Delving the Digital Sack

During the Second World War, the French Jesuit theologian Henri de Lubac fought long and vigorously to argue for the fundamental moral incompatibility of Roman Catholicism and National Socialism. His involvement with the French resistance came in the form of the so-called ‘Spiritual Resistance’ of Churchmen against Nazi ideology and the Vichy government. He was involved in the publication of Témoinage chrétien (Christian Witness) a samizdat-style anti-Nazi journal for the devout resistance.

After several of his colleagues were captured and executed by the Vichy regime,  necessity forced de Lubac into hiding with only the clothes on his back, and one other item that has always stuck with me. A sack. Full of bits of paper. On these pieces of paper were literally hundreds of transcriptions and notes from Latin manuscripts, an invaluable corpus that would eventually go towards the publication of his famous multi-volume work Exégèse médiévale (Medieval Exegesis) between 1959 and 1965. Given the incredible degree of inter-connectivity and facility of association demonstrated by this weighty piece of scholarship, I cannot help but think about the sack. When in hiding during the later years of the war and back in safety in the post-war years, did Henri de Lubac shape his new scholarship based on the order in which he extracted the tattered scraps from his long-suffering sack?

I have a sack of my own, but it is a sack in concept only. It also benefits from many traits not possessed by de Lubac’s repository of knowledge gifted to me by fairly common and yet borderline miraculous developments in information technology. Let me describe it for you. The sack is made up of the hundreds upon hundreds of citations, snippets, clippings, and articles that I have thrown rather haphazardly into Evernote since I began using it in 2009. The beauty of Evernote is the ease of acquisition: whenever I read an article or find a piece of information that interests me, I clip it using the Google Chrome web clipper. Down and down these digital artifacts go, spiraling into the chasm of my cloud-based hoard.

I confess that although Evernote offers many organisational features, I prefer to keep my classifications very loose: ‘primary sources’, ‘primary source citations’, ‘literature’ and so on. I was determined to be organised when I began, but like an office worker with a messy desk, I quickly lost my enthusiasm for filing.

This jumble has had unexpected effects. Anecdotes often circulate about the unexpected innovations that arise when someone with a messy desk links two unexpected pieces of paper. Others lament the fact that digital storage does now allow this. Not true, I tell you! Whenever I am starved for ideas, I search for random words pertaining to my topic. Gems of primary source material, articles, pictures, blog posts: all of these things emerge from the darkness of the sack, often completely forgotten. Like an office worker constantly rearranging their junk and making unexpected discoveries, the chaos of random digital hoarding meshes perfectly with the precision of computer search strings. Disorder and order in perfect balance.

My advice is this: if you are going to hoard your digital content messily, put it somewhere searchable, a sack where you can reach in and grab new morsels of long-forgotten lore. Apple users are blessed with the excellent Searchlight feature, which turns one’s whole hard drive into a giant sack. But to my mind, nothing is better for hoarding and retrieving than a sack full of data. As I near the completion of my thesis, I continue to marvel at how precise Evernote is when looking for a remembered piece of information, and how open to random discoveries when one does not entirely know what one is looking for.

My plan is to just let the sack grow and grow, to continue to feed it until it becomes a personal treasure trove.


2 thoughts on “Delving the Digital Sack

  1. Cool story about Henri de Lebac. I’ll have to read up on him. One must have a full sack in order to create! 🙂 Mine is just an assortment of folders filled with tons of loosely-sketched ideas in notebook or Word, but it works. Evernote sounds like a more elegant solution.

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