Jettisoning One’s Past

When you have been inhabiting any space for a substantial length of time it tends to be somewhat dispiriting and challenging to move out and move on.  Quite unconnected with any of the other moves I’ve written about recently (here and here), I am also going to be moving from one rather large office to what I suspect will be a rather smaller one in the weeks ahead. So, it is time for a clear out.

After around 10 years in this office, according to one of those well-known laws of Nature, I have expanded to fill the space available. Some of the space is occupied by mounds of REF paperwork, which should soon be unnecessary as the die will have been cast upon submission. Some of the space is occupied by kind gifts from Oriental visitors, which have no obvious home other than a corner of the desk. Much is occupied by material I am loth to throw away, yet equally know that I ought to. This category includes details of many past conferences attended, reports (hard copy) that I feel sure will one day come in useful and paperwork (and, if going far enough back, artwork in the form of glossy micrographs and line drawings) associated with journal papers long in print – or worse those that never quite saw the light of day for one reason or another. I know as soon as I throw them out I will regret it: I will suddenly receive a request from someone requesting to know was it 1988 or 1989 that that memorable debate happened at conference X or I will want to reproduce a figure electronically of one of those old glossy photographs that demonstrate what one could do with an electron microscope before the digital age. All these categories of material I will linger over and keep as much as I can because, well, you never know when it will come in useful do you?

However, much of my office – about 3 four-drawer filing cabinets worth to be precise – I think can usefully be used as landfill. This consists of a fairly long career’s worth of Xeroxed or printed papers from the era when they weren’t available on the web. Papers dating back to my PhD days on grain boundary embrittlement are unlikely to feature in my future research and even if, for some obscure reason, I suddenly felt an urge to remind myself of the intricacies of faceting in copper grain boundaries, I would not need to rummage through my filing cabinets when no doubt I could find the information on JStor. So, a drastic pruning of anything metallurgical looks as if it is called for. But as soon as I commit that to paper I realise that a current project on organic photovoltaics is suddenly turning into a study of what’s going on at the metal electrodes, so maybe even that would be unwise.

Then there are the papers dating back to the days when I transformed myself into a polymer physicist, when I read voraciously (because I was so pig ignorant of the field) and finally fell in love with research; this, note you, was during my 2nd postdoc -  I was a late developer. These papers, (many of which are preprints because that was how they were circulated when Papers ASAP did not exist, nor preprints come in virtual web-based form) I will throw out with regret. I regard those years as the key formative ones for my career, when I felt that I never knew what exciting things lurked just  around the metaphorical corner of my research or what puzzle each new sample might throw up as I imaged it in the electron microscope. That was a heady period as I found my researcher’s feet and, as I see it, grew up into a serious practicing scientist. It will be hard to throw all that away even if I haven’t looked through any of the papers in years.

There are also drawers connected with random bits of my more recent work. Brief forays into areas that never quite took off. Areas such as plant cell walls, resulting in a not very exciting thesis or two rather too full of null results for much enthusiasm, however competent the students; or papers covering the story of chocolate (or rather the absence of any story for the student), where much X-ray beam time at the synchrotron source at Daresbury never did reveal any secrets as to why chocolate extruded at room temperature was so very different from the normal melt-processed variety.

Finally there are the more substantial areas which nevertheless are behind me. Notably this includes the years of papers on starch, when my own research seems to have been very productive however bizarre a topic for a physicist this may seem to be. These years continued until I realised I couldn’t see how my kind of physics could provide any further insights; the idea of examining yet another cultivar or mutant just couldn’t excite me any more.  All of these – and many other topics – I think can readily be dispensed with. But it will need an awful lot of bin bags to get them out of my office. It will be time consuming and a wrench, but will have to be done. A necessary task and one that will neatly, albeit briefly, plug the gap in my life I will shortly feel as the REF burden passes on to the official committees.

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11 Responses to Jettisoning One’s Past

  1. Dave Fernig says:

    I try to do this every two years, with the aim of one day achieving a tidy office. A failure, of course, but slowly my office is becoming emptier.

    Data, I would suggest should be kept. I used 20 year old unpublished data last year to answer reviewer comments – it went into the SI! The rest, if one can bring oneself to do it is probably not worth keeping, but the emotional tie can be so difficult to break.

    Good luck!

  2. Geologist says:

    I too, recently had to do this after over 10 yrs in one large office. I was moving to a very small office although it was a promotion.

    I strongly recommend tossing the lot. Let it go. You’ll feel great and you’ll find out that you really don’t need any of it. Don’t make the mistake of looking at things fondly as you ‘decide’ what to toss and what to keep. Just make quick decisions – if you’re not working on that topic RIGHT NOW, toss it. I did it and I haven’t looked back. The few boxes that I kept, I find I don’t really need – it just now clutters up my new small office! LOL. I need to toss it all. Living in the electronic age, you can get nearly everything you need online. Keep a couple of your drawings/artwork from previous research projects that are really meaningful to you and ditch the rest! good luck. You’ll feel great getting rid of all this stuff. I did. :)

  3. Cath@VWXYNot? says:

    I’ve often heard that the best way to declutter – after getting rid of the “definitely trash” stuff – is to put anything you’re ambivalent about into storage for a year. Anything you don’t make the effort to retrieve during that time should be thrown away after the year is up. Granted, this approach is designed for domestic rather than research decluttering, and I would definitely keep any data and the artwork if I were you!

