Personal information management: History and details

Learn about personal information management and why managing personal information is especially important in today's data inundated world.

Personal information managementThe following is an excerpt from Keeping found things found: The study and practice of personal information management, by William Jones. It is reprinted here with permission from Morgan Kaufmann, a division of Elsevier; Copyright 2008. Read the excerpt below or download a free .pdf of "Personal information management: History and details."

This chapter excerpt is about personal information management, which, on a basic level, is not so different from the more thoroughly covered enterprise information management. We have included this chapter excerpt in's Chapter Download Library because the fundamentals behind collecting, organizing, archiving and finding information are somewhat comparable for both corporate and personal data.

1.1 Keeping found things found

Much of our lives is spent in the finding of things. Find a house that's just right for you. Find a computer or "build" your own. Find your dream job. Find your dream mate. But, once found, what then?

Keeping found things found presents its own set of challenges. You invest your time, your money, your hopes and dreams -- your self -- in the things you find. Now what? Now that you have found the house that's just right for you, how do you pay for it? How do you maintain it? How do you make it a home? Your computer comes with lots of processing power, memory, and disk storage. It's loaded with software. But how do you make it work for you in your life? Similarly with a dream job or even a dream mate. How do you balance the demands of work and love?

As with other things, so it is with our information. We find information with difficulty or sometimes we find too much information, too easily. Regardless, finding is just the first step. How do we keep this information so that it's there later when we need it? How do we organize it in ways that make sense for us in the lives we lead and want to lead? Information found does us little good if we misplace it or forget about it before we have a chance to use it. And just as we must maintain a house or a car, we need to maintain our information -- backing it up, archiving or deleting old information, updating or correcting information that is no longer accurate.

Keeping found information found is an essential challenge of personal information management or [personal information management].

[Personal information management] is about finding, keeping, organizing, and maintaining information. [Personal information management] is also about managing privacy and the flow of information. We need to keep other people from getting at our information without our permission. We need to protect our time and attention against an onslaught of information from telephone calls, email messages, the television, radio, and the Web. [Personal information management] is also about measurement and evaluation: Is this new tool worth the trouble? Should we change a current strategy (e.g., a strategy for getting through the email inbox or for organizing web references)? And [personal information management] also includes efforts to make sense of our information. What is it telling us about our world? About ourselves? In a larger sense, [personal information management] is about the use of information to keep ourselves "found" -- on track to fulfill our life's goals and our life's roles and responsibilities.

Here is a more formal definition for [personal information management]:

Personal information management refers to both the practice and the study of the activities a person performs in order to acquire or create, store, organize, maintain, retrieve, use and distribute the information needed to meet life's many goals (everyday and long-term, work-related and not) and to fulfill life's many roles and responsibilities (as parent, spouse, friend, employee, member of community, etc.). [Personal information management] places special emphasis on the organization and maintenance of personal information collections in which information items, such as paper documents, electronic documents, email messages, web references, handwritten notes, etc., are stored for later use and repeated re-use.

I notice, though, that when I describe personal information management in these terms to people in casual conversation, their eyes glaze over. When I talk instead about "keeping found things found," people invariably say something like "that's my problem" or "let me know when you figure this one out." Is this a problem for you too?

[Personal information management] is about finding answers to questions such as these:

  • What should I do with all my digital photographs and videos? Will I still be able to see these in thirty or forty years or will they disappear like all the data on my first PC disappeared?
  • Why do I seem to practically live in my email inbox? ( -- if you can call this living). I try to keep up with email but then I don't seem to get anything else done.
  • How should I organize my hard drive? I know what to do with paper documents but my computer files are a mess! Sometimes I think I'd be better off reformatting my hard drive and starting all over again.

But [personal information management] is also about finding answers to this question:

  • How can I get smarter about the way I manage my information so that I have more time for my family, friends and the things I really care about in life?

By way of introducing [personal information management] and the remainder of this book, discussion in this introductory chapter moves through the following sections:

  • An ideal and the reality. One ideal of personal information management is that we always have the right information (in the right place, in the right form, in the right quantity, etc.) to meet our current need. The reality, however, may well be that we spend significant amounts of time overcoming a pervasive problem of information fragmentation made worse by the very tools that are designed to help us.
  • A brief history of [personal information management]. [Personal information management] is a new field with ancient roots. The development of a community of people doing [personal information management]-related research is in response to several observations: (1) Analogous to a personal problem of information fragmentation, research relating to [personal information management] is scattered across a number of different disciplines ranging from cognitive psychology to database management. [personal information management] as a field of study provides a productive meeting ground for researchers from these disciplines. (2) [Personal information management] concerns -- such as the importance of understanding the life cycle of personal information -- easily fall in the spaces between other disciplines. (3) [Personal information management] is an area of intense interest, both scholarly and popular.
  • Who benefits from better [personal information management] and how? We all do and in several ways. Better [personal information management] also has the potential to provide broad societal benefits.
  • A study and a practice. Better [personal information management] starts by asking the right questions. We can all become better students of our own practices of [personal information management]. The book, through its exploration of [personal information management] foundations, research into [personal information management] activities, and developments in [personal information management]-related technologies, can help by providing concepts and a framework in which to express [personal information management] problems and solutions.
  • Looking forward. The concluding section to this chapter maps out the remainder of the book. The book begins with [personal information management] foundations and then reviews [personal information management] activities we all do (or avoid doing). [Personal information management] solutions follow (for email, from search, on PDAs, on the Web), before concluding with a look to the future and to the ways we can "bring the pieces together."

Let's get started.

1.2 An ideal and the reality

We depend on information to understand our world, to get things done, to make good decisions, to learn and gain better mastery of the world, to understand what we can affect and what we must learn to live with.

One ideal of personal information management is that we always have the right information in the right place, in the right form and of sufficient completeness and quality to meet our current need. Tools and technologies help so that we spend less time with time-consuming and error-prone actions of information management. We then have more time to make creative, intelligent use of the information at hand in order to get things done.

This ideal is far from reality for most of us.

In the real world, we do not always find the right information in time to meet our current needs. The necessary information is never found, or it arrives too late to be useful. Or information enters our lives too soon and is misplaced or forgotten entirely before opportunities for its application arrive. We forget to use information even when (or sometimes because) we have taken pains to keep it somewhere in our lives. We fail to get the information we need even when it is directly in view.

More Information

For more information about Keeping found things found: The study and practice of personal information management by William Jones, please visit the Elsevier website.

This is not the way it was supposed to be. In an inspirational and aptly titled article, "As we may think," Vannevar Bush (1945) expressed a vision that many of us probably share. Tools of information management should provide us with a perfect complement that extends our abilities, compensates for our limitations, supports us to work and think as we need to -- only better:

Consider a future device for individual use, which is a sort of mechanized private file and library. It needs a name, and, to coin one at random, "memex" will do. A memex is a device in which an individual stores all his books, records, and communications, and which is mechanized so that it may be consulted with exceeding speed and flexibility. It is an enlarged intimate supplement to his memory. (p. 6)

The vision endures. One review not so long ago included the following:

There's a fundamental difference between searching a universe of documents created by strangers and searching your own personal library. When you're freewheeling through ideas that you yourself have collated . . . there's something about the experience that seems uncannily like freewheeling through the corridors of your own memory. It feels like thinking. (Johnson, 2005, p. 27)

Many of us probably share the experience described in this quote: namely, that the ways of accessing and interacting with our personal information are fundamentally different from the ways of accessing and interacting with publicly available information. Less common -- much as we might yearn for it -- is the experience that personal collections of email messages, web references, files, paper documents, handwritten notes, etc., are a natural extension to memory or that working with these collections of personal information feels like thinking.

More common may be a feeling of being perpetually out of synch with our information. The information is "ours" in the sense that we can move, copy or delete it. But in other ways, the information is not ours and is out of our control. Inboxes are overflowing. Hard drives are encrusted with files and folders that haven't been looked at in years but that still manage to get in the way as we try to access newer information.

New tools, even as they help in some areas, often exacerbate an already pervasive problem of information fragmentation. The information we need may be on the wrong computer, PDA, smart phone, or other device. Information may be "here" but locked away in an application or a different format so that the hassles of extraction outweigh the benefits of its use. We may find ourselves maintaining several separate, roughly comparable but inevitably inconsistent, organizational schemes for electronic documents, paper documents, email messages, and web references. The number of organizational schemes can increase if we have several email accounts, use separate computers for home and work, use a PDA or a smart phone, or use any of a bewildering array of special-purpose [personal information management] tools.

These are failures of [personal information management]. Some failures of [personal information management] are memorable. Many of us, for example, can remember the frustration of failing to find an item of information -- a paper document, a digital document, an email message -- that we know is "here somewhere." In an already busy day, we may spend precious minutes, sometimes hours, looking for lost information. Other failures of [personal information management] may go unnoticed as part of what might be called an "information friction" associated with getting things done. In his highly influential article, "Man-computer symbiosis," Licklider (1960) described his observations of his own workday:

About 85 per cent of my "thinking" time was spent getting into a position to think, to make a decision, to learn something I needed to know. . . . My choices of what to attempt and what not to attempt were determined to an embarrassingly great extent by considerations of clerical feasibility, not intellectual capability. (p. 4)

Many of us might reach similar conclusions. For example, a seemingly simple email request can often cascade into a time-consuming, error-prone chore as we seek to bring together, in coherent, consistent form, information that often lies scattered in multiple versions contained in various collections of paper documents, electronic documents, email messages, web references, and the like. Can you give a presentation at a meeting next month? That depends. What did you say in previous email messages? When is your child's soccer match? Better check the paper flyer with scheduled games. Does the meeting conflict with a conference coming up? Better check the conference web site to get dates and program information. What have you already scheduled in your calendar? And so on. In their observations of people processing email, Bellotti et al. (2005) describe instances in which a single email message initiates a task involving several different software applications and lasting an hour or more.

How do tools need to work so that their use feels more like thinking? How do we need to manipulate our information so that it is truly ours -- and more like an extension of our own memories? These are long-standing questions of [personal information management], given new urgency with ongoing, dramatic increases in the amount and variety of information that can be stored digitally for personal use.

1.2.1 What are we really managing?

Information is a means to an end. Not always, not for everyone, but mostly. Information is rarely even a very precious resource. We usually have far too much of it. Even a document we have spent days or weeks writing is typically available in multiple locations (and, sometimes confusingly, in multiple versions). We manage our information so that we can manage our lives.

We manage information for what it represents: our world, alternatives, and the means for effecting change in this world. Information represents alternatives -- alternate hotels, alternate life journeys. Information represents the means for change -- information to make the hotel reservation, information concerning how to practice Zen and where.

Even if information itself is rarely a precious asset, we manage information because information is the most visible, "tangible" way to manage other resources that are precious.

In 1971, Herbert Simon, Nobel laureate in economics, elegantly expressed this point with respect to the resource of attention:

What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence, a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it. (p. 40)

This quote still rings true if we replace "attention" with "time," "energy," or "well-being." Certainly the nagging presence of papers representing unpaid bills, unanswered email or unfiled documents can distract, enervate and demoralize. We can't see our well-being, our attention or our energy or even our time. But we can see -- and manage -- our paper documents, our e-documents, our email messages, our digital calendars and other forms of information. It is through the management of these personal information items that we seek to manage the precious resources of our lives.

1.2.2 More than organizing; more than just getting things done

[Personal information management] is about the use of information to manage precious resources such as our time and attention. [Personal information management] is also about the use of information to make good decisions and to get things done. But to equate [personal information management] with decision making or time and task management is to understate its scope. We live in a world of information. Our understanding for and feelings about the world around us are increasingly a product not of direct experience but rather of the information we receive in the form of newspapers, magazines, television programs, selected slices of the Web, and so on. To manage our information is to manage our reality.

An important distinction must also be made between organizing and managing information. Many of us know people who have very disorganized collections of information and yet they manage. Some of these people may even be exceptional in their ability to manage not only themselves and their personal projects, but also the work of others. On the other hand, many of us may have had the experience that sometimes the hours we spent to "get organized" never really paid off. People who are very organized can fail in their practice of [personal information management]; people who are very disorganized can succeed. Personal information collections can appear to be a disorganized mess. But is this mess part of a larger strategy of [personal information management], or not?

