Monday, September 14, 2009

Piling it on...

Looking at my desk at home and at work, one wouldn't necessarily get the impression that I'm the type of person who likes organizing for a living. I have plenty of folders (plain and hanging), a board for pinning notes, a brand-new filing cabinet, and binders a plenty. And yet, especially mid-quarter, you can't move more than six inches in this room without tripping over several piles of readings, class notes, or project drafts. For someone in an online program, I do a ridiculous amount of printing (enough to justify purchasing a laser printer for home). This comes primarily from my inability to adequately interact with text on a screen. I cannot digest or remember an online work as well as one that I've held in my hands, despite my best efforts.

This reliance on print feels like a personal failing in this digital age, something that marks me as a non-native, like a slight accent or a penchant for mayonnaise on fries. Full-text databases and electronic reserves are dear friends and providers of such joy, but once that PDF hits my desktop it must be printed. I must have paper in my hands when I read, and I can only partially blames my eyes. Primarily, I need to be able to viciously underline or thoughtfully circle portions of the text as I read. My marginalia is the essential component of studying as it's where I first start to work out my thoughts, where I mark down questions or issues. I fully realize that technology has advanced to the point where I could do that on the screen. A fellow classmate once spoke about a program he used to mark up and edit PDFs of readings, a program that allowed him to deface and edit a page just as I do. Though It's rather telling that I've no recollection of the name of the program nor have I downloaded it. I seem determined to kill trees and stub my toes on my final projects till the end of this degree.

This penchant for paper and the inability to keep it all neatly organized isn't a unique trait really. Upon further consideration, I'm not sure if I've ever met a librarian with a well-ordered desk that is nearly free of paper. I've heard more than one tale of librarians facing off with the fire marshal or losing work among their teeming stacks of printouts. This situation, I believe, stems from the nature of the job itself. Though as a whole the field if moving inexorably toward the digital, librarians seem to tear through a ton of paper a day in the form of reports, bib records, work flow sheets, scraps of magazines for ordering, and meeting notes. Yet it doesn't have to be that way. There are scanners, wikis, shared directories and other tools, but many of us, myself included, balk or give myriad reasons for preferring to pass around a sheet of paper instead of logging in and working from there. All librarians aren't paper hoarders, but I think that many of those tools lack something, some sort of flexibility, that paper still provides.

I was reminded of this need for paper yesterday when I installed a file cabinet next to my desk. The point of the purchase, and subsequent hell that is building an Ikea product, was to combine two plastic file boxes and two cardboard boxes of paper into a single, organized space. While sorting through one of the boxes of paper, I re-discovered an article that touches on the endurance of paper in offices.* The article describes a study on how people go about organizing their browser bookmarks, and how deeply contextual and varied this process seems to be. What stuck with me from this article was their discussion of how grounded we are in paper and how difficult it is to move conceptually from paper to a digital environment.

The spatial aspect seems to be one of the biggest obstacles in moving to a fully digital office or digital world. I make piles not just because I'm too lazy to file everything away (though I often am), but rather because the piles need to be there. I need to see that pile of bib records on my desk so I remember to deal with them. I love that people's piles often have a sense of methodical madness to them. My papers and projects are developed from stacks of articles that are sorted by topic or the order in which I'll use them. That's not really going to help anyone who might come upon the stack, but to me it makes perfect sense. (This why I envy literary biographers who pore over boxes of idiosyncratic piling, and not just because I'm nosy. I desire the sort of psychological insight and patience it must take to find sense in a pile of manuscript pages.) That personal aspect is also what makes shared filing systems so treacherous. Without something as strict as the AACR2 in place, who knows where anything will wind up because odds are that in Circ we'll call something by three different names or have a different view on where an item falls in a process.

Obviously this is something that systems and software folks are keenly aware of, so help is on the way. But until then, I'll buy another box of paper for the quarter.

*Gottlieb, L. and Dilevko, J. (2003). Investigating How Individuals Conceptually and Physically Structure File Folders for Electronic Bookmarks: The Example of the Financial Services Industry. Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology, 54(2), 124-139.

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