the misery of admin

I despise filing, but I do not think I can escape it much longer; having several full-to-bursting files of photocopied articles, archive flotsam and scrawled notes on paper, loosely organized by date and some vague topical delineation is just not working anymore — not to mention a notebook which contains everything from seminar notes, reading notes and lists of books to read, to hasty thoughts captured in some public place, shopping lists and random doodles. I also have a wiki, in which I keep a reading log of all books I read, though I am marginally more competent at organizing online and computer folders. You’d think that working with archives gives you a sense of how to organize your own papers; alas, I cannot even decide how to categorize the books on my bookshelf, let alone the intellectual sedimentation that threatens to bury me in a veritable snowdrift of unfinished thoughts.

to be morbidly honest with myself: though I have been planning to do something about this for a while, especially after discovering a wonderful guide to the historian George McTurnan Kahin’s papers, Peter Lipton’s tragic and shockingly swift death has, amongst other things, burned an indelible sense of mortality into me, and I am filled with a urgent desire for direction and resolution, or at least leaving the possibility thereof. I would like to have open topics that I am pursuing at any one time, which might help me resist the lure of tangential interests and stay focused; I’d like an organizational structure that will enable me to find past things and thoughts easily; but I guess that I also want my intellectual life (in the event that I am suddenly severed from it, which becomes, as time goes on, exponentially probable) to be traceable, navigatable, coherent, perhaps even useful to others — the way Kahin’s papers certainly are. And I suppose it’s better to start sooner than later —

— god, but all is so ultimately fragile —

I suppose the intuitive structure would be a topical one; but because my academic work straddles papers, my wiki, my blogs,, links, post-its, notebooks (real and virtual), desktop folders, random text files, incoherent thought-emails and correspondence with various friends and my long-suffering boyfriend, and all manner of other modes of thought, I think some sort of master map or index which can somehow categorize location, date, topic, form and content would be necessary — some kind of coordinate geometry of research — and ideally it would be all searchable or taggable. Tall orders! I must think about this more. Advice welcome.


9 responses to “the misery of admin

  • janaremy

    I don’t have all the answers, but I just created a podcast episode about using technological tools to organize the flow of info for us historians! You can find it here:

    I’d love to hear your thoughts on it after you listen!

  • Gavin Robinson

    Did you try Zotero? This is exactly the kind of problem it’s designed to solve.

  • Rachel

    @ janaremy: thanks greatly — I will try to listen to it sometime this weekend, if I get the chance!

    @ Gavin: I do use it, but it doesn’t really help with organizing things outside of a computer — or does it?

  • Tim

    For the papers — what I’ve found works best is to organize everything written by anyone else alphabetically by author, with color tags/tabs to identify them by topic/project, maybe even language. (I like color because it’s easy to do multiple tagging.)

    For what you’ve written yourself, apart from your notes on those other texts (which it’s better to keep with them) the same color tab system, but organize by date (at least as best you can).

    You can carry this system over to your digital filing system as well (at least you can on a Mac).

    Part of my research is actually about early filing systems and modernist writers. Ezra Pound was a filing-cabinet enthusiast; he thought the flexibility of structure and the ability to separate live from dead material gave a model for how to approach literature (and obliterate libraries, the closed model of the book, etc.).

  • Tim

    P.S.: The great innovations of nineteenth-century information science were the typewriter, carbon paper, and the vertical filing cabinet, which chased out scrivener copyists, bizarre wet-ink copy presses, and codex and flat-file archives.

    Virtually the only serious organization that still uses a flat-file system is the academic archive. It is absolutely a unique and vestigial information system. So don’t feel too badly.

  • Kyle

    Rachel, what software (in the most expansive meaning of the word) do you use to create your Wiki? I’ve been looking into VoodooPad recently, but it has some limitations that don’t entirely thrill me.

    It may not work for everyone, but since nearly everything I write ends up being typed out anyway, I use Bookends for reference management and attach documents (including notes I’ve take, papers I’ve written, and nearly anything else imaginable) with reckless abandon.

  • Rachel

    Kyle: I’ve experimented with and — both of them are basic and adequate enough for what I want to do, though I think there are space limitations on the free version of both that, as you put it, do not exactly thrill me.

    the thing to do, I’m coming to see, is hire a Minion 😉

  • Gavin Robinson

    Zotero is designed to work with non-computer stuff, as it began as an alternative to Endnote. If you use it to catalogue books, photocopied stuff, paper notes etc then you can file them in some arbitrary way and use Zotero to find them. In Zotero you can tag records and/or add them to collection folders, put notes on them etc then use the location field or a note to point you to where the non-computer version is in your filing system.

    This is all hypothetical as I have so little non-computer stuff that I know exactly where it all is anyway.

  • Mike Cosgrave

    There is nothing important that is not on the computer – if someone else wrote it, or you wrote it on a paper napkin, it goes under the digital camera. All the key textbooks for my major courses have been assimilated by my camera.

    Everything should therefore be in Zotero, but isn’t, although I agree with Gavin that is is the best tool for the job. However, everything is in the right folder on my laptop – like \courses0708\hi3112\weissbook or \research\unifil\44bn

    There are also many many CD and DVD backups in three different buildings.

    I use plain text files for notes quite a lot – no sense in keeping 25 words in a full Writer file. I never keep stuff in proprietary data formats, which is why I use OpenOffice

    For real world paper, I use a Filofax mini – it does actually fit in a shirt or hip pocket, holds banknotes and a half-dozen card – bank, credit, library, and notepaper which gets scanned into the laptop ever month or two. I have not yet bought a filofax mini sized 5 hole punch, but I did make up a template in OpenOffice to print out pages that will fit in it.

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