This website covers topics on knowledge management, personal effectiveness, theory of constraints, amongst other topics. Opinions expressed here are strictly those of the owner, Jack Vinson, and those of the commenters.

Personal Information Management

This review has been a while in the making. 

I received a review copy of Personal Information Management edited by William Jones and Jaime Teevan (published by U of Washington Press).  It's a topic in which I have a great interest, as my readers know.  And going into a new job, this gives me the opportunity to think about which of my regular tools are critical to me.


First off, this is an academic effort, rather than something aimed at mainstream audiences.  It does a great job of referencing recent research in the arena of PIM and looks at a number of angles.  The editors went to some lengths to create a fictional story line to be used by the chapter authors in order to establish a thread throughout the book, but I found it only partially helpful in explaining the ideas and concepts being discussed.

Pim1The central organizing effort of the book is around activities associated with PIM: collecting information, organizing information, and finding information (that has been collected/organized), as shown here in my crude graphic.    Each chapter focuses on the academic work being pursued around an aspect of these activities.

The first thing to note is that the editors do not think PIM is strictly about the organize activity.  PIM should be considered as the entire flow of information from how it comes into my world to how I get it back again, once I have seen (and organized) it.  This is also where my drawing capabilities get the better of me.  One can expand this drawing in several dimensions - and many of those dimensions are covered in the book in terms of the research associated with figuring out how people do this and what tools are available to support these activities.

Collect.  Information comes to me in many forms.  I might seek it out.  It may come unbidden.  It may come from conversations, printed matter, web sites, the radio, television.  It may come from friends, colleagues, The Media, serendipitous finds.  Its importance varies depending on the context of delivery and my context as the information arrives.

Organize.  Once information arrives, I have to decide whether to keep it or discard it.  If I keep the information, how?  Pile it and File it are the basic options.  Even these are somewhat dependent upon the form in which the information arrives - and the features of the given format: print, electronic print, pictures, audio, video.  And even these decisions are dependent upon my context and how I choose to operate.

Find.  Now that there is "stuff," what does it do?  I've decided to keep it because I believe it is going to be of some value now or in the future.  So a need arises, and I want to get back at the organized information.  Of course, part of the "find" process has to include some thought about whether to initiate a new "collect" activity or to look in the organized materials.  There are many mechanisms to conduct the search within my piles & files - again, all dependent upon the way information is stored and my current context. 

Solutions for Personal Information Management

The largest chunk of the book focused on various philosophies and supporting technical solutions for PIM.  The chapters were put together by researchers who are deep into each concept.  I liked this section as it touched upon most of the technical perspectives and the thinking behind them vis-a-vis the model above.  The options are

  1. Save everything.  Keep everything that you come across because drive space is getting cheaper all the time, and it might be useful at some point in the future.  While this is a valid strategy on the front end, there are still questions about how to organize and find.  I think one big aspect is that save everything requires a good Find functionality, both technically and mentally.  The technical end makes sense: better and better search will turn up anything.  The mental end is a little trickier.  Even if I know I've got something in the system, if I search for it with terms that are related but not associated with the item, it may not turn up.  This means that I add metadata as I save, or that search starts understanding intent, rather than strictly words.
  2. Structure everything.  This is an organize strategy.  Build taxonomies in order to store stuff in understandable, possibly overlapping, organizational schemes, so that it can be easily found or discovered.
  3. Unify everything.  This is an attempt to rise above the issues created by the fragmented nature in which information comes to us.  The thinking is that at some level, the information should be representable (in a computer) in a similar way.  Thus it should be unified to enable uniform search techniques across everything. 
  4. Search everything.  Use search to find anything you are looking for, rather than interesting hierarchies or other organizational models.  This is excellent for "pile it" people, assuming the search tools work, as discussed above.
  5. Everything through email.  This particular strategy is an acknowledgment that many Peale live their digital lives in email.  Why not use the email systems as the primary organizing metaphor.  (Of course, people have been arguing the death of email for quite some time.  And much of my information never comes through email at all.)

Other PIM topics discussed

Personal health information (medical records and related information) was addressed as a specific type of personal information that spans more than just the individual: records are currently created and maintained by medical professionals, rather than the individuals.  I see that Microsoft is looking at this as well. 

Obviously, if health records are included in PIM, then you need to look at privacy and control of the records, and there were a couple chapters on the current research in this area.  It is an important concern, and other people are more qualified than me to comment on the topic.

Recent PIM-relevant articles

Christina Pikas has written about PIM for a while, including her recent ASIST presentation (which I missed) on Personal Information Management Strategies and Tactics Used by Senior Engineers.

Connecting to the Collect and Find aspects, Doug Cornelius refers to four types of search: fetching something that you know exactly where it is; recalling something you can't quite remember where you left it (or the terms used); researching to learn about a topic area or learn what you've seen before; and precedent search where you are looking to find related material or material that informs what you are doing now (in a legal setting, you are looking for previous documents that contain similar structure or clauses, even if they are about completely different topics).

Sharon Richardson similarly describes four types of search in an article on Search Lessons.  These are worded from the perspective of the task at hand:

Different types of search query:

  • Need to find answers versus Researching a topic
  • Need to find the answer versus Need to find an answer
  • Know it exists somewhere versus Don't know if it exists at all
  • Looking for self versus Responding to others

Lilia Efimova has some interesting thoughts on Personal Knowledge Work - or the doing related to all this management that has some useful parallels with how I've been thinking about PKM.  She's got a hand-drawn picture of how knowledge work happens that parallels a lot of the discussion from the book.  All the "knowledge" is captured and searched for a reason - to do something.  Lilia is looking at that end of the line.

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