It has been almost three years since I completed my term
as chairman of my department and, consequently, had to move to a smaller
office. Like most professors, I had accumulated books and papers to
fill the space I occupied, and then some. As chairman I had access
to the department's storage closet and bookcases in an adjunct's
office, so I sent my overflow there. Stepping down, I had no choice
but to thin out my books, journals, magazines, and files.
My bookshelves had swelled with desk copies of texts
for courses I do not teach, with proceedings in languages I do not
read, and with gifts from visitors I struggle to remember. Sending
the books over to the engineering library was easy; it was the volumes
that I had moved from office to office since my graduate-school days
that presented the tough decisions. I knew that my old textbooks and
notes, most of which had not been opened in decades, were taking up
space that I could fill with books more relevant to my current interests
and needs. But sentiment prevailed. Most of my college and graduate-school
texts are still on my shelves, reminders to me of what it was like
to be a student.
Piles of magazines and journals, full of articles I
wanted to save or still had not gotten around to reading, were becoming
too unwieldy and had to be discarded. I knew I could always retrieve
the articles from the library's bound periodicals or the Internet.
In my new office, I vowed, I would read magazines and journals as they
arrived and so not let them accumulate. To accomplish this goal, I
now take the latest issues home—where they pile up in my study.
Going through old files proved to be the most time-consuming
and heart-wrenching aspect of moving my office. I came across reminders
of long-forgotten accusations of dishonesty and other unpleasant matters
that must perforce end up in a chairman's office. Where the cases
were resolved amicably, the files were easy to discard, as were the
old records duplicated in the dean's or registrar's office.
I also threw out redundant hard copies of syllabi, tests, and handouts
now preserved in electronic form.
I found it particularly difficult to part with the bundles
of offprints from articles I had published in refereed journals. These
neatly printed and bound separates, once requested on postcards received
from around the world, now seem to be relics from that paper-heavy
past before copiers, faxes, e-mail, and the Web. The half-life of the
articles made it safe to dispose of them, but the ego of the author
made it difficult to just throw them away. I compromised by keeping
a dozen or so copies of each of my articles, thus reducing the bulk
significantly, but I expect that I will still have them all when I
next thin out my files. At that time I will likely all but complete
the purge and save only one or two archive copies.
My experiences with changing offices have repeatedly
reminded me that I have much more paper in my possession than I need.
Unfortunately, new supplies of it arrive in the mail daily—books,
magazines, journals, newsletters, and assorted advertisements and correspondence,
the piles of which grow faster than I can read or respond. The introduction
of e-literature promised to diminish the physical piles, but now the
electronic stacks of e-mail crowd my computer's memory. The perceived
urgency of the medium drives me to attend to the e-mail first, allowing
the piles on my desk to continue to grow, added to by printouts of
electronic messages and their attachments. The more things change,
the more they remain the same.
Three years ago, my new office, though smaller, was
much neater than my old. All the books were arranged vertically on
the bookshelves, and there was even some empty space left to accommodate
future additions. I could see the surface of my new desk, and the only
thing under the tables and chairs was a fresh rug without a single
magazine or journal to start a pile on it. My file cabinets were barely
Today, my bookshelves are once again packed, so that
I have begun to place new books horizontally atop the old. My desk
has come to be covered with piles of paper. The corners of my office
are piled with boxes of books and files that subsequent to my move
were discovered in storage spaces to which I no longer have access.
My file cabinets are filled to near capacity, and my computer is so
full of undeleted e-mail that it freezes up now and then, warning me
to free up some memory. In only three years, my new office has become
Henry Petroski is A. S. Vesic Professor of civil
engineering and a professor of history at Duke University. His memoir,
Paperboy: Confessions of a Future Engineer, will soon be available