The Filing Cabinet

Craig Robertson – Places

This is a wonderful essay, celebrating the filing cabinet in a way which will warm the heart of any paper-shuffling bureaucrat. Better still, the essay derives from a book which promises still greater riches.

The filing cabinet is the embodiment of two revolutionary improvements in bureaucratic practice. It stores paper more efficiently and it stores information more effectively. Those two revolutions are the subject of the essay, as are the counter revolutions which brought the century long dominance of the filing cabinet to an end.

But there is a third revolution, about which this essay has less to say, but which is arguably the most important at all, and the hidden driver behind much of the current debate about the organisation and location of work. The filing cabinet becomes one of the fundamental constraints on the organisation of work:

Paper documents live in files. The key to finding the document is to find the file. And if you might need the file, you need a filing cabinet reasonably close to hand where it can be safely stored with lots of other files, almost certainly on related subjects. That of course has enormous consequences for the organisation and physical structure of work: if the unit of work is a paper file and that file is a unique (and therefore precious) assembly of information, the location of work is driven by the organisation of information.

All three of those revolutions have played out of course – computerisation has done for them all. But two of the three have left traces that still influence how we work and how we think about working. The efficient storage of paper stops being a major concern when there is almost no paper to be stored, efficiently or otherwise. But the effectiveness of information storage still matters a lot. Filing cabinets are inherently inflexible – a piece of paper can only be in one place, and the set of places it is in can be sorted only in one direction. Digital storage sweeps those constraints away. But the impact – still – in many organisations is not that everything is to hand, but that nothing can be found. Removing filing cabinets removed the structure of information, and all too often nothing has replaced it.

And it was the filing cabinet which was one of the main reasons why office work needed to happen in offices. If the unit of work is the file, efficient access to the file is everything. The assumption that offices were good places for working remained solid long after that dependence on filed paper had gone away, reinforced by new reasons constructed in part to recognise other kinds of needs, but in part to fill the  vacuum of justification left by the removal of the filing cabinets. That shaky edifice remained – until one day, millions of office workers left their offices and discovered that there was no real need to return.

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