Dad's Filing Cabinet

My dad has a heavy old, four-drawer metal filing cabinet.  When I was a kid, that filing cabinet was one the most fascinating things for me in our entire house.  Many times, when my sister and I would play school or store, the filing cabinet had a part in the story.  And it's probably not too much of a stretch to say that my early fascination with that filing cabinet – the various folders holding different papers on all manner of topics, the most important items in the top drawers, the least in the bottom, those topics sub-sorted by drawer, not alphabetically but in a system that made sense to my dad – played a role in a fact that I became a librarian.

To be a librarian (or at least a good one), you should have a certain love of order.  For the non-politically correct, that's a nice way of saying “you should be anal retentive”. (To put it yet another way, you should be the type of person who would find a filing cabinet fascinating.)

Not everyone understands this so I suspect it was a bit of a shock when my mother asked for ideas for a graduation gift and I said “I'd like a filing cabinet, please.” 

“We're not getting you a filing cabinet,” she replied, in a voice that suggested I'd voiced my desire to have a human skull as a graduation gift.

“I can get it engraved,” I added hopefully. 

“No.  Your dad and I want to get you something that has meaning.  Not something that holds papers.” 

I didn't try to explain why a filing cabinet would have as much meaning as pretty much any gift they could get me, especially to commemorate my graduation from the MLIS program.  Besides the connection I already mentioned that it would have to my childhood and why I wanted to become a librarian in the first place, it would also be a daily symbol of much of what libraries are about – classifying, organizing and making accessible all of the information you need in a convenient fashion. 

Beyond these obvious (to me) reasons, a filing cabinet had other features that made it an appropriate gift. Like a fridge, a filing cabinet has an aesthetic value achieved by the artwork, clippings and other ephemera you can stick on it.  And of course, it has a practical utility for the effective storage that it provides in its very small footprint.

I brought the idea of a filing cabinet gift up again during a subsequent conversation with my mom and the utility argument swayed her this time.  I explained that I'd brought home all of the books and papers I'd accumulated over the year but sold off everything that held them – two bookshelves, a desk, even a couple shelves I'd rescued from the dumpster (each went for $10!)  A filing cabinet was something I was going to have to buy no matter what and if her and dad picked up the tab (a decent filing cabinet isn't cheap!), that would be a big help.

So I now have a filing cabinet in my office and have been working to get everything organized.  Connected to the “must like order” aspect of the librarian-type personality, there's also a related sentiment for some of us that says “must be a packrat”.  (But not for all – for some, “love of order” trumps “love of keeping items around” and some librarians take an almost ecstatic joy in weeding their collections to make sure only the most popular, most useful and most engaging books remain.)

My problem is that I constantly struggle to find a balance between my love of order and my love of holding on to otherwise useless items.  And often, the packrat side of my personality wins out, especially if I can somehow impose order on things that suggest no order in and of themselves (“Okay, these maps of Ontario that I'll never need again – or which I could easily get replaced by CAA or at a tourist booth or pretty much a million other locations if I do – will go in a folder called “Ontario Maps”.  Ahhh, sweet order.) 

That's just one example.  I have trouble recycling old magazines and papers. After all, who knows?  I might need our July 2005 London Hydro bill sometime in the future for something.

In a weird way, I think part of the reason I have trouble throwing things out is that all these scraps of paper are like photographs of our year.  Looking at the receipt for a meal we had at Under the Volcano soon after Shea arrived in London helps bring back the evening as easily as if I was looking at a photograph of us sitting there. A ticket stub from Cedar Point takes me back to that amusement park as much as any overpriced souvenir I might've bought on its midway. 

I think the other reason for my packrat nature is the connection it gives me to both the past and the future.  Just as dad's filing cabinet provided so much curiosity when I was a kid (I honestly have no memory of whether I was forbidden to look through the filing cabinet or not – but suspect I did anyhow!) I like to think that someday Oscar will look through the papers and files I've accumulated and get a picture of who I was (and am) and who is parents were (and are.) 

The receipt for our hostel in Montreal might tell something of either Shea's and my values or our lack of money (or both) during a trip we took.   Those Ontario maps might provide hours of imagining future trips of his own.  A thank-you card given by a classmate might show the type of friend I was to others.   Even that London Hydro bill might provide wonder in ten or twenty or fifty years when electricity is provided by technologies we can't even yet imagine, just as looking at old issues of Life magazine in my grandparents' farmhouse provides a picture of their lives then. 

As I said, I really struggle with how to organize information – both in the “real” world and online.  I keep something I call a “memory box” where I store all sorts of items that have special meaning to me.  But then, where does something like that receipt for our meal at Under the Volcano go?  In the Memory Box?  In the London box?  In the Visa file folder?  (It went in the London box if you're curious.)

