I’ve recently been doing a major spring/summer cleaning at my house. I’m an admitted neatnik as it is, but I’m also both a practical and a sentimental saver. As a professional writer, I know that hard-sought contact information and resources can be valuable and, at least in the past, difficult to reproduce. As a hopeless romantic, I treasure mementos of the past–particularly things that provide insight into the lives of loved ones and times gone by. Nevertheless, there’s room for only so much “stuff” in file cabinets and storage containers and on bookshelves. So I’ve been sorting, tossing, recycling and re-organizing. My treasure hunt has unearthed items long ago stowed away that continue to delight–a packet of letters my mother received from a friend stationed in Europe during World War II, my father’s large framed certificate for winning a national oratorical contest in 1927, my own journals from the first cross-country camping trip my husband and I took together 33 years ago, and so on. (Yes, these are among the keepers!)
I also worked from home as a freelance writer and media consultant for more than 25 years, and in delving into the files, I was struck by the extent to which I had carefully culled and held on to notes and print references that contributed to drafts of published articles and produced educational television scripts. Some are irreplaceable and even now prove handy to have: I got an email a few months ago from a former 3-2-1 Contact colleague who is about to publish a book, asking if by chance I had a research report we had put together that summarized children’s questions about science. I did, and continue to hold on to that binder which contains the results of all the work we did to prepare producers to create the nationally broadcast children’s science series more than 30 years ago.
I’ve also held on to at least one copy of every article I’ve ever published. There is something to be said for holding that finished piece of printed work in your hands. On the other hand, I’ve now recycled a minivan’s-worth of old notes, outdated references, and duplicate copies of published work that I will never need again, because the relevant information now and forever more lives online. And to my clutter-averse delight as I work on the development of articles, proposals and other materials these days for CTL, I find that I need to keep less and less paper around in the first place for that reason. Not only is it a good idea to make sure I’m working from the most current information by going online, it’s significantly easier to search online documents and web pages for whatever information I’m looking for. (When my former colleague called about that old research report, I wished there was a way to Google my huge old research binder!)
Now, there are still times when it’s helpful, even important, to hold a lengthy article, report or proposal in hand, turning actual pages, using an actual highlighter or pen to make notes in actual margins. And as a reader and writer, I will always relish the sensory experience of holding a book in my hands, touching and even smelling the faint, familiar sent of ink on paper. (Heck, I miss the sound of the gentle click of a library card catalog drawer as it slides smoothly back into place after a needed reference is discovered, its Dewey Decimal or Library of Congress catalog number duly noted in pencil on a tiny square of paper.)
But I’d like to believe that students coming of age today–while perhaps missing out on some of those literary sense memories that we Boomers still hold dear–will benefit from the far broader, always up-to-date and readily searchable access to resources that we lacked. They know to hit “save” when they write online, to back up their mobile devices, and to share nearly everything with nearly everyone via social media. While it’s wonderful to come across the dusty old stack of letters or the journal in a younger hand, they won’t have to spend as much time as I am currently cleaning, sorting and recycling.
But for all of the advantages of the new world of virtual media, which if not fully paperless at least requires less paper, is the experience of reading and writing changing in ways that concern you? Are you entirely comfortable with a world in which words endure virtually and in our minds, but much less frequently on paper? To invoke the late communications scholar Marshall McLuhan, how does this major change in the medium change the message? Let me know what you think–electronically, of course!