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The Myth of the Paperless Office Hardcover – November 1, 2001
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"If you wish to read anything at all on office management, read this book." Guardian UK
"The authors approach their subject with academic rigour, observing real organisations to find out how people like to work." Financial Times
"The case for paper is made most eloquently in The Myth of the Paperless Office...." Malcolm Gladwell The New Yorker
About the Author
Abigail J. Sellen is a cognitive psychologist at Hewlett-Packard Laboratories in Bristol, UK.
Top customer reviews
In 2002 it looked as though the authors were correct: the paperless office had been a myth. Technology had increased paper usage rather than decreased it. Many office workers still preferred to read and work on paper rather than screens.
But about the time this book was published, the "myth" started to become true. Per-capita paper usage in offices started to decline. In my experience, most office workers have switched from paper-reading to screen-reading in the last six years. And they have switched to screens for many of the tasks that the authors argued are better suited to paper reading. The difference is new technology. For instance, the authors argue that knowledge workers prefer to review, work, and collaborate on paper documents. As a lawyer, I found that argument to be true in 2002 when text-based programs did not include useful tools for collaboration. But developments since 2002 in programs such as MS Word and Adobe Acrobat have made it much easier to do tasks such as collaborative editing on a screen instead of paper.
Selen and Harper's argument does remain relevant and thought-provoking in one important respect. They explain the unique functionalities of paper to argue why paper is better for certain tasks. In the last 8 years, some technologies have been started to compete with the functionalities of paper. But some tasks remains more useful than screens for some tasks. Selen and Harper's arguments at least give us the analytical tools to think about whether certain tasks are better suited to paper or computers today.
This book was ground breaking in 2002. As a lover of paper, books, and libraries, I wish Selen and Harper had been right. I would be interested to see an updated edition that addresses the usage of paper today. But as technology has advanced, the argument of the current edition has become outdated.
The greatest thing about it, to me, was that it was written clearly and concisely. Their major points are clearly presented in the introduction. What follows in the bulk of the book elaborates on these.
As another excellent reviewer said, in 2010: "What a difference 8 years makes. ... Selen and Harper's argument does remain relevant and thought-provoking in one important respect. They explain the unique functionalities of paper to argue why paper is better for certain tasks. In the last 8 years, some technologies have started to compete with the functionalities of paper. But [paper] remains more useful than screens for some tasks. Selen and Harper's arguments at least give us the analytical tools to think about whether certain tasks are better suited to paper or computers today."
Today, more than a dozen years since the book was published, many office workers have had computers since childhood.
• Some have very large screens, and some use two or three screens at a time.
• Some office workers (and many travelers) get by with a tablet or smartphone, for many tasks – including reading books as well as email.
• People are indeed using computers more, and printing paper less.
• So we could call it the “paper-less” office …
However, paper still provides useful functionality, e.g., for certain research or editing tasks: when you want to flip back and forth quickly between two pages in different parts of a long document; or when multiple documents need to be viewed in parallel on a larger surface; or when one needs to consult several source documents and notes, while writing or entering data into a new document.
• We can't all perform those tasks efficiently on a smartphone!
• We might need more than two monitors, for some tasks.
• And some of us still prefer the feel of a crisp paper document or handwritten letter, with a "wet ink" signature ...
Today, the final "office work" product is almost always a digital document – unless it needs to be filed in court, or delivered to someone who doesn’t have email.
• After the work is finished, the convenience copies and work papers can usually be shredded.
• Increasingly, paper documents are scanned on receipt -- and saved as electronic documents for improved accessibility, sharing, collaboration, business process workflow, or business continuity.
• Overall, the need for keeping paper records -- and sending them to offsite storage for long-term retention -- is decreasing.
• And the need to retrieve the paper from storage has declined dramatically in recent years -- except when the electronic copies are lost, damaged or disputed.
It is worth noting that human-readable paper records can prove more durable than electronic documents, which may become inaccessible after a few years for a number of technological and behavioral reasons.
• To remain available and readable, electronic documents must be periodically migrated to new media (e.g., every 5 to 10 years)
• The electronic document format also matters: saved documents may become unreadable over time, unless stable format standards are used (such as PDF/A)
• Storage of paper documents may be necessary or advisable, when a person or organization needs to retain (and retrieve) important records over a time horizon measured in decades.
Paper is not dead. It's just resting!
• Unlike that Monty Python parrot ...
• And we're still not sure about Schrodinger's cat ...
If you were able to read all of this review without getting bored and moving on, you should definitely read the book!
• As a bonus, I guarantee that you will learn one new word!