I now have a clean desk and floor. My research project on Voyageurs National Park has generated thousands of documents, almost all hard copies, that have needed a home in my office. I have slowly and steadily been filing these pieces of paper, but then I got another box from the park with more documents. Back to work filing.
Why do I have an entire blog post on filing? I have found with past research projects that filing is sometimes the crucial link between research and writing. When I sit at my computer working on a chapter, I have documents in piles around me. What I pull for that chapter largely depends on how well I filed the documents. Sure, I take good notes when researching, and I refer back to those notes to make sure I have everything for a chapter. But, the files are my entry into a chapter. If I cannot find a document, no matter how good my notes or my memory, I cannot use the document for evidence.
Historians live by dates as a starting place for building our arguments. I, at least, need to know what happened before, during, and after so that I can make an informed statement about why or how. So, putting documents in chronological order is a simple but important step in my filing. The task is mindless and mundane but necessary.
But my documents are not simply placed in chron order. I organize them by topics or major events first. For Voyageurs, that has meant topics like Master Plan, General Management Plan, Snowmobiling, Wilderness, or Concessions. I try to keep all the interpretive materials together. Key organizations, like the Voyageurs National Park Association or Citizen’s Committee on Voyageurs National Park also have their own files. Many times, the number of documents for each topic spread over several files just to keep them manageable. Those files are divided up by date, of course.
I have found over the course of several research projects that too much division into topics ends up more work when writing. I used to divide out park management into much smaller topics, such as land acquisition, community relations, employee relations, etc. Now, I keep those topics and more all together. I find I use the documents more if they are included in a longer sweep of management issues than if I separated them into discrete units. Park superintendents have to juggle many issues at once, and I try to keep that in mind when filing and writing.
I guess I should end with the confession that my desk and floor are not perfectly clear. I have been writing chapter one, and so those documents are out and about. My filing system seems to be working as I put words on the page. Those words come slowly, sometimes with great determination and anguish, but at least I know my filing gives me easy access to the documents I need.