Bob and Ted each have email inboxes with more that two thousand email messages. To outward appearances, both inboxes are equally disorganized. When asked about his inbox, Bob expresses a guilty, fearful exasperation. "I know! It's a mess! I just don't know what to do about it!" When asked about his, Ted says, "I like having ready access to all email I've received over the past year. If an email message is really important, I'll drag a copy of it to my calendar or to the file system. But it's not worth my time to sift through and file away or delete inbox messages one by one." Ted is managing his incoming email; Bob is not. For Ted, the disordered inbox fits into a larger strategy of [personal information management]. For Bob, the disordered inbox is a repeated reminder of his failure to gain control of his information (and perhaps the inbox stands for a larger lack of control in his life).

1.3 A brief history of [personal information management]

[Personal information management] is a new field with ancient roots. When the oral rather than the written word dominated, human memory was the primary means for information preservation. Various mnemonics were essentially information management as applied to human memory.

As information was increasingly rendered in documents and these increased in number, so too did the challenges of managing these documents. To support the management of paperbased information, tools were developed over time. J. Yates (1989) notes, for example, that the vertical filing cabinet, now such a standard feature of home and workplace offi ces, was first commercially available in 1893.

The modern dialog on [personal information management] is generally thought to have begun at the close of World War II with the publication of Vannevar Bush's "As we may think" article. Bush recognized the difficulty brought on by the sheer quantity of information being produced and by the compartmentalization of information by an increasing specialization of scientific disciplines: "The investigator is staggered by the findings and conclusions of thousands of other workers -- conclusions which he cannot find time to grasp, much less to remember, as they appear." Bush expressed a hope that technology might be used to extend our collective ability to handle information and to break down barriers impeding the productive exchange of information.

The 1940s also saw the development by Shannon and Weaver (Shannon, 1948; Shannon & Weaver, 1949) of a theory of communication that lay the groundwork for a quantitative assessment of information value. Key to this theory is the notion that the information content of a message can be measured for its capacity to reduce uncertainty. Although the precise definition of information with respect to uncertainty will come to be seen as overly restrictive, a larger point in the work of Shannon and Weaver remains: the value of information is not absolute but relative to a context that includes the intentions of the sender, the method of delivery, and the current state of a recipient's knowledge.

With the increasing availability of computers in the 1950s came an interest in the computer as a source of metaphors and a test bed for efforts to understand the human ability to process information and to solve problems. Newell and Simon pioneered the computer's use as a tool to model human thought (Newell, Shaw, & Simon, 1958; Simon & Newell, 1958). They produced "The Logic Theorist," generally thought to be the first running artificial intelligence (AI) program. The computer of the 1950s also inspired Donald Broadbent's development of an information processing approach to human behavior and performance (1958). By analogy to standard stages of information processing on a computer, people input information via their eyes, ears, and other sensory organs; they store and process this information internally; and they output the results of this processing via their motor organs, including hands and mouth.

After the 1950s research showed that the computer, as a symbol processor, could "think" (to varying degrees of fidelity) like people do, the 1960s saw an increasing interest in the use of computers to help people think better and to process information more effectively. Working with Andries van Dam and others, Ted Nelson, who coined the word "hypertext" (Nelson, 1965), developed one of the first hypertext systems, the Hypertext Editing System, in 1968 (Carmody et al., 1969). That same year, Douglas Engelbart also completed work on a hypertext system called NLS (Engelbart & English, 1994—video in 1968). Engelbart (1961, 1963) advanced the notion that the computer could be used to augment the human intellect. As heralded by the publication of Ulric Neisser's book Cognitive Psychology (1967), the 1960s also saw the emergence of cognitive psychology as a discipline in its own right -- one focused primarily on a better understanding of the human ability to think, learn, and remember.

The term "personal information management" was itself apparently first used in the 1980s (Lansdale, 1988) in the midst of general excitement over the potential of the personal computer to greatly enhance the human ability to process and manage information. The 1980s also saw the advent of so-called [personal information management] tools which provided limited support for the management of such things as appointments and scheduling, to-do lists, phone numbers, and addresses. And a community dedicated to the study and improvement of human-computer interaction emerged in the 1980s as well (Card, Moran, & Newell, 1983; Norman, 1988).

