How to Unfile Research Paperwork

Academic FilesMy filing cabinets had been bursting with grad-school materials for years. This weekend, I finally got around to addressing the problem. I’m calling the solution my unfiling system.

Recognize That Past Research Projects Take Up Precious Space

Something I’ve realized: if I keep all the hard-copy research I’ve done, I’ll be buried alive in paperwork.

I would wager that a pack rat lurks inside every researcher—but even for an academic, I boast a pretty pronounced hoarding instinct. My boyfriend generously calls it my documentarian nature. As a girl, I collected brochures and menus. Now in my thirties, I continue to amass stationery. Grad school was a paper heaven for me.

With academia come piles of paperwork. I don’t just mean bureaucratic detritus and the kinds of program brochures and promotional materials that I love to collect. I mean research, class notes, syllabi fodder, teaching materials, past dossiers, old cover letters, and handouts that may not be useful in the future but that I’m lazy enough to keep anyway. I’m guessing you, gentle reader, might exhibit the same tendency from time to time.

Weigh Practicality and Sentimentality

I have a pretty extensive filing system for all of my academic research; what I’ve lacked is a way to make space for current and future projects. To do that, I know I must make peace with the past and move along.

At least I had hanging files set up to categorize the papers I kept. Teaching materials and coursework are sorted according to class and semester. My thesis and dissertation research have their own files, several for each project. Thank goodness I’d (uncharacteristically) instituted that sorting system at some point in my graduate-student career.

Still, these files have been taking up entirely too much drawer space for me. I’m looking forward to procuring some actual office furniture—made of wood instead of particleboard, for instance—in the near future, and I’ll feel a failure if I carry my lazy filing over to the new cabinetry. (I should have been on top of this long ago, but imminent home-office improvement is the final impetus.)

If you’re like me, you want to leave heavy and bulky paperwork behind, but you’re still a little sentimental about records of your past, and you have a nagging suspicion that some of your files might someday become useful again. These competing interests mean that we have to devise some rules for sorting through the stacks of paper.

Trim Back, as Dramatically as Possible

Pile of Academic Paperwork

The pile in this picture is made up of what I did actually manage to cut out of my files this weekend. It’s twenty-three inches high, and heavier than heck.

Still, I did not recycle anything that I was attached to or may need later. These are the principles I let guide me:

TOSS documents that are printouts of materials now available online or in print, of poor quality, or related to projects that won’t be picked up again.

KEEP anything handwritten, unique, or almost impossible to find again.

The recycling pile is full of printed journal articles now available through online databases such as JSTOR and Project Muse. I also had lists of books to check out from the library. As helpful as I initially felt those could still be, many volumes have been published since I compiled these lists. If I ended up using any of those sources in my work, they would appear in document bibliographies saved on my computer anyway. This is my idea of ruthless unfiling; you may be even harsher in your criteria.

Class projects, colleagues’ papers, graded writing, and notes remain in my possession. Now everything fits in one drawer of my vertical filing cabinet. And the files are still organized by class and term or by project.

Make Unfiling Painless

The whole unfiling process does take time—an evening or weekend afternoon—but it’s really not something to be dreaded. Once I realized that I was hanging on to what was basically deadweight in paper form, I was actually raring to go.

  1. Pour yourself a drink—whatever kind that will get you in the unfiling mood.
  2. Arrange for some background entertainment. Listen to music or a light podcast. Or watch a TV series or film that you’ve already seen. Might I suggest Murder, She Wrote?
  3. Proceed drawer by drawer. Just pull out one chunk at a time
  4. Follow the criteria I set forth above. For any past projects, keep unique materials; toss anything that can be found easily online or in print.
  5. Remove paperclips and binder clips as you go. A cursory Internet search reveals that staples can be recycled, so I wouldn’t suggest you worry about those. (I only figured this out after I had ripped stapled corners out of half of the documents in my two-foot pile.)
  6. If you so desire, place single-sided papers in their own pile so that they can be used as scratch paper and for printing drafts of your next project.
  7. Set aside any confidential material that needs to be shredded. This includes financial information, others’ drafts, and papers related to work with human participants.
  8. Place the now-much-smaller files into the original drawers and those drawers into the cabinet.
  9. According to the piles you’ve created, recycle and shred.
  10. Dream about your next project.
  11. Whenever you’ve put one project to bed and are moving on to another, repeat the process.

Close the Drawer

As you can tell, I’m pretty pleased with this progress, but I haven’t truly conquered the beast. The topmost cabinets in my kitchen are filled with those more sentimental of academic artifacts: binders and folders of class notes. Right now, I’m not too worried about them. They’re so nicely bound and out of sight, you see!

Binders and Notebooks of Academic Work

How Do You Do It?

I sincerely hope that you’ll soon find I’ve written a follow-up to this post, one in which I tell the tale of liberating the binders and notebooks held captive above my kitchen sink.

In the meantime, I want to know what tricks you have for taming the academic-paperwork beast. Comment below or send me an email.

1 Comment

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