    We recently used the “archive for a year and then throw away if we don’t need it during that time” approach at work, with filing cabinets full of hard copies of pre-2005 grant applications. Anything that’s still relevant to ongoing research was scanned; the rest is in off-site storage and will be reviewed next year.

  4. cromercrox says:

    Don’t put stuff in landfill – recycle!

    If that fails, I find the presence of a large, empty and expensive skip outside one’s door, begging to be filled, concentrates the mind wonderfully.

  5. Bob Newport says:

    I’ve been relatively fortunate in having to move office only three times since my arrival at my University, and my lab. has moved the same number of times. For the very reasons you allude to, none of these experiences leads to a genuine change of mindset: one still accumulates again after each clear-out. During this last year I have again tried to slim down. Over 30 paper recycling sacks were filled and umpteen ‘black plastic sacks’ disposed of. I even found some cash to pay a recent graduate who’s keen for part-time jobs to scan all those ‘pre-PDF days’ papers and PhD theses so the paper copies could be ‘relocated’. I still think it was a sensible thing to do and to roll forward, but like you I let go of some things only with difficulty: they are the tangible reminders of fun experiments, of talented people, of friends. Despite the dust and yellowing edges, there’s something still peculiarly evocative about flicking through paper: clear-outs are therapeutic in some ways, but there’s plenty of nostalgia lurking within.

  6. John Gilbey says:

    I carried out the same exercise recently – and came across a set of playgroup artwork orginally contributed to my office pin board by my kids about 20 years ago. It included some rather random (to my eyes) portraits of me – along with records of holiday events, cats and other important childhood milestones.

    If anything is guaranteed to mark the passage of time, and make you feel really really old, that is it…

    I kept it all, of course… :-)

  7. I’ve moved office 4 times in 20 years but twice in last 2 years. It is the ideal way to ditch paper – looking balefully at all these minutes and documents from 5+ years back when so much emotion, effort and steam was expended in discussing and arguing the toss (and that was just the admin, management & RAE guff) and then in cold light of day it all seems so ephemeral. Almost all of our research/data is electronic so has always resided in IT storage.

    I’ve becoming quite hard-headed about it … I have a prejudice developing that a reluctance to move, jettison old materials could be associated with a similar reluctance to develop and accept new ideas and challenges to the norm. But I’m aware that could be my ‘Stockholm syndrome’ to adapting to several moves.

    If something or a doc that is not electronic comes onto my desk now if I think it is of use I us an iphone app to photo & pdf it. Otherwise in is in recycling straight away or immediately after the meeting/event.

    I can now compact to one removals box and one drawer of paraphernalia because we have two more office moves upcoming in next 3-4 years as a major refurb is undertaken……

  8. Frank says:

    I would draw two distinctions.

    First, there is published stuff – mostly readily available through other means and only worth keeping if it is stuff you need to have close at hand. If it is particularly rare or valuable or may have historic significance, perhaps also worth keeping.

    Then there is unpublished stuff – correspondence committee papers etc. This needs more thought.

    It can be divided again between stuff from external organisations (REF, Royal Soc, University etc) and stuff that you are responsible for (correspondence, your own data, drawings, rough drafts etc). The former stuff is the responsibility of those organisations to look after and again you can safely discard it unless you have a particular need for it.

    The stuff that is particular to you needs more careful attention. This is stuff that almost no-one else will have a copy of. What may seem uninteresting today may be really useful to a historian in 2070, wanting to document the history of biophysics in the early 21st century, or developments in the women in science ‘movement’.

    Of course much of that kind of material these days is in electronic form, which is another story.

    • Laurence Cox says:

      I agree with Frank. There is a real danger that when historians come to write about today there will simply be big holes in the information that they have to work with because people don’t write diaries or send letters by post. It makes sense to convert all the paper into electronic form but, rather than do the scanning yourself, pay a young person to do it. More than 20% of our young people (16-24) are unemployed; some of them must live in Cambridge, have some skill in operating a computer and an interest in science. You only have to find one person who meets the criteria.

  9. Frank – the comment about electronic information is most pertinent. As I noted all my / & people’s data is electronic – but the real nuanced record in the email inbox.

    I know many people through choice or ‘instruction’ from a server just delete emails and all the associated dialog and multi threading aspects – there is the real value therein for self or a future study – is lost.

    I archive my emails as it has become like an electronic diary/notebook ( i delete out all the generic circular stuff and leave comms from people). I have a series of small physical notebooks for jottings etc but the inbox more accurately reflects the ebb and flow of the academic life. Mining that several years back is like flicking through a diary to remind oneself of how things evolved or developed.

    • Cromercrox says:

      This discussion reminds me of a biography I once read of my favourite author, Jorge Luis Borges (Borges: A Life by Edwin Williamson) in which the author said that Borges’ life was rather hard to document because of the relative absence of a written record. Borges always suffered from very poor eyesight, part of a condition which led, in the end, to total blindness. Eye-strain was part of the reason why he never wrote anything more than a short story – indeed, many of his works were what we might call flash fiction – and his language was very plain and pithy. He certainly didn’t write many letters: but communicated a lot by that most evanescent of media, the phone.