Covering the subject

There are said to be two kinds of office workers in the world: messy-desk people and tidy-desk people. I'm one of the former - indeed, so much so that the personnel department took a photograph of my office to present as part of a slide show for new employees. Presumably, it is meant as a hint of the undesirability of untidy desks. Mercifully, no name is mentioned.

Now, when I say messy, I mean really messy. My two desks are covered completely with stacks of news releases, studies, old papers, clippings, reports , books, and so on. Several book cases are jammed ith similar materials. There are even a half dozen piles on the floor.

Indeed, the office has become a sort of ''destination'' for some informed sightseers. When visitors are given a tour of the main office, they can often be seen peering in the direction of my corner and chuckling - until I stare at them.

To colleagues, this unkempt office is a standard subject for jokes. Once in a while a photographer comes by, offers to help clean up, pulls out a book of matches and lights one. Others worry out loud about an avalanche.

One friend called the system a perfect horizontal filing system turned vertical. This crack has a considerable measure of reality. Many of the piles do deal with specific topics. It takes less time to stack items on a pile, than to open a file drawer and find the right file - especially when there are insufficient file drawers.

By now, most of the remarks are old hat. They get a wan smile - not a laugh. Also by this time, I have standard rebuttals. One is the saying of some unknown psychologist that ''A tidy desk is a sign of a frightened mind.'' Whether that's true I couldn't say. But I can say the piles aren't intimidating to me, though sometimes a nuisance - especially if one falls over as they frequently do.

Another reply is to point to a clipping from Industry Week stuck to the side of my word processor. It reads: '''Sloppy desk? It's just a touch of class. A boss might not buy that theory, but if one's desk looks like a garbage dump, chances are its occupant actually has an eye for beauty,' claims New York therapist Selwyn Mills in Executive Fitness Newsletter.. . .Such individuals simply carry out their visions of order inside their head, not outside. They often are actually quite artistic, despite their appearance. . . .''

More comfort there.

Sometimes I tell visitors about a western Massachusetts university president I interviewed years ago. Besides his regular desk - which was modestly littered - he had a long conference table with high stacks of papers down the middle of its entire length. ''How do you find anything?'' I asked. He replied that it was ''geologically classified.'' He poked his finger at one ''stratum'' of paper, pulling it out, and saying, ''That should be about six months old.''

Many of my piles are also classified by time, and are thus miscellaneous. Nonetheless, it has become something of a legend around the office of how I can fill a request for information by reaching into the middle of a pile and pulling out the appropriate document. (Unfortunately, I can't always pull off that trick.)

Of course, journalists are famous for gloriously messy desks. The currently popular comic strip, Shoe, includes a professorial reporter with a rolltop desk piled high with paper. Occasionally, the cartoonist will make some joke about the stacks - say, bringing in a front-end loader to clear it off, or something like that.

Why is it that journalists have the often justified reputation for being untidy desk people?

One factor is the sheer volume of paper crossing their desks - and sometimes sticking there. My daily mail - news releases, reports, letters, etc. - fills an ''In'' box to a level of eight to eighteen inches each day. The world really is suffering from an information glut.

Another reason may be that most news people do not have personal secretaries to tidy up their desks and file papers. Most business executives, with their whistle-clean desks, do.

Third, newspaper libraries are often inadequate in certain areas. Editors and reporters thus attempt to keep their own topical files on many subjects. News people vary widely in their research orientation. Those that are walking tape recorders, talking with sources but doing little paper research, usually have tidy desks. Those that are more scholarly (that's one of my excuses) have greater need for files (or piles).

A final reason may be that journalists by profession are curious and nosey. They want to learn about many topics, and all of them need background information.

Of course, I also have personal excuses for the untidiness. It is more fun and rewarding to type out a story than tidy up a desk. My field includes so many different subjects that many files are essential, and I want to be an expert in them all. A hopeless task?

Whatever, despite the occasional clean-up of yellowing newspapers and dusty reports, my disorderly desk has been a constant for many years now. A recent New Yorker cartoon has a man behind a piled-up desk saying, ''A clean desk is the Devil's workshop, that's my motto.'' Frankly, though, I must confess it would be nice to have a clean desk for a few minutes.

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