The same thing happens online.  I recently came across an article (which I of course can't find again!) which says people approach the web in two ways – there are the “settlers” who have their regular stops – Google, e-mail, online banking, perhaps a newspaper site and one or two other favourites – and rarely venture beyond this.  Then there are the “explorers” who lose hours browsing various sites, sampling all types of unique sites and making heavy use of “aggregators” like MetaFilter and Digg to keep up on the latest trends, ideas and memes online.  I think I fit firmly in the latter camp.  But now, if I could just find a way to keep track of all of that so, like that article, I can retrieve it again when needed.  (Edit: Found it – it was an article in the Globe & Mail a few days ago.  And the author didn't use the terms “settler” and “explorer” – I just made that up.  Uhm, anybody know a good trademark lawyer?)

(In the interest of creating order but also collecting information, I have done some tweaking on this blog.  I've dropped the link to my personal bookmarks from the header of this site and you'll now find a list of my most recent Delicious bookmarks on the righthand side instead.  There's now a link to the most recent comments on the left side and there's
also a “log-in” form at the bottom right column where you can create an account if you want and which, in turn, will make it quicker and easier to leave comments.)

Comments 7

  1. Anonymous wrote:

    “I like to think that someday Oscar will look through the papers and files I've accumulated and get a picture of who I was (and am) and who is parents were (and are.)”
    I would like to think that my kids would be that interested in me as well. But my sweetie and I are facing the reality that when her pack-rat parents drift away in 10-30 years (during which time they will accumulate even more stuff, although I have no idea where they could possibly store it) we will be faced with the very tough job of throwing 99.999% of it out.
    Some choices will be easy: the run of Byte magazines from 1981-84 will go directly to Ebay. The 30 boxes (and I'm not exagerating here) of paperback books will go to Sally Anne or somesuch. Other stuff, not so easy: The paintings by a Great Aunt that none of us ever met; the collection of Ukrainian-Canadian folk music LPs that Cate grew up on; boxes and boxes of the same sorts of souveniers that you have mentioned.
    Some have nostalgic value for Cate and her sister (“Remember when…” ), some have curiosity value (“I wonder why Dad would never tell us why he kept that?”) In some cases we will be the 3rd generation to hold onto the souveniers — which is way cool. But we don't have the space, and can't expect our kids to have more space. So most of these items that connect my kids with their great-great grandparents will have to be thrown out and it will fall to Cate and her sister to decide what goes and what stays. Often without much context — just a general anxiety about dishonoring the ancestors.
    I've sort of decided that I'm only going to keep a very few items from my life, but try to make sure that the kids know the story behind them so that what gets passed down means more to them than than anonymous photographs and 80 year old trinkets and if I've accidentally kept too much, they won't find the decisions as difficult.

    Posted 30 Jan 2007 at 4:26 pm
  2. Anonymous wrote:

    I LOVE it!!!! Settlers & Explorers!!
    Here I am, the settler coming to my usual spot. Though last night I ended up following the YouTube link to Danny Devito (it had been purged of the worst of his mutterings about Bush) and ended up looking around YouTube which I NEVER do — and then I muttered unrepeatables to myself about time-wasting into the wee hours…
    But then today when searching for images for a Collection Development group presentation on PLANNING BIRTHDAY PARTIES, I came across a completely unrelated item that caught my fancy — button people.
    Back a few years, I named our band buttonfly, originally buttonfly people, because I never was a buttonfly person, and my husband and his sister have ONLY worn Levis 501 buttonfly jeans THEIR WHOLE LIVES!!!
    Yes, Brian who will be 43 this spring still wears the same kind of jeans, and probably the same size, as he did 20+ years ago (!).
    One day I moaned about how I'd never be cool, never one of the buttonfly people…then I found a pair of buttonfly jeans at Goodwill..but they've long since worn through at the knee. So, I'm back to uptight, librarianish zippered me…still Goodwill though! Perhaps next visit I'll turn up a buttonfly pair!
    meanwhile buttonfly has evolved into something quite different that i'd imagined it would. beating wings faster than the ink can dry on the songwriting notepad…
    PS RE: Filing Cabinets. Where's the photo? We wanna see! One of my best photos of Lucy (who is now 16 1/2 years old) is her standing shakily — at age one — by Brian's open filing cabinets and carefully pulling out the paper labels from their plastic tabs clipped onto each hanging file folder. Brian handed in his PhD thesis when Lucy was 14 months old.
    By the time Brian came into the room, she'd managed to remove about half of them — leaving him cursing and trying to re-read a whole slew of papers and match them up to the correct label!
    My little anti-order girl.
    My other daughter — Beatrice the order girl (who turned 12 last week) is now a big fan of Maggie L. Wood — thanks to you Jason and your Lunch Bucket. And Zach read all of Art Slade's DUST on a mental health day he took last week — his 13 1/2 year old schedule of basketball, hockey, musical play practice and homework was getting him down and escaping into Art's book was the perfect remedy.
    Ah, some random “settler” (copyright: Jason Hammond, Headtale, 2007) thoughts.
    Linda B.

