I am a terrible pack rat. I periodically attempt to organize things into folders, but for the most part I use the geologic filing method -- that stratum is roughly October, below that November, below that November (earthquakes & uplifting occur frequently!).
Occasionally my supervisors would crack down (most notably prior to the FDA swinging through the labs one time), but in general there was a better trigger: moving. I was pretty good about lightening up prior to each move. One office lasted 5 years, so there was quite a lot of overburden to deal with that time, but the office one previous to the layoffs was only 2 years and we just moved in the spring. Even at my worst, that's not much time to lay down a mountain. The planners through in one more twist by moving me after the layoffs -- but then again, I was on extended time and they hadn't planned on me being there at all.
However, there was still a lot to go through, with severalmajor categories
- Paper for recycling
- Confidential material to shred
- Items to throw out
- Items to forward within Millennium or return
- Items to bring home or to next position
We have these big shredder bins which collect stuff for an outside vendor to shred in big trucks -- this is a huge improvement over office shredders, as I always spent more time unjamming them than shredding. It's not efficient to run to the bin each time, so I had a paper grocery bag for batching things. This worked very well -- my four-foot tall unpaid consultant gleefully fed the bins one weekend while I went through papers.
Due to the shortcomings of my system, I came across all sorts of obsolete things. Will I ever again need a serial-to-USB converter? Vendor catalog CD-ROMs from 3 years ago?
On the other hand, some things are really valuable, such as address lists from recent meetings. Others are what I collect too much of but useful: papers that I might want to comment on in this space, old papers I consider really interesting and might refer to.
And, of course, lots goes to recycling or shredding: papers relevant to projects, sequence alignments, snippets of code, etc.
One of the more interesting mixed bags are the business cards, and that's also where I got a strange trip down memory lane. I found some recent ones I thought I had lost, which would have been good contacts to have in my job search (aargh!). Others I couldn't remember at all -- I really should put some context on the back. And finally, I found one from early in my career that I remember vividly.
We had a group (MBio) trying to find the next Epogen and I was the main bioinformatics scientist attached to the group. They were constantly growing & constantly recruiting. I was going to the Hilton Head conference, and the MBio research chief wanted me to screen a candidate: simple enough.
We set up a meeting in one of the hotel bars. The conversation was pleasant, but neither of us seemed to have a strong reaction either way. He wasn't sure he wanted to leave his existing position or take this new one. I reported back to base the equivocal meeting, and moved on.
So it was stunning to see a news item several years later that the same person I had interviewed was the perpetrator of a murder-suicide. I think I saw it on GenomeWeb, but they don't seem to archive very well. I found (via Wikipedia) another item, which adds a truly surreal note about what happened to the pizzas used to lure the victim from her home (you have to read it to believe it).
You meet a lot of unusual people in science, but perhaps you never know -- and never want to -- who are truly outside the norm.