Office Organization

by Don Friedman on June 3, 2016

Last December, I was joking, sort of, about the growth of filing systems technology in the 1910s and how the literature of that era was helping me to reorganize our files. I want to revisit that topic and compare it to “modern” office technology.

Find your box:

Why the scare quotes on modern? Because indexed filing was a modern technology in the 1910s and I suspect that within a few decades our current computer servers will be just as laughably non-modern as manilla folders. Modern is simultaneously what we do now and what we think is new; both definitions are subject to change.

I recently did two forms of maintenance on our office computers: a minor upgrade to the operating system on every computer, and replacing four-year-old failing hard drives on our file server. There was not a lot of thought involved, just a lot of drudgery seasoned with a small amount of profanity. This was ordinary stuff: if we fail to upgrade the operating systems they eventually stop operating, and drives have a finite life and eventually have to be replaced. We have a choice of putting off regular (daily weekly, monthly) maintenance and instead having a crisis every year or two, but I prefer the boring route. So the big question is: how is this different from the maintenance required in, say, 1915?

Filing systems, like everything else in the world, gradually degrade and maintenance is required as an offsetting influence. (I could get all sciencey and talk about entropy, but that’s overkill here.) It doesn’t matter if the form of degradation is paper folders being misplaced within a steel cabinet or magnetic sectors in a hard-drive platter going dead. Our office’s position is that we need to have access to all of our old files. This is partly driven by legal requirements, partly by our insurance company’s recommendations, and partly by the fact that we often have multiple projects in given buildings, spaced over time. If we’re working today on an Upper East Side apartment house constructed in 1925, it’s very useful to have access to all we learned about the building during our projects two, six, and ten years ago. For that old information to be accessible, the filing system needs to function.

This issue is our basic mission writ small. There is value in the past and therefore it is worth the effort to preserve it. I don’t mean to make a direct comparison between the cultural value of the buildings we work on and the office value of memos from 2008, but rather to point out that keeping anything takes work. And we have the choice of doing that work a little at a time, or having a crisis every so often.

Previous post:

Next post: