In a video about The Baltimore Sun’s move from its Calvert Street headquarters to the printing plant at Port Covington, I mentioned that journalists are “sloppy people who accumulate great stacks of paper.” The word that came to mind most frequently during the weeks the staff was preparing for the move was midden.
Midden (pronounced MID-uhn) is an archaeological term for a deposit of shells, animal bones, or other refuse: a trash heap. The word comes from the Middle English myddyng, a cognate of the Danish modding, “dunghill.”
Archaeologists are able to reach conclusions on how people lived by examining their broken tools and other implements, their crockery, their food remains, even the DNA in their preserved excrement.
So, too, can we reach conclusions about journalists from the things they leave behind. During the spring and early summer the Sun staff found boxes and file drawers full of papers (and occasional food fragments) belonging to people who had left the paper without troubling to take all their stuff: incipient but failed Collyer Brothers.*
(Mind you, I emptied out my office long ago. Any of you who ever tried out for The Sun’s copy desk and took our brutal applicant test can now relax; your tests have all been turned into cardboard.)
I understand the impulse to hold on to the evidence of one’s work, and who knows when those notes or drafts might be needed again? What you have to do is strike the difficult balance between that one piece of paper that you might urgently need someday, and that mountain of scribbles and false starts that you will never have occasion to look at again.
And neither will your heirs and assigns, not being archaeologists, who will simply pitch it all.
*I’m not going there, but if you don’t know the story of the United States' classic hoarders, it's worth a look.