[Personal information management] as an area of study with its own community of practitioners has emerged more recently. This book's preface lists some of the key events of the past decade leading to the establishment of a community of people doing [personal information management]-related research and to the publication of this book. Efforts to form a community for the exchange of [personal information management] research have several motivations:


  1. [Personal information management]-related research is scattered across existing disciplines. Just as the information we need to answer a question or complete a task in our lives is often scattered (by location, application, computer, etc.), [personal information management]-related research is scattered across a diverse set of disciplines that includes cognitive psychology, human-computer interaction, database management, artificial intelligence, information and knowledge management, information retrieval, and information science.
  2. [Personal information management] concerns often fall through the cracks between these disciplines. [Personal information management] requires the study of and support for people as they do the work of their lives in their own informational environments over extended periods of time, as opposed to short-term, experimenter-provided tasks in a controlled laboratory setting. [Personal information management] means considering the life cycle of personal information -- from the acquisition of information to its initial use, its organization for repeated use, its ongoing maintenance, and its eventual archiving or deletion.
  3. [Personal information management] continues to increase in importance and relevance. Not only academic publications but also articles in the popular press reflect a growing interest in and concern with matters of [personal information management]. Pick up a magazine or newspaper and you have a good chance of seeing articles on one or more [personal information management]-related topics such as (1) information overload, (2) our kids' ability to get things (like homework) done with TV on, iPod plugged in, and several different instant messaging (IM) conversations going at the same time, (3) how to protect our digital information -- especially photographs and videos, (4) how to protect our privacy, when companies keep so much information (and misinformation) about us, (5) new, cool smartphones and PDAs, and (6) meeting, dating, and doing virtually everything else on the Web.

The growing interest in [personal information management] also has two sides. On one side, the pace of improvements in various [personal information management]-relevant technologies suggests that earlier ideals of [personal information management] may actually be realized in the near future. Digital storage is cheap and plentiful. Why not keep a record of everything we have encountered? Digital storage can hold not only conventional kinds of information, but also pictures, photographs, music, and even films and full-motion video. In this vision, better search support can make it easy to pinpoint information. The ubiquity of computing and the miniaturization of computing devices can make it possible for us to take our information with us wherever we go and stay connected to a much larger world of information. Improvements in technologies of information input and output (e.g., better voice recognition, voice synthesis, integrated displays of information) can free us from the mouse, keyboard, and monitor of a conventional computer.

This is all very exciting. But the current, growing interest in [personal information management] is also spurred by the awareness that technology and tool development, for all their promise, invariably create new problems and sometimes exacerbate old problems. Information that was once only in paper form is now scattered around in multiple paper and digital versions. Digital information further scatters into "information islands" when each is supported by a separate application or device. This other side of current interest in [personal information management] recognizes that new tools and new applications -- for all the targeted help they provide -- can still end up further complicating a person's overall information management challenge.

1.4 Who benefits from better [personal information management] and how?

[Personal information management] may involve the "personal," but better [personal information management] promises to bring broad societal benefit:

  • Within organizations, better [personal information management] can mean better employee productivity. Better [personal information management] can mean that employees have a clearer understanding of their information and their needs. Such an understanding can also facilitate better teamwork and better group information management. Longer-term, [personal information management] is key to the management and leveraging of employee expertise. (See Chapter 3's discussion of knowledge management.)
  • Progress in [personal information management] is evidenced not only by better tools but also by new teachable strategies of information management of direct relevance to education programs of information literacy.
  • As people age, their working memory (the number of things they can keep in mind at one time) generally decreases. Better [personal information management] can translate to compensating tools and strategies of support.
  • The challenges of [personal information management] are especially felt by people who are battling a life-threatening illness such as cancer as they try to maintain their jobs and profession-related activities while living their lives and fulfilling their various roles (as parent, spouse, friend, member of a community, etc.). Better [personal information management] can help patients better manage their treatments and their lives overall.6

But certainly better [personal information management] benefits you, regardless of your special circumstances. There is little chance you could be reading these lines were information and external forms of information (email messages, web pages, newspapers, this book) not of great importance to your worldview and the way you lead your life.

Consider two kinds of people, information warriors and information worriers. Information warriors see their information and their information tools as strategic assets. Information warriors are wiling to invest time and money to keep up with the latest in PDAs, smartphones, operating systems and application software, and anything new on the Web. For an information warrior, information technology is, so to speak, a profit center.

By contrast, information technology for information worriers is a cost center. New offerings in PDAs and smartphones, new releases of operating system and application software, new developments in the alphabet soup of Web-based initiatives -- these and other developments in information technology represent more time and money that