Reference Filing

One of the greatest sources of clutter in just about any office environment is unfiled paperwork. I think everyone suffers at least a little from Keep-It Syndrome, that horrendous affliction that causes us to imbue every scrap of paper that crosses our desks with a mysterious power that makes it nearly impossible to throw anything away.

At least part of the problem is indecisiveness. Many of the papers that we keep aren’t really necessary, but we keep then “just in case” we need them down the road. Since they’re not particularly useful, they’re hard to organize in any meaningful way, so they stack up or get shoved into a shoebox or crammed into an unruly filing cabinet in no particular order.

But that’s only part of the problem. A deeper problem is knowing we need something, but not knowing how to file it in a way that keep s it out of our way when we don’t need it but makes it easy to retrieve in a moment when we do need it. The fear of losing something important, or forgetting about it, can be paralyzing, often leading us to leave more stuff out than we file away.

Filing is probably the easiest, least thought-requiring task you can do in an office, yet because so much is at risk, it creates a great deal of anxiety – and in virtually every office environment I’ve ever worked in, that anxiety has contributed greatly to the failure of the filing getting done.

So what to do?

First of all, we need to distinguish between several different kinds of papers. The first are project files, which I’ve discussed before – these need to be close at hand, and are usually the easiest to figure out. The second are official documents – invoices, bills, receipts, forms, reports, meeting minutes, etc. These also tend to fall into natural categories that suggest themselves and are easy to develop a filing system around.

The real problem area when it comes to filing is reference material. Reference material is anything that contains information that we need or will need at some point and which will have an application beyond their immediate use. For me, one major body of reference material – we’re talking maybe 10,000 pages here – are academic articles and notes that I’ve been collecting since I started graduate school over a decade ago. As an academic, I use this material for writing papers, researching topics for presentation in class, and provoking new ideas – but none of it does me any good if I can’t find what I’m looking for when I’m looking for it.

The system that immediately suggests itself is alphabetical, and for years that was how I organized most of my papers: alphabetical by author’s last name, just like my books. The problem with this system is that while it’s easy to figure out where new papers go – just look at the author’s last name – file retrieval is a pain. If I want information on food taboos in the South Pacific, for example, I have to remember that Margaret Mead wrote about that topic. Mead’s easy to remember – she is probably the most famous of all anthropologists – but what if the paper I want is something I glanced at by an author whose name I can’t recall, maybe a graduate student at an obscure university?

To solve the problem of retrieval, I reorganized many of my files according to main subject. This is the system that David Allen recommends in Getting Things Done, and it does greatly assist with retrieval. After several years of topic-based filing, I had several nicely organized drawers with folders arranged alphabetical by topic: “Colonialism” after  “Cold War” and before  “Counter-Insurgency”. Finding a folder full of references on any particular topic was a breeze.

On top of the filing cabinet, though, was a growing pile of unfiled papers. Un-file-able papers. Papers that dealt equally with two or more topics, papers that didn’t lend themselves to any easily-remembered topic heading, and so on. As Allen notes, if it takes more than a few seconds to file something, the chances that you’ll do it drop drastically – filing has to be quick, easy, and even fun, or we’ll resist doing it. Which means that as my pile of work I couldn’t categorize, label, and file in a few seconds grew, I became more and more resistive towards filing altogether.

And thus my empire of paper fell.

Enter the Paper Dragon

The system I am beginning to implement is inspired by the system used by the Paper Tiger document management software. In the Paper Tiger system, files are numbered and filed low to high. Each new document or group of documents goes into the next available empty folder, and a description of the contents and keywords are entered under that folder’s number in the software’s database. Thus, my folder full of resources on counter-insurgency might be in folder 08174; to find it, I simply search the database for “counter-insurgency”, which will tell me exactly where the documents I need are.

The Paper Tiger software isn’t cheap – the full-featured version of individual end-users is around $170. Instead, I’m creating a simple spreadsheet, with columns as follows:

Folder #  |  Title  | Author  |  Keywords  |  Notes

The folder number column is already numbered to 1000 (or 01000, actually – I can add more numbers up to 99,999 if I need to. I’m thinking long haul, here!). The idea is that to find anything, I can CTRL-F search. Later, I can create queries against the table, but for now, a simple “find in page” search should be sufficient. Later still, I can import the whole shebang into Access or some other database – maybe I’ll go crazy one weekend and import it into MySQL and write a Ruby on Rails front end! (I’ve always wanted to learn Ruby on Rails…)

The Paper Tiger is essentially a tagging system for physical documents (although technically it could be extended to cover digital documents on my PC or, indeed, any item anywhere that I was willing to catalog. But the important thing is, it solves both the problem of filing – without being restricted to one topic heading, I no longer have to worry about not being able to find something because I filed it under “Imperialism” and looked for it under “Colonialism” – and the problem of retrieval – the only skill I need to find a file is counting.

What about you? How have you solved your filing problems – or have you? What hasn’t worked for you in the past (or the present), and what has? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.

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