SLA2008: Keeping Found Things Found

For the last presentation of my first SLA, I got to hear William Jones author of Keeping Found Things Found talk about Personal Information Management (PIM).

William decided to change the title of his talk – and made us all giggle “The world is at my doorstep … and the house is a mess: putting our information in its place in a digital age.” When William talks about the world, there are two different types of worlds:

  1. a digital world
    • pictures, music, films – available with a few clicks
    • communicate with anyone at anytime from anywhere
  2. a physical world
    • plan whole trips online – plan, hotel
    • order everything online
    • change the (real) world online

But our houses are often a mess – paper docs scattered in stacks around our desks and tables. Our email inbox is overflowing (not mine … but maybe yours). We all have masses of digital data that is not organized or backed up (bad kids). Some of us even keep old computers with no plan what to do with them (I say donate them to the local library or school – that’s what we do). And at the end of the day we’re exhausted and yet can’t point to anything of substance that’s been accomplished!

PIM is about ordering our “houses” of information (personal information management). William and team have set up a Tales of PIM discussion forum (can read without registering) or register to post and talk about anything. William said that no one at parties asks “so how to you order your information?” – so this forum is a way to discuss information management with others.

He suggested a different slant on PIM:

P = is for mapping a personal mapping
I = is for fragmentation – a fragmentation of our information and a larger fragmentation of our lives
M = everyday living and managing our info along the way

When they wrote the book, there was no around. In answer to a survey of how people tracked information they said they would email links to themselves (I used to do this) and email to links others.

They found that folders were not just being used for organizing info, but to express their understanding of what the project was about. While the folders are not necessarily “organized” there is a visualization there that help people remember things. Just having search functionality is not enough.

What is Information?

Information is:

  • what is in docs, emails, web pages, etc
  • a drain on our money energy attention and time
  • what we create change publish and send to get things done
  • what we process to “make sense” of our world
  • how others wolds are represented to us – past and present, possible and pretend
  • how we are represented to the outside world

The power of writing it down

When I started writing on blogs, I started to remember more! The fact is that when you write things down it makes it easier to understand things. William had a student who would take notes and not refer to them – because the power is in writing it down.

We talk about information overload all of the time – but the fact is that information overload is nothing new. He referred to this quote from 1685 by Adrien Baillet:

“We have reason to fear that the multitude of books which grows every day in a prodigious fashion will make the following centuries fall into a state as barbarous as that of the centuries that followed the fall of the Roman Empire.” That is, “unless we try to prevent this danger by separating those books which we must throw out or leave in oblivion from those which one should save and within the latter between what is useful and what is not.”

What is new is the fragmentation of information. The problem is coming from all of the tools we have that are meant to help us keep track of information. Tools like our online calendar, websites, journals, budgets, TV, travel schedules, deadlines, contact lists, etc. Because of fragmentation, even a simple decision means checking in several places – email, calendar, web, files, etc.

William gave us a few examples of fragmentation and how to keep it organized. In one example he showed us a list of drugs and when to take them, this is not easy to read, but turn into a chart with drugs and times of day and it’s easier to read.

William and his team are working with (a new service) to make the tool more useful. The problem is that you sign up and then turn it off after a week because it’s too much information.

What makes information “M in E” (mine and me)

Information can be:

  • controlled by owned by me
  • about me
  • directed towards me – phone calls
  • sent (posted provided) by me – personal web sites
  • (already) experienced by me – webpages that remain on the web
  • relevant (useful to me or not) – think i might like to see

Some elements of organization are:

  • schemes of organization
  • structures that results
  • strategies for managing time, energy, information flow
  • supporting tools
  • a system that brings these elements together

Folders or Tags?

William mentioned “Better to Organize Personal Information by Folders Or by Tags?: The Devil Is in the Details” which will be presented at ASIST later this year.

In their study, they had people use both Hotmail next to Gmail. He asked us which we used and which we thought was better. Of the people who used both, only one person preferred Hotmail. The question was whether people liked organizing their email with folders or tags. This is funny because I signed my mom up for Gmail and the first thing she wanted was folders.

Study results:

The differences between placing and tagging

  • keeping and organizing information
    • trade offs between cognitive v physical effort (cognitive you have to remember how you used it it) – with the folder you have to decide one or the other – with tagging you don’t have to pick one – but with tagging you have to do the same for all if you’re going to find them – so it’s 2x as much work
    • trade offs between hiding info and visibility – out of site out of mind – people who think like that didn’t want to put them in folders because it’s not in the inbox anymore
  • re-finding information
    • trade offs between flexible and systematic search – tags are useful if email is about two topics
    • trade offs in re-finding cues – folders are visual, i like that you can just sot of glance at it and remember it by where it is located

Information Management

William says that manage means “to handle” or to manipulate. He then pointed us to another study I Give Up! Five Factors that Contribute to the Abandonment of Information Management Strategies that will also be presented at ASIST later this year.

Management is all a matter of weighing what’s a better use of our time. One example is deciding what’s a better us of my time – a daily paper? or a weekly paper? Studies who that you can’t ignore a TV if it’s on … I guess I’m special – I’m writing this with the Today Show on in the background. In my case the best use of my time is to take care of my blogging while listening to the news – how else will I get my news – I can’t sit down and read a newspaper.

This study found that participants in the study had both short and long run factors.

  • factors for the short run
    • visibility -“i need something that is constantly visual to me”
    • integration – “Google calendar did not originally work well for me – eventually i started to use it because it was in my email”
  • long run
    • scalability – some tools just don’t scale over time
    • return on investment- start because of enthusiasm – but turns out to be a waste
    • co adoption – are others around us adopting the same tools

Managing Everyday

To live and be active is to have projects

  • plan online training course for ___
  • plan vacation
  • etc.

How do you organize project info?

  • drag and link “outside in”
  • in context create (ICC) “inside out”

William showed us an application that they were developing for Windows that links notes, folder, emails, calendars and more all in one place. This was his example of ICC.


  • P is a destination where you have a better personal mapping that organized info and our lives to make sense for our needs
  • I a starting point – info is available in many forms and is often fragmented
  • M managing information

Check out the Tales of PIM website for more information.


Nice summary of my talk overall. But one small correction: I mentioned work in the “Keeping Found Things Found” group in the iSchool of UW to understand how people keep web pages “found”. This work began in 2002 — before

However, the book of similar name, “Keeping Found Things Found: The Study and Practice of Personal Information Management” was published late 2007 and, in fact, discusses and other social book-marking sites.

— William


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