About a month ago a friend and fellow academic contacted me to ask how I organize all of the material that we accumulate in the course of our careers. With the school year starting for most of us here in the United States and elsewhere, I thought it might be worth sharing what I told her. It never hurts to start the year off on the right foot, eh?
Confession: I'm a prodigious keeper of academic stuff. I'm not of the caliber of the people featured on the TV show Hoarders (which, by the way, literally takes my breath away), but my collection still runs pretty deep. Heck, I even have a few of my old notebooks from my undergraduate days, and truth be told I do refer to them on occasion. I'm able to keep this much stuff because I live in the Midwest where housing prices are relative affordable. Folks living in urban setting ought to take what I'm about to say with a major grain of salt.
One of the main items I hold on to are photocopied journal articles and book chapters. Each one has its own separate file folder, and on the tab I write the author's name and the selection title. Where possible I note the full citation on the document itself. I file these alphabetically by the author's last name in a four-drawer file cabinet that I've just about outgrown. In the event that the article is more topically-focused or doesn't name the author, I place it in a colored file folder and file it alphabetically by topic.
I've also begun amassing a growing number of e-readings of late, which I save on my laptop in a folder called "articles." I use the author's last name and a keyword from the title as the file name. I'm not yet convinced this is the best system, but it seems to be working for now. Regular backup is a must.
I keep my old notebooks from graduate school in a cardboard file box. They're filed chronologically by semester, with the oldest ones toward the back. I've moved a few of the notebooks I refer to most frequently to the front, even though that violates the chronological system.
I organize my teaching files by class and semester. Every class gets its own hanging file every semester, and in each I place three manila file folders: one for lesson plans, one for handouts/tests/syllabi/etc., and one for any other course related documents (e.g., enrollment records, grade rosters, etc.) I keep the most active files in my desk-drawer file cabinet at home, and the older ones (usually for classes I'm not teaching anymore) I have archived in one of the file cabinets in my campus office.
My research files vary, but for the most part I keep a hardcopy of every finished manuscript in its own separate file folder labeled with the title and publication/presentation date. These I keep in a cardboard file box organized chronologically. The accompanying research materials I contain in accordion files, which I label with the project title. I keep these in a file box separate from the finished papers, although I've gone back and forth on this. Any articles I've used on a project go back in the metal file cabinet once I'm confident the project really is done.
I've managed to collect electronic copies of all of my published research, which I keep on my laptop in a folder called, surprisingly enough, "Published Research." Within it I maintain separate folders for journal articles, book chapters, and book reviews. Again, backup is essential.
Books: if I haven't read or referred to one in a long time, or if I've never read it at all, then it becomes a candidate to sell to a used bookstore -- although the only problem here is that I end up just trading them in for more books. Otherwise, I use foldable/stackable bookshelves (a carry-over from graduate school, when I used to move around a lot) to house the many volumes comprising my library, the bulk of which I keep at home since that's where I mainly do my writing. The titles are organized loosely by topic (philosophy, media studies, communication theory, postcolonial studies, race, cultural studies, etc.) and then by author, but I don't maintain any type of formal alphabetical system here. I try my best to organize multiple works by the same author chronologically. Most of the time textbooks and odd or duplicate volumes end up on the bookshelves in my campus office.
That's my system in a nutshell. What are your best tips, fellow travelers?