Friday, February 27, 2009

Envelope Pigeonholes

From The Writer: A Monthly Magazine to Interest and Help all Literary Workers. Vol. VI (1892) Boston, April by one W. H. H. from Somerville, Mass.: "One of the most useful appliances that I use in daily work is the row of envelopes in the front compartment of the upper left-hand drawer of my desk. The envelopes are made of stout manila paper, almost as high as the drawer is deep, and eight and one-half inches long. They are arranged in the drawer at right angles with the front, so that as I sit at the desk the face of each envelope is toward me. The flaps are turned inside, and each envelope has an inscription on the upper left-hand corner. They are used for filing material wanted for early reference, and they keep such material classified, within immediate reach, and in much smaller space than if pigeon-holes were used. The first twenty-six envelopes are inscribed with the letters of the alphabet, and are used for filing material alphabetically. Those beyond are labelled with subjects, also arranged alphabetically, the subjects being those in which I have an immediate special interest. For instance, if I am preparing an article on "Misprints," any examples noted are filed away in an envelope so marked, and when I get ready to write the article the material is ready at hand. "Bills Unpaid," "Receipted Bills," "Ideas and Suggestions," "Postage Stamps," "Addresses," "Cards and Circulars," may be marked on other envelopes. If a drawer is not available, the envelopes may be kept in a box within easy reach, but the drawer is best. The scheme is easily adapted to any special needs. In the case of a writer collecting material, when an envelope bulges too much, it suggests profitable action."

Another writer who used envelopes to organize his material was Walt Whitman. He wrote on any material he could find, and then put the scraps into envelopes with descriptive labels. At times, he would empty them, arrange and re-arrange the scraps on a table to see whether a poem might suggest itself to him. At other times, he seems to have been even more creative. Thus he would put the scraps on a loop of string and turn them around in order to compose a "piece." His notebooks seem to have been made by sewing such scraps together.

See also Texture and Quotation and Pigeonholes. As I said before, I don't think that pigeonholes and envelopes are the best metaphors for electronic versions of note-taking. Card indexes are better. But wiki- or hypertextual technology, which is constantly evolving and has no real equivalent in paper, is best.

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