huge concerns about the information that will be lost or rewritten. I just reread 1984. I just applaud James Hyman’s project. I adore old National Geographic Magazines. My local library has a thriving magazine exchange, where you can donate your old magazines, and take whatever you like home. The variety is astounding and really speaks to the diversity of the people and their interests who live in the Verde Valley of Arizona. Excellent post Annika. Thank you. 🐞

    1. Thank you so much, Johanna! This was a delight of a post to research and the more I learnt about the scope of the project the more in awe I am of Hyman’s work. Daunting to say the least! What a wonderful idea with your magazine exchange in the library – that feels hopeful that it is such an active exchange with various magazines involved – perhaps you need the diversity of population to make it such a success.

  2. This is fascinating, thank you so much Annika for letting us know about James Hyman and his amazing magazine collection. How wonderful that he read your post and commented to give even more information. I love magazine and was so thrilled when I had my first ever piece published in one. Something to hold and smell and keep, like a book. But, as you’ve experienced, sadly, they can come to ruin. We’ve always had magazines, I used to subscribe my children to several over the years. We used to get National Geographic and Reader’s Digest too, then Time and Newsweek and People, plus all the educational ones for the children. When I had to move from America back to England, I was faced with the very sad task of getting rid of most of them, it just wasn’t practical to keep them all, barring a few special copies. We had so many collected over almost two decades. But one collection I do have is my Princess Diana collection, both from British and American magazines, commerating her wedding, the birth of her children and then of course, tragically, her death. I have no idea if its worth anything, but it’s nice to know I still have a little piece of history worth keeping. Just like your collections…and you never know, maybe you’ll be taking that cruise after all if your husband ever agrees to part with his comic collection 😉

    1. This is spooky, Sherri – we had nearly all of those magazines when I was growing up too! Just add some space magazines onto the list plus German ones as well. For many years I made my own ‘current affairs’ archive – cutting out pieces from the paper (“Yorkshire Post”), then made big files in different categories. I loved doing this and therefore can identify with James Hyman and his task – rather on a much grander scale but still wanting to preserve and share information. At least you managed to bring your Princess Diana collection back with you – I’m sure one day it might be worth something and for now it’s special for you. We’ll have to see if these collections will ever fund cruises! 😀

      1. It’s getting spookier and spookier isn’t it, haha 😀 I love your ‘current affairs’ archive, what a wonderful idea. Who knows maybe those cruises are closer then we know Annika! Yay for all those wonderful magazines 😀

  3. First of all – wow that is a lot of magazines!

    I guess I have some of the same feeling about all the photos we have takes. Which is why we have stored them on different hard disks and also externally in case (know on wood it does not happen) something bad like a house fire should happen.

    1. Inger, I’d never considered photographs! Your decision to multi-store is very sound as you never know. Yet another thing I haven’t thought about. Then I have dozens and dozens of photo albums with the normal old-style photographs – those really irreplaceable as they don’t exist in any other format. Thank you for your comment.

    1. Thank you, Marje. 😀I used to have lots of magazine collections, my space ones and then ‘Time’ and ‘Newsweek’. Most of these got lost among moves. Now I’m ‘collecting’ writing magazines – they seem to add up quickly! I love Mslexia but only get the online edition. It’s one of my favourites.

  4. Anonymous

    What a massive, and never ending task, and such dedication and committment to saving the written word. Thanks for this blog Annika as it is really something special, and relates to something that I’m sure I would never have found out otherwise. And it puts my puny collection of LPs and magazine into context!


    1. Thank you for your warm words, Mike and I am so glad you found this of such special interest. If I come across articles / events / literature that tug my interest I immediately want to share them here on my blog. The scale and commitment to this project is dazzling – not just a flash in the pan. As for your own collection, I think in the everyday world that it is not so puny!😀

  5. ‘Madness that could be genius’ an amazing dedication to collection and preservation–I generally try to let go stacks of magazines but I must admit I have a few that I hang onto 🙂 I haven’t considered the reliability of digital, but major libraries probably don’t follow or preserve all niches.

    1. Janice, I think such a task must seem like absolute madness when setting out – the end must have seemed unimaginably far away but the genius is in the completion of this ambition. I too had never considered what libraries did or did not keep so it was interesting to learn that so little is actually held for the long-term. This is a great resource and I think it will only be recognised as such with time. It’s hard to let go of some magazines etc isn’t it? Mine was in the loft for decades before I had to throw it away through mould, otherwise I reckon it would still be there!

      1. Yes the genius was in persisting with a task that was probably chuckled at, at first. That’s interesting that his preservation is longer than libraries’–maybe more of an archival activity–and I understand better now how he is filling a gap. Archives are probably not well funded and very selective.

