PDF alibi syndrome

Not so long ago I did a bit of academic spring-cleaning and got rid of all of my photocopies. I’d been carrying them around with me since I did my PhD. Neatly organised in alphabetised files, they occupied three drawers of a filing cabinet. I didn’t feel too bad about dumping them. I reasoned that most were probably now available as PDFs should I ever want them again, and so there was nothing lost by putting them out for recycling.

Yes, I had rather a lot of photocopies. I did my PhD by distance and couldn’t physically get to the library much. At the time, journals were only available in hard copy so the university library operated a mail order system for far-away folk. You’d send off your order and eventually a large parcel of reading would arrive in the post. Getting the bundle of new articles was always a bit like Christmas, the scholarly textual equivalent of socks, schlock and welcome surprises.

I had a set routine when new photocopies arrived. I quickly entered them into Endnote – yes, that was available at the time, I was an early user and a mature age PhD. I did this before I’d actually read anything. I added in any relevant notes as I worked my way through the pile. And, as you’ve already heard, all the hard copies were filed alphabetically in folders so I could dig them out, working back from the Endnote search function, any time I needed to.

The PDF has made life so much simpler and easier. There’s no need to make physical copies. You just click and download. You don’t have to set up special files or invest in a big bulky filing cabinet. Endnote (now joined by alternative bibliographic software platforms) imports PDFs and stores them for you. And because the record and the PDF are connected in the app, there’s no getting up shuffling between the filing cabinet and the computer.

All good, right? Well, maybe… I’ve noticed that I now accumulate many more PDFs than I ever did photocopies. They don’t take up physical space, merely digital memory, and there always seems to be more of that than I can use up. And because I now use a range of portable devices, I often just grab a PDF from a link that’s been tweeted or which arrives in my email and I then store it temporarily in dropbox or ibooks or kindle or cloud. 

And when the journals offer free access to all of their archive for a month, I’m there. Heaven. That’s me searching and saving for hours at a time. Filing all these PDFs can come later. Save now while you still have the link and/or access.

The upshot of all this is pretty predictable. I now have many more PDFs than I actually have time to read. What’s more, they are on a range of topics, many of which have no apparent direct relationship to my own work, but I’ve saved them because they just looked interesting.

And I confess. I’m waaay behind on filing. I’ve lost my habit of filing the PDFs as soon as I save them. I say to myself that I will get a moment soon to transfer them to Endnote. But I don’t.

In my defence, it’s not all laziness. As I write this I’m transferring PDFs from my IPad to my computer, a process that is somewhat less seamless than I think it ought it be. But even when I do finally get around to syncing, as I am now, there are still the PDFs in Dropbox to attend to. The truth is that I hardly ever get around to importing all of these into Endnote, which is actually a pretty seamless process. I just don’t make the time for it.

I’ve wondered why.

It wasn’t until I read Umberto Eco’s recently translated book, How to write a thesis, that the penny dropped. Now, Eco was writing in 1977, at a time of library cards and photocopies. However, much of what he says is still of interest, still pertinent. And when I made it to page 125, I found the answer to my PDF stockpiling habit. Eco says

Photocopies are indispensable instruments. They allow you to keep with you a text you have already read in the library, and to take home a text you have not read yet. But a set of photocopies can become an alibi. A student makes hundreds of pages of photocopies and takes them home, and the manual labour he (sic) exercises in doing so gives him the impression that he possesses the work. Owning the photocopies exempts the student from actually reading them. This sort of vertigo of accumulation, a neo-capitalism of information, happens to many. Defend yourself from this trap; as soon as you have the photocopy, read it and annotate it immediately. If you are not in a great hurry, do not photocopy something new before you own (that is before you have read and annotated) the previous set of photocopies. There are many things I do not know because I photocopied a text and then relaxed as if I had read it. (original emphases)

So there it is. I have succumbed to another form of neo-capitalist accumulation, that associated with information. I have, it seems, a kind of vertigo, a giddy glee which comes from possessing all of those papers. Merely having and storing them is enough. I own, therefore I have read.

Damn. I knew how not to do this with photocopies. I read, filed and noted, and therefore in Eco’s terms, I owned the texts. Now I simply own the idea of the reading, not the actual content.

I’m suffering from PDF alibi syndrome. The habit of downloading and saving PDFs in the vain hope that one day I will get around to reading them. It’s not a technical problem at all, or one of lack of time, but rather that I’ve been seduced by the lure of information. Double damn.

After  reading Eco I know what my problem is. No excuses left eh? I just have to gather the strength for the cure. Now just where did I put my willpower?