In the eighties, when the much touted paperless office looked like it would become a reality, there was a degree of insecurity about electronic data. It could only be stored by most individuals on floppy disks, a medium much prone to physical damage and corruption. And there was fax, an uneasy mix of electronic and physical means of delivery which is enjoying a bit of a resurgence currently and as far as I know has more legal status than an email. Hard disks were small and expensive in the late eighties.
The upshot of this was actually a growth in printed material, people taking the view that a hard copy is a way of ensuring the security of a volatile artefact.
Every summer for the past two decades I have found a slot in the six week break to sort through a pile of unsorted paper. Mostly it’s a process of disposal. I have seen piles of paper in abundance. Classrooms are havens for them, as are the drawers of teachers’ desks. Classrooms are traditionally a kind of showcase for old paper, to the extent that many teachers do not apparently feel that it is a proper classroom without such piles. My current form room and teaching room for post-16 has no unwieldy paper piles, and preserves a minimalism that I implemented from the moment it was built and opened. I can be consistent. But it is an object of curiosity for other teachers. Don’t manufacture things to populate a space, just because you feel that something should be there.
I would argue that, eleven years into the twentieth century, the usefulness of a document lies in the very fact that it is electronic. If we do ever get one of those changes in the sun’s magnetic output that might knock out the world’s electronic systems, this may change, but for now the contexts in which a paper document is in any way productive have become very restricted. I know where the emails are that I have not dealt with, and I can access them and deal with them from many locations, changing them, copying them, using different tools to work on them, without once committing them to paper. Modern storage options mean that it is easier than ever to have multiple copies of documents. There are still those who keep their only copy of important documents on a memory stick, but there were those who had the task of re-making many months of lost work on a PhD because they had kept their only copy of their research on a now corrupted floppy disk.
That sheet of paper that you so desperately need is probably resting between two pages of another document, photocopied and given out at a meeting that you exited tired, placed carefully where you thought you would remember to look for it. You may see it again in five years’ time when you “muck out” old files in that period of manic lethargy at the end of the summer term, or it may already be in a landfill, a casualty of that yearly paper cull that I have seen so many people perform so many times, sweeping most of the surface of their desks into a black plastic bag.