        1. Janice, like you I didn’t grasp the full extent and intention of the archive until reading much deeper into what was involved. I have wondered about the funding for such archives – as libraries are themselves losing funding in the UK, I imagine most survive by other means. I honestly believe this resource will become invaluable with time and its importance only recognised much later.

  6. Great post, Annika! I shudder to think how much space he needs to store all those magazines and keep them from becoming bedding for mice. Once all that information is digitized and easily searched–wow, what a treasure trove! I used to keep old magazines (still keep Writer’s Digest back issues), but I ran out of room, and realized I never once went back to any of them. So, out they went. Still have a bunch of VHS tapes around; project for another day to convert them to mp4 or whatever format 🙂

    1. Thank you, Julie and so glad you liked the post. I had to laugh at your omment about the magazines becoming bedding for mice – I’m imagining the warehouse overrun with the little furry animals as they’ve arrived in their nirvana! 😀 Good luck with the VHS tapes, my husband is working through all his and still has loads to transfer- seems to be enjoying it though. As for me, I have my collection of books, which used to be all ordered etc but after several moves I gave up! They’re now in a semblance of order by genre and emotion! Just about. Can’t imagine the work involved in this treasure trove!

  7. Thank you Annika for your well written piece about my archive and also to comments from everyone to date, thankfully no abusive ones which one tends to see on so many other social media platforms, whatever the topic is!

    Annika, if you are ever near Woolwich and wanted to visit the physical collection, it would be a pleasure to show you around; hopefully you would not feel the claustrophobia you mentioned!

    In answer to some of the comments: We do have a catalogue / inventory listing every magazine, when it started, how many issues we have, description of magazine etc.

    I plan to keep the physical copy once everything is digitised as a physical artefact has its place and importance. Without going into too much technical details what is important post-digitisation is the tagging of the material to help anyone’s research (creative industries, academics, students etc) e.g. that pair of boots in that image – say, they are David Bowie’s, where was the picture taken? Who was the photographer? What is the context of this picture? (last gig as ‘Ziggy Stardust’ for example). Furthermore, careful tagging can enrich the data set and answer complex questions and provide connections that are not easy to realise. So, again, in popular culture, how does Stanley Kubrick relate to Bob Dylan in the 80s? Well, if everything is tagged, you could get a result such as a March 1987 Playboy Interview with Jack Nicholson who talks about Kubrick being his favourite director and how he would love to play alongside Bob Dylan in Kubrick’s next film.

    Never forget, before the internet, magazines were the internet in many ways; they have been the zeitgeist, containing the best content from photographers, authors, illustrators, designers, and publishers. Not everything is readily available on Google. Remember, how you search and how those search results can be displayed & analysed is also of great importance and value.

    Finally, if anyone wishes to donate their magazines to the archive, please get in touch via

    Best wishes,

    James Hyman

    (Annika – are you on Twitter and / or Facebook so I share this and ‘tag’ you / your post?)

    1. James, it is great that you found this post and thank you so much for commenting.That’s brilliant. I was so taken with the archive, its concept and all the work involved when I first read about it and wanted to share this on on my blog.

      Many thanks for your gracious offer to see your archive in the real world. I would love to visit! Would sometime early Spring suit you? I can contact you directly later or my email is if you wish to email me.

      It was great that you answered so many of the questions raised in the comments and both fascinating and amazing to learn the huge extent of your detailed archiving, cataloging and tagging of the information. I can’t wait to see how you get it all together. The scale of the archive is phenomenal.

      At the moment I am neither on Facebook nor Twitter (I was on Twitter for a while but as you mentioned ‘abusive comments’ on social media does exist and I left as a result). However, is it possible for you to share this post via your Twitter with a link to my blog, should you wish?

      Once again, it was great hearing from you.
      With best wishes
      PS. I am not that claustrophobic as to say no to such an invitation! 😀

  8. Timely article, considering the historic church destroyed in Iraq. What a loss. I do worry that real history will be lost when print copies disappear. But, who will even notice? I was shocked when a school district banned Huckleberry Finn because of the N word. Couldn’t they just reprint a ‘fixed’ version? Now, Mark Twain is lost.

    I haven’t bought magazines in years. Mostly because they’re available online and I have no where to store them. Sigh.

    1. Jacqui, I saw that on the news today – so sad and so much history being wantonly destroyed. It’s always special with original hard copies and think how many have survived for hundreds of years, Chaucer etc – doubt we will have that record! Space is always an issue isn’t. Too many books, I hope!

