Why I still love paper

The last time I saw my desk was around 18 months ago, give or take. Until yesterday, that is. It hadn’t been stolen, lost or mislaid, just buried under a pile of paper. And books. And mugs, pens and stickies garnered from various conferences. As you may know, if you've been reading my blog recently, I've been doing a whole load of clearing out. I thought, rather naively as it turns out, that it would take about a week. It's taken over three! We've still got more to do, but at least at the moment I have more room to work.

I've thrown out at least 30 bags of trash, and paper for recycling, so you might think my tip today will be:

Store everything electronically.

Perhaps surprisingly, that isn't the case: I still very much think paper storage has a lot going for it, for the following reasons:

1. There may be legal reasons you have to keep paper copies of stuff. For example, one project I was involved with when I was an ICT advisor required us to keep paper records for 12 years, which seems a bit excessive, but those were the rules. And you don’t argue with those kind of rules when someone is offering you around $200,000!

2. Media changes. In clearing out our loft I came across various types of media which contain my files, but it would be quite inconvenient to try to read some of them because I either no longer have the requisite hardware or I'd have to dig it out and set it up.

3. But I think the most important reason is that having paper copies of things leads to a bit of serendipity. For example, whilst looking for a particular document I came across an ancient publication, a magazine for writers, which I'd completely forgotten about. One of the articles has given me an idea for an article of my own, and there's another article which looks interesting. I'd never have come across this magazine if it and the document I was looking for had been stored digitally, because I wouldn't have been looking for it.

This is something my wife said to me ages ago, in a slightly different context: when you look something up on the internet, you see only that, plus links related to it. If you look something up in a paper dictionary or encyclopaedia, or go to the library, you inadvertently come across other stuff which you were not looking for, but which you might find interesting. That's not an argument for abandoning the digital world, of course, but a recognition of the fact that the old-fashioned way of storing and looking for information still has a place.

The challenge, of course, is finding the balance between the urge to keep something in case it comes in handy, and of being utterly ruthless! At the moment, having spent all this time and energy on clearing out, I'm tending towards the latter!