Monday, November 26, 2007

Museum of Me

Being efficient doesn't necessarily correlate with being neat; at least, not in my case. My office is piled high with lots of stuff, old and new. I was thinking about this recently because I am contemplating a major cleaning and tossing-out of old stuff. I did some office cleaning during the Thanksgiving break, but nothing dramatic: there are still piles on my desk, but these piles now consist only of the 57 most urgent things I have to do in the new few weeks. The dramatic cleaning, if it occurs, will have to be after the term ends.

I was also thinking about my office-as-archive in the context of last Friday's post. Specifically, I was musing about why I have a proclivity for deleting emails and having a neat electronic inbox when my physical office is a mess. I briefly considered the possible lingering psychological effects of a job I had in graduate school: organizing the office of a deceased professor to see if any of his papers or letters should be saved for a university archive. [This blog seems to have a bit of a death theme this month: Editing the Dead, 11/7; Friends, 11/23).. sorry about that].

In that case, my office-organizing job was not a sorrowful task -- the deceased professor had been exceedingly mean (in fact, the word vicious readily comes to mind) and a sociopathic harasser of women. Organizing his office was, however, a sobering task in that he had saved everything. He had saved every letter he had ever received in a 50+ year long career, and he had also saved carbon copies of letters he sent. It was not surprising to find that many of the letters he sent were hate letters. My personal favorite began: "Dear X, You are a parasite..". I made sure those went to the archivist for review, as they nicely captured his personality and approach to professional relationships.

I have never sent a you-are-a-parasite letter to anyone, but I still don't like to save a lot of my correspondence. I do save some messages -- mostly ones that amuse or interest me -- but I delete more than I save.

After a bit of pondering about the discrepancy between my email neatness and my overall lack of neatness, I decided that my tendency to delete email isn't because I am constantly contemplating my own death and not wanting to leave a personal record. More likely, the explanation is the obvious one: that it is easier to delete email than to organize the flood of papers and other stuff that is constantly flowing into my office. Perhaps if paper could be vaporized as easily as pushing a delete button on a keyboard, I wouldn't have such a messy office.

The big question for me now is whether I am ready to toss out some of the older items in the Museum of Me -- e.g., notebooks from college and grad school, ancient textbooks, paper copies of articles I can now get as pdf's, and maybe even .. giant floppy disks filled with beautiful data from obsolete machines.


Katie said...

Love the idea of a "Dear X, You are a parasite." I had no idea people would actually send such things!

Rettaw said...

Nooooo! Don't destroy data! Especially if it's on obsolete equipment! Rather donate it to some electronics museum where it can be preserved for the benefit of humankind!

Jennie said...

I have a recycle bin right next to my desk so it makes it really easy to get rid of paper. I do have to recycle it myself, but I like the idea that it will be in a bin for a week or so, on many occasions I've rummaged through the recycling. Also, my dept. has a library room where professors like to dump their old journals and textbooks. It comes in handy at times.

Ms.PhD said...

That job of sorting through vicious dead professor's stuff sounds really amusing. Thanks for the laugh. I know many of us fantasize about sending hate mail, but aren't in a position to actually do it.

Kim said...

There's something about those giant floppy disks that makes them difficult to part with. I don't know what - I mean, cd's make better coasters, even.

Diane said...

I completely switched fields a few years ago, and my old textbooks weighed heavily on my conscience (and the floor of my spare room). I finally sucked it up and donated the whole pile to the library of my graduate school and felt so much better!