  9. Annika, you have a such a knack for bringing up though-provoking subjects, as evidenced by the 40 gajillion comments here. I adore magazines but am able to pretty ruthlessly get rid of them after I read them. My husband is not this way–yeah, he likes to save EVERYTHING. But the core question of what will be remembered about our society is a very good one. Instead of old photos and postcards, it feels as if our whole era might wind up as a bunch of plastic USB drives and obsolete computers.

    1. Eve, I’m chuckling and touched by your kind words. 😀 Gajillion – I love that. Does it really exist?? My autocorrect didn’t correct so now I’m beginning to wonder…I’m beginning to wonder if major collections is a male kind of thing. My husband has books galore and magazines in the loft, not to mention the tons of VHS videos he’s busy transferring onto the computer – and then never watch!! I think I need to read my blog about patience again!! Thinking about your last sentence I can just imagine future generations finding these little USB pens and wondering what our fascination was with such an odd little object – our object of worship??

  10. I can’t help wondering how this gentleman can afford to do this. That aside, I am striving to reduce my collection of CDs, burning them to FLAC files and copying them onto a small audio player. I have two reasons for doing this. When they cart me off to the eventide home i’ll be able to take a lot of music with me, and I didn’t want to leave a huge problem for anyone else such as I am dealing with now and have have had tro deal with in the past when people die – as they will insist on doing.

    1. Your dry humour has me here, Rod. 😀 Yes, it happens to the best of us! You sound organised in sorting out your collection and burning them onto…FLAC files. I’ve never heard of that term before. Glad you’ll be able to have your music with you everywhere or anywhere. What are you doing with the CDs afterwards? Trying to sell them? Giving them away?

  11. Our current collection ise limited to a few we keep for reference each year, plus a dandy supply of Maine/New England magazines for guests to browse. We used to save them all, but in recent years we donate them to our local library and schools.

    1. Bette, I like that idea of keeping a supply of magazines for guests to browse – lovely. What a great idea about donating the others, I am sure the schools and libraries must have been pleased. It’s interesting our desire to collect and maybe even catalogue (I hold my hands up – guilty of this!) but gradually there is less time for these things and I’m now happy to just have a chance to read a magazine from cover to cover. Before popping them onto the shelf – to gather dust!

  12. I do not have a magazine collection. The only thing I have saved are some medical journals, and even most of those I’ve sent to recycling since it’s all online now.

    That’s an amazing collection that guy has. How nice that it’s going digital. Less of a fire hazard. 😉

    1. Carrie, you are right, with so much information available I think many people are perhaps keeping less of magazine or book collections. Also many magazines are also available directly onto a tablet or computer, so no hard copy to save.

      In the meantime, James Hyman has his job cut out for him – I hadn’t thought about the fire risk rather more about how dusty it must be with all those old magazines. I wonder if he might not be keeping the originals as well as putting them out digitally – I couldn’t find the answer to that.

  13. I wonder about the digital clutter we have. When I die, no one will likely save my hard drive for future generations. It will be off to e-cycle with it along with all my notes and unfinished works.

    humm, maybe that’s not so bad after all.

    1. Andrew, you always manage to make me smile! 😀 I’ve wondered whether I should start to sort out some of my writings etc. I have two huge drawers of diaries alone and I have no idea why anyone would want to read it – so saved for sentimental reasons.Then all my notebooks.I hadn’t even thought about the ‘digital clutter’! I’m exhausted thinking about it…for another day…

  14. Very interesting post. I posed the question when I still taught as to how future civilizations would know about us. How should we best preserve what we have now? Of course the usual answers regarding books, computers, etc. But looking at past civilizations, we see that stone lasts and is fairly well preserved. Even if we preserved vast amounts of files on flash drives, how will future people view them? When my children were born, I started a foot locker (metal chest) with newspapers and magazines from the day they were born. Then any other items they wished to save were added annually such as school reports, etc. I have German magazines to add to your collection. Some doctor’s offices had magazines in their waiting rooms so whenever I wanted to pass some of mine on, I removed the mailing labels and left them in waiting rooms. Sadly, they are probably gone, but who knows? Maybe someone read and took them home. Maybe cave people had it right by writing and drawing on the walls. Thanks for an entertaining post.

