Prism Magazine - February 2003
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- By Henry Petroski

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 half full.

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 my old.


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 in paperback.