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The Filing Assistant

Once there was a little old lady who had a largish collection of paperwork. She kept it all neatly arranged in a tidy filing cabinet, one subject per drawer. Occasionally a subject could be divided into subsections. In the drawer called “Letters, personal,” for instance, she had correspondence from several friends and relations. She bought some document wallets, labelled them “Fred”, “Mary”, “Mum” and “Uncle Bill”, and sorted the letters into them. This worked well, and she was always able to find whatever she needed.

There was a problem, however. The little old lady could open only one drawer at a time. The drawer she’d been using had to be closed before she could open another. Furthermore, the contents of each drawer had to be carefully put away before she could get it closed. She couldn’t leave a paper out to check against one from a different drawer.

This became unworkable. The little old lady could get little work done. She was packing and unpacking drawers, taking out the contents and putting them away again, making notes on scraps of paper and leaving them close to her filing cabinet, and gradually running out of puff.

When she was almost at her wits’ end, along came a young relative who offered to simplify things. The young relative was bright, good to look at, and full of quite brilliant ideas. He immediately worked out a way in which several drawers could be opened at once. The little old lady was able to spread out her work, compare different documents and copy things from one place to another. Quite soon she decided to leave all of her filing to the young relative while she got on with more important things.

Unfortunately, the young relative was not only slightly mad, but had a rather mean streak into the bargain. He started to rearrange the filing system. He bought lots of little boxes, gave them labels that meant nothing to anyone but himself, put inside them other, smaller boxes, with equally obscure labels, and tucked important papers away where only he could hope to find them. He would obligingly file anything he was given, and get it out again on request, but he made it increasingly difficult for the little old lady to find anything for herself. Occasionally he would fly into a rage and refuse to allow her to have any access to her own files.

One day the little old lady went to her filing cabinet and saw a newly labelled drawer. “My Documents,” it read.

“From now on,” said the young relative, “just put anything you want to keep in here. I’ll look after everything else. If there’s something else you want to use, ask me and I’ll decide whether you should be allowed to look at it.”

Dismayed, the little old lady would have loved to dismiss the bright upstart, but it was all too horribly late. Only he understood her filing system, and it transpired that he’d been reorganising the papers of almost all of her friends and correspondents as well, doing it in such a way that they could communicate only through him. Realising that she lacked the courage to consult with some other unknown and soberly dressed filing assistant, and knowing that she could never sort out all of those boxes with the arcane labels, she quietly submitted.



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