Pixels versus pages

After 17 years in the same office I was moved just before Christmas into a new office one floor up in my building. My initial annoyance at having to deal with moving soon gave way to the realization that I would have the opportunity to clean out my stuff. Big recycling bins were rolled in and filled (repeatedly) with the debris of courses and committees and research past; boxes of documents were sent off for shredding; stacks of unneeded books made some students very happy (“free books!”); old, creaky and now empty filing cabinets were abandoned. A much smaller pile of paper and books and files moved into my new office with me.

Once I had my new office more or less set up, colleagues and even some students began to wander by and drop little remarks abut my “clean”, “minimalist” office (translation: “hey! you’re a professor! where’s all your crap?”). There it was again, that stereotypical view that a professor works in a small area of desktop excavated out from beneath a teetering pile of  papers and books that spill off the desk and shelves and onto the floor. Somewhere in that pile is a computer. And an old typewriter. And a squash racket. And maybe some food. Now this is not to say that I don’t have colleagues whose offices look exactly like that. I’m not judging, I’ve just always realized that that’s not me. And here’s why: if I can’t see it, I forget about it.

That’s just the way my mind works. I need reminders – verbal or visual. So for me to juggle everything I have to juggle (reality check: academia is not so much about thinking as it is about time management and juggling) I have to see it all.

Computers, especially once they had desktops upon which icons and files could sprawl out row on row (yes, I started my grad student career in DOS-World), seemed like a brilliant solution. Little reminders right in front of me; all my files in one place; quick access to email. Plus, it was environmentally friendly — less paper equals more trees.

So now I have all my manuscripts on my computer, and a ton of related files, and hundreds of papers in PDF version at my fingertips. Great. The problem is that I now spend hours at a time staring at a small screen and there are only so many things I can spread out on that screen at a time. Plugging in a second monitor helps, but only up to a point.

The pendulum is starting to swing back. I never abandoned printed books, and just keep accumulating them. Never bought a Kindle or other eReader. Just couldn’t face it. I love books. But now I’m thinking it might be pleasant and easy on my eyes to go back to printing out a bunch of those individual papers and manuscripts like I used to. I can scribble in the margins and draw arrows and underline things. I can sit in a comfy chair without a Mac heating up my lap. I’ve started scribbling down new ideas in actual notebooks with a nice smooth feel to the heavy pages (thank you Moleskine!). Yes, editing a manuscript on a computer is certainly easier, but my love affair with paper-free scientific productivity may be losing some of its shine. Maybe its time for more hard copy reprints to join my giant pile of books.

Pixels or paper: I see the split in lab meetings and journal club discussions. When the paper or the manuscript shows up it’s on a screen for some of the people in the room, and on the page for the rest. And I find myself wondering if I’d “get it” more in one format or the other.

Or maybe I’m just overthinking this and thereby successfully putting off opening the file that is sitting right here on the corner of my screen. Reminding me that it needs to be edited.


About terry wheeler

professor, museum director, entomologist, ecologist, naturalist
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2 Responses to Pixels versus pages

  1. I’ve always been a bit of an office neat-nick as well – I do end up with piles of papers sometimes, but they are always neat and square!

    Regarding papers vs. pixels, I love having pdfs at my finger tips – especially when I’m away from the office and a quick question pops up. However, that only works for the most recent stuff, and as you know taxonomists are more into old literature than just about anybody. Still, I’ve continued to make a printed version of every paper for the binders and cabinets in my office – when I’m steeped in ID work and literature review I find it faster and easier to consult the hard copies.

    Plus, I just like the smell of paper!

    • PDF versions are certainly more portable and its very convenient having a decent library along with me when I’m away from the lab. But yes, I definitely prefer doing identification from a hard copy. This is partly because there’s usually no room near my scope for the computer, partly because I find it faster to flip than to scroll when I’m backtracking and second-guessing myself in a key, and partly because I can scribble withering comments on bad key couplets more easily if they’re printed.

      Aside from taxonomic works, there is that core set of ecology/theory/quantitative papers that I keep coming back to and those are the current leading candidates for a new stack of hard copies.

      And two thumbs up on the smell of paper, especially old books that aren’t too horribly musty!

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