Sea of papers won’t clean up itself

Monday, October 20, 2003 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 3:03 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 8, 2008

A normal week for me usually entails spending several hours at the local library viewing microfilms. I enjoy poring over old newspapers, reading about events that took place decades ago. Like most researchers, I tend to get distracted when searching for information on one subject — my attention gets drawn off in another direction.

Last week, for example, I was reading through an old newspaper when I came across a story by the Associated Press that said the Missouri School of Journalism was expected to take possession of its newly constructed building, Jay H. Neff Hall, on the university campus within a few weeks. The newspaper, “The Sedalia Democrat,” was dated June 20, 1920. The article went on to describe the Evening Missourian as “one of the leading dailies of this part of the state.” This same newspaper carried a story about the fire that destroyed the Pettis County courthouse, which was the story I was researching at the time.

In any case, this goes a long way toward explaining why my workspace contains so much paper. I’m a dedicated researcher, which means that a 500-word story may eventually cause me to accumulate a 25-page stack of information on the subject. There comes a season of the year when it’s time to rid my space of unnecessary paper, and I find myself surrounded by pieces of information that are important only in the sense that they opened a little door to the past that allowed me the pleasure of glancing, for a moment, over my shoulder.

Other writers tell me that they use the Internet for their research projects. I still use the printed page for the most part. Actually, I think everyone in my family is addicted to the printed page. For as long as I can remember, I’ve liked the smell and touch of old books and newspapers. One of my earliest childhood memories is of my brother and me waiting at the window every Sunday morning for the carrier to throw the newspaper so that we could try to outrun each other to get our hands on it.

Another early memory is of those times when we ran out of books: We were told to read the dictionary. We picked out words and meanings to memorize and challenged each other to use our new words 10 times apiece in different sentences. I’m even willing to admit that once, when I had to spend a night unexpectedly in a hotel room, I read a telephone directory. And believe it or not, although I had worked for the telephone company a number of years by that time, this was a city directory, and I found information within its pages I never knew before.

By now, of course, you’ve got the point that it’s easier for me to write an essay titled “How I Need to Clean the Paper Out of My Work Space” than actually do any work. But, frankly, I don’t mind telling you that I think it’s pretty unfair that only people like presidents of the United States and Pulitzer Prize-winning writers can let their papers pile up with the guarantee that somebody will ultimately catalogue them and put them in a library somewhere. What, pray tell, did Chester Alan Arthur — the 21st President — ever write that was memorable?

Now for the truth. My son, the minimalist, announced that he is going to be visiting soon. A couple of weeks ago, he purchased a new printer for my workspace. I’m sure he would like to see the new printer, which means that it will be necessary for me to remove a paper or two from the desk on which it sits. The only paperwork that he recognizes as important is a spreadsheet.

At times like these, I remember my friend who is a ceramist. Her husband renovated the basement for her studio. The next year, he added a room to accommodate her art, and the following year, he constructed a separate building. The year after that, he called it quits. He said that her work was too big for their marriage — it belonged to the world.

Someday, I dream, all my work will be separated into individual folders, labeled and placed in a file cabinet under a proper heading. I also dream that work will be done by somebody who likes me a lot. In the meantime, I’m doing research on new ways to procrastinate without repeating the same method within a two-week period.

You would think that spending all this time avoiding the problem while risking the possibility of drowning in all these papers would be the incentive I need to just pull up the trash barrel and go to work. But you’d be wrong. I won’t get busy until the minute I discover that a paper that I need immediately in order to finish a project has somehow got lost somewhere in this paper jungle.

And as soon as I find a method to this madness, I’ll let you know.

You can join the conversation with Rose M. Nolen by calling at 882-5734 or e-mailing her at

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