    Posted 31 Jan 2007 at 1:48 am
  3. Anonymous wrote:

    So are you still in Halifax Mike & Cate? I'll have to find those links — duh on the sidebar EXPLORE for once LINDA!!!! and see if you've been keeping up your BLOGS!!!!!!
    Is Ottawa where you're coming back to?
    I guess I'll have search to find out!
    Linda B.

    Posted 31 Jan 2007 at 1:50 am
  4. Anonymous wrote:

    Hey Linda,
    We are indeed still in Halifax. Spent too many weeks in Ottawa over the Christmas season — I picked up some contract work — and now I'm back near the ocean.
    The plan is still to move back to Ottawa, but in our life plans are just empty words. We'll move back when we're good and ready. I'm missing my friends in Ottawa on occassion, but then again I'm occassionally missing my friends from London too.
    If you're planning on being in the area, look me up.
    Rock on.

    Posted 31 Jan 2007 at 6:59 pm
  5. Anonymous wrote:

    I was thinking more that the kid-to-be will be interested in this stuff when they're youngish (even when they're a teen and hate me) rather than when they're rolling through it after I've gone demential or am in the grave.
    But I definitely see your point about thinking you're more interesting to others (even your children) just because you're interesting to yourself (this blog). But your list of Cate's parents items, even just in brief, painted a picture of who they are for me and I don't even have any connection to them – a complete collection of Byte? Wow. The Ukrainian-Canadian folk LP's. Cool – even if I don't have the technology to play them anymore, it would be revealing to thumb through the stack.
    That's a good point too about the meaningful stuff losing its meaning if you don't explain why you kept it. Oscar will probably know I kept a receipt from a meal we had at the Keg in August 2006 because it was a special supper for some reason. But unless they're paying attention, they won't glean to the fact that this supper was to celebrate that we'd just found out we were pregnant.
    It's that struggle between order and chaos thing again – I've been incredibly diligent about keeping all my photos (when I still got them developed) in chronological, labeled photo albums. But I rarely took the time to label the individual photos. So they'll never know the who/what/why of so many of them. You think you're going to be around forever to explain these things to others but that's not the case. Or you trust your memory too much. I look back at photos from my England Exchange in 1995 and it *kills* me that I can remember everybody's first name still but only a few surnames meaning it's next to impossible to track old friends down, even if I wanted to. And maybe in ten or twenty or fifty years, the first names will go to.
    I'm working on a photo-heavy blog post right now and went back to my parents' photo archives (a word I use in its loosest sense.) They're the opposite of me to some degree – all their photos over the years have gone in a big box, almost completely unsorted. But many of the photos have at least years and sometimes names/locations written on the back which has made my task *much* easier.
    Technology was supposed to make all of this easier – automatic dates on photos (which does happen – if you remember to/know how to set the date on your digital camera), ease of digital download/editing/labeling/filing. But in many ways, it's just spread us way more thinly. Before all you had to do was write a bit of info on the back of the photo in pen. Now you have to download the photo. Maybe you crop and edit it. Upload it to Flickr. Tag it. Back it up. And so on.
    I'm on a bit of a tangent and getting away from your point I think. But yeah, the kid will probably end up throwing away most of the meaningful (and not so meaningful) stuff that I do keep for god knows what reason. That is, if Shea doesn't get to it first!

    Posted 31 Jan 2007 at 7:46 pm
  6. Anonymous wrote:

    Any chance you'll make it to CLA this year in St. John's? I'm working with the New Librarians Interest Group to come up with a resolution to eliminate the registration fee for students and recent grads. It seems pretty ridiculous to me that students, who have zero money to begin with, have to pay for registration as well as meals, accommodation, travel, extra events while working librarians tend to get all their expenses covered by their workplace and aren't out of pocket for much. True, students get a significant discount but relative to what working librarians pay to attend (ie. zero), it still seems unfair and (to drop a library term) a barrier to access.

    Posted 31 Jan 2007 at 8:29 pm
  7. Anonymous wrote:

    YouTube (and Wikipedia to a lesser extent) can be addictive and I have to admit I've spent more than one night watching endless video clips. The other day I found some outtakes from the Let It Be sessions that were pretty cool – George Harrison helping Ringo write “Octupus's Garden” (George on guitar, Ringo on piano) and John wanders in, sits at the drum kit and starts playing along!
    So that's the story of the name “Buttonfly”, eh? You must've told me it before but it's good to have it in writing!
    Thanks for the story about Lucy “exploring” her dad's filing cabinet. Kids are definitely drawn to that which is supposed to be off-limits.
    I don't think I'll claim copyright on “explorers” and “settlers” in relation to how people explore the web though I might share the terms under a Creative Commons license.
    So feel free to make derivitive works based on those terms. (I was reading more on Cory Doctorow and he passed along one quote someone told him when he was starting out as a writer – “the biggest problem for an artist isn't illegal copying, it's obscurity”. The fan-based translations of his creative commons-licensed novel that have gotten him exposure from Germany to Japan to Mexico definitely proves this point!
    PS – what did Zach think of “Dust”?

    Posted 31 Jan 2007 at 8:37 pm

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