history in the files

I made some good progress yesterday in weeding out my filing cabinets at home. I started with a drawer of files from some of the first articles and conference papers I ever wrote, figuring that older stuff would be easier to sort through. It was, especially since I now feel pretty distant from those essays. There's a small amount of material to keep and file into my reference collection, and a few things that I archive (contracts for publication, correspondence with editors, etc). But there's a lot that can be dumped in the recycling bin. I no longer need any hard copies of drafts, edits, etc. (I did check and I have electronic copies of all of these papers, should I ever for some reason need them).

Obviously, a lot of this material could have been (and should have been) recycled two or three moves ago. But I'm beginning to see that sorting through papers takes a kind of attention and energy that I never have when I'm packing for a move. Or, I could have weeded these out when I got tenure. But at that time, I still felt too close to my past, too close to my graduate school training, too close to the dissertation research that in part helped me get tenure. Now, I'm feeling like I have more distance psychologically and intellectually, so I can better assess what I really need to keep.

One of the interesting things along the way was realizing in a very material way how much technology has changed the way I work, and the way the profession as a whole functions. There were all of these letters in these files -- little typed notes with brief questions or remarks, friendly correspondence from one of my mentors, notifications of acceptance to a conference etc. All of which today would be done on email. I might as well have been looking at an archive from the 1950s. It was kind of startling how dated my own career suddenly looked. Best find: a letter from my mentor from 1991 asking if I had tried email, and saying "it is a very convenient way to communicate." (And yes, 1991 was the first time I got an email account. Using Pine. Ah, those were the days.)

Another realization: I used to write really, really small. I was shocked to see some of these pages of handwritten notes. I guess that was in part a carryover from undergraduate days in the classroom taking lecture notes. I remember that I used to only buy extra-fine point pens. But now, it looks like someone else wrote those notes. I can't write that small any more. Partly because then I can't read it. (And lately I've been buying not just medium point, but bold point pens for certain kinds of notes.)

I'm actually getting rid of some of these notes, the ones on texts or topics I really don't see myself ever revisiting. Or if I do, I'll have to re-read the text anyway, and create new notes, so why bother. Especially these cramped, hard to read notes. I'm trying to be realistic about my work habits and note-taking habits, although that's hard to do. The reality is that most of the notes I take, are taken for a particular project, with particular questions or problems in mind. Which means that they are of only limited use for other projects. I'm trying to embrace the recursiveness of text-based research -- the truth that when I re-read a text (primary or secondary) I see new things. That is a good thing, rather than an indicator of time wasted. I think I've often been frustrated at having to re-read things, but I need to just accept it as part of the process. Or my process, anyway.

I have more thoughts brewing about notes and note-taking systems, but for now I'm going to relish the feeling of lightening my file drawers, which is making real and psychic space for my new projects, the scholar I am today, rather than the person I was so many years ago.