The Kingdom of Paper

I have been helping my sisters clear out my parents’ old place, and I’ve been dealing with paper. I’ve got three piles going: recycle, shred, keep. The shred pile—anything with personally identifying information—currently comprises about 14 banker boxes. One of my sisters has been hauling away the recycling pile as we go, so I have not fully appreciated its majesty, but it may be about as big. The keep pile is a box and a half. My parents kept every piece of paper that ever entered their lives; they generated paper whenever they had to add up a column of numbers—and then kept that piece of paper, devoid of context. My mom printed every piece of e-mail that seemed like it might be useful someday. Of course, when you print everything that might be important, you guarantee you’ll never be able to find anything without a very labor-intensive filing system, which she didn’t have. Among the papers that I ran across today: at some point, my mom logged into Apple’s website to set up a support call; this led her to a confirmation screen showing that her call was scheduled, with a session ID. She printed that confirmation screen—the most ephemeral thing in the world.

In her book In the Age of the Smart Machine, Shoshana Zuboff wrote about clerical workers at an insurance company around the time the company switched to computerized records. These workers continued to refer to paper files because the computerized information wasn’t “real” to them. Those people were probably from about the same generation as my parents, which I think explains my parents’ relationship with paper somewhat. I’m the opposite—if I print something, it’s because I need it in paper form temporarily, and the electronic version is the canonical, permanent one.

Some of the old paperwork is interesting to consider from our current perspective.

Here’s my father’s old Rolodex. I’ve pulled all but one of the cards out to put in the shred pile. The Rolodex was so dominant that businesses would print their cards on stock with slots to fit on the Rolodex’ rails, and in the case shown here, sometimes had a little tab to get your attention, shouldering aside all those other cards.

Here’s a “home expense record” from 1966. This is basically a paper spreadsheet from the days before spreadsheets. The monthly-record pages are laid out with useful categories, with spaces for budgets and actuals, and each page is a pocket for storing old receipts. At the back is more pages to summarize the year and plan taxes. It’s all well-considered.

I especially like the category for “Miscellaneous expenses: Tobacco – Cosmetics – Beverages – Liquor
Confections – Etc.”

I found so, so many letters, thoughtfully composed and meticulously typed (often by a secretary). It’s a different form of communication that we have all but lost.

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