    1. Mary Ann, I think there is a serious concern how our future will be remembered and recorded. Cave drawings are still around thousands of years later (I just read up on this and found the earliest are over 17,000 years old!) so that’s a brilliant way of preserving information. I always imagine this is just a very small amount of what was drawn though. I did read that one great way of keeping some information out there is through a ‘story’, which becomes a legend/saga – this was after serious research on how to warn future generations about the danger of nuclear deposit sites or such. You are so right that in the not too distant future our digital information storage will have changed again – I still remember the very early big floppy disks! Also reading your comment I realised the Hyman Archive is obviously only for the English written magazines – what about the rest of the world?! Great idea about the foot locker – very organised indeed. I save my son’s reports etc for him in various boxes which are up in the loft along with his work and just hope they keep dry. Thanks for your lovely considered comment and so glad you enjoyed the post.

      1. I love your insightful remarks about future generations. I may or may not have mentioned to you that my parents left each of their children a gigantic plastic trash can filled with all our letters to them after we had left the house. So I have many to read from my years in Heidelberg. Europe and North Africa. I am sure those great thinkers over centuries have also pondered this, worried and wondered. Will our generation have solutions?

        1. Mary Ann, I imagine that re-reading your old letters from your years abroad will be a very emotional time for you. How great they have saved them all! My mother has saved all my letters somewhere and I have all that she sent to me when I was away – my own treasure trove! Invaluable to me. As to our generation finding better solutions to conserving the knowledge of today and the past – well, I hope so and surely we have so many more opportunities and chances. Fingers crossed.

          1. Burying underground in airtight containers? I do not have a solution. How great that you have your own treasure trove. When I went into my teen-years-jewelry box hunting for the horseshoe nail rings, I discovered long forgotten treasures. Let’s hope future generations cherish history as we do!

  15. Mirja

    Amazing what one person’s dream / worry can lead to. His ” genius madness” led to quite an enormous project. I love the title of the project ” The Sisyphean Quest”.:)

    Books are my weakness too and although I given a lot to charity I must say that for a big part of my reading the e-book has stopped the amassing. Great blog!

    1. Thank you, Mirja and so happy you liked it. I was taken with James Hyman and his ginormous project – what many of us would perhaps only think about and then leave, he went ahead and started and it’s already up and running. Amazing. Oh yes, books, but what a wonderful weakness!! Amass away – real ones or e-books and enjoy! 😀

  16. I wonder what his system is for finding information in his magazines? I got rid of a lot of books a few years ago so I’m down to one bookshelf… JC

    Sisyphus… one of my favorite myths!

    1. One bookshelf!! JC, how is that possible?! I’d struggle to use just one bookcase. I wondered too about the cataloguing system but suppose it is some clever IT machinations. A labour of love all the same.

    1. Jill, you have me smiling here! Clearing out your books to make room for more books. Yep, been there, done that. I have now cleared out the books I really didn’t want to keep – which was about a plastic bags worth! Kindle is great for avid readers like us and books are not an obsession! No way..are they???

  17. Amazing. The perfect project for a hoarder! Ha ha. We were, sadly, victims of arson about 12 years ago. My brothers and I lost our huge stack of comic books that we had collected throughout our childhood, as well as everything else. Most of the ordinary stuff was replaceable, but the comics were gone forever. I love the idea of Hyman’s collection, but I think I would be claustrophobic!

    1. Diana, that is absolutely horrible – to lose everything in an arson. I’m so sorry for you and your brother. The pain and loss will still be there even after all these years. Household items etc are replaceable but not such a big collection as your comic books. I’m not sure if I’d find Hyman’s collection claustrophobic but I’d be totally overwhelmed – there is never an end to the task!

  18. I do worry how much of our lives is now only shared online and not in hard copy. Photos, letters, diaries… all the little things that make the real history of people’s lives come to life for future generations.

    1. I suppose here is an aspect of trying to save the magazines, CDs, LPs etc whilst also making them available for digital use – thereby recouping the cost of the project. However, you’re right, so much is online and in a hundred, two hundred years or so that might all be lost. Oh…depressing thought…

  19. Wow, what an interesting phrase and most impressive collection! Moving around so much I was never in a position to have such collectibles but knowing so much knowledge in print is still around is just wonderful. Wishing you a wonderful Tuesday.

    1. It is amazing there is so much in print, but slightly frightening as well. I used to worry that I had to read it all and remember it – yep, I was that kind of child! My biggest collection is my books – which luckily have survived various moves – much to the consternation of the removal companies who regretted taking on the job once they saw all my boxes of books! Wishing you a lovely sunny day. 😀

  20. I have a very hard time parting with books. At one point my husband was afraid the first floor was going to implode into the basement due to the weight of the books. The birth of the Ebook has saved my marriage and my home.

    1. Phew, ebooks came just in time then! It is hard to part with books though, so can see your dilemma – husband v. books! 😃 We’ve sorted the problem with separate studies and books in every room and many in the loft. I do have the same worry as your husband though – how much weight can the rafters bear?

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