The Social Life of Paper

In the New Yorker, Macolm Gladwell looks at the life of paper in helping us make sense of our daily tasks.

    In the tasks that face modern knowledge workers, paper is most useful out in the open, where it can be shuffled and sorted and annotated and spread out. The mark of the contemporary office is not the file. It's the pile.

At long last, I can feel justified in the mess that is my desk. The passage discussing Apple Computer's research into paper piling behavior for sensemaking and information retrieval is of particular interest.

    But why do we pile documents instead of filing them? Because piles represent the process of active, ongoing thinking. The psychologist Alison Kidd, whose research Sellen and Harper refer to extensively, argues that "knowledge workers" use the physical space of the desktop to hold "ideas which they cannot yet categorize or even decide how they might use." ... What we see when we look at the piles on our desks is, in a sense, the contents of our brains.

In speaking of paper as an instrument to control information the article goes on to make the requisite references to Melvil Dewey and Vannevar Bush. In library school I recall also reading an IR paper about how college professors organize their desks into piles. Does anyone recall that author or title?

Thanks, Shifted Librarian

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A diagram showing my desk piles

I took a photo of my desk this morning -- I just cleaned it up yesterday. I indicated my newly neat piles. Before yesterday, the piles were much sloppier. I had to make room for a CD burner that just arrived so I could burn disks of photos eating hard drive space on my Power Book.