Traveling Memory Lane

May 22 2011 Published by under [Information&Communication], [LifeTrajectories]

In 39 days, my stint with my current employer ends. I started packing my offices this weekend.

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Because I wear several hats at this job, I have two spaces: one in the clinical department, and one in the building that houses my lab. The latter has a better window and view, so it also has my presence most of the time. It is full of stuff, and packing it up will be a painful process.

My clinical digs ended up in 4 plastic tubs, each holding 62 liters. One piece of artwork proved too big to tub, as did a plastic organizer. The most interesting chore this weekend happened in the lab office, where my reprints get filed.

When I started my fellowship, I began collecting articles on a new scale. For you youngsters who never experienced the pre-internet, pre-PDF world, articles used to only come in dead tree form. Looking one up required a trip to the library; keeping a copy in your office, especially one you often wanted to give students to read, made perfect sense. Anything you planned to cite also got filed. Who wants to photocopy something AGAIN, after all. If your library did not subscribe to the journal in question, they used an interlibrary loan system to get papers from someone who had it. This sort of dead tree + US mail process could take 2 or 3 weeks.

At first, my precious papers got classified by topic. While the article might be in my file, this system meant I had to remember what topic I assigned to it, or I had to cross file it in multiple locations. Computers helped, but EndNote revolutionized the process. References could be assigned keywords for searches, and a numbered file rapidly replaced my categorical system. Over time, information from PubMed could be used to directly populate the database, further streamlining the process.

During the last 5 years, my files dwindled. Not because I read less, but because I filed fewer paper copies. Instead, PDFs on a hard drive got linked to their EndNote entries, retrievable whenever desired. This spring I began playing with Mendeley, a free, online reference manager with a collaborative, Web 2.0 vibe as well. It will be used for my next manuscript. Its creators made it easy to import all of my EndNote data, so it all resides in this new place as well.

As I get ready to shift life 500 miles to the southwest, I made a decision to go paperless. Moving 2 lateral file drawers of papers seems silly. I acquired a new scanner with a fast feed and OCR mechanism for the job, and yesterday I went through references 1-700.

Given the time costs of retrieving articles pre-internet, any article with a sliver of potential future use got filed. I knew that there were important background references in these files, but a lot of crap remained as well. The first few folders contained many pieces that were presented at journal clubs, and a number of reviews of clinical problems I faced in those years of fellowship training. Then I hit the section when my laboratory work began. Several book chapters on stereology got scanned, as did other technical references that I cite to this day. Some historical references, like Kimmelstiel and Wilson's initial description of diabetic kidney disease, went through the scanner; not too many journals have digitized their entire archives. Something that old (1936) might not be readily retrievable yet.

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As I went through the files in chronological order, it proved to be a journey through my career and interests. Sudden clusters of articles on a given topic signaled my foray into kidney size and hypertension, or the burden of kidney disease in African Americans. Projects that never reached their potential are now remembered again, alongside the ones that bore academic fruit.

Tomorrow I begin to address the remaining 1100 or so articles that remain in my files. Initially, I dreaded this chore, but it has been a fond trip through my past at work. As I begin a new direction in my career, it is sort of nice to see where I came from. And to rid myself of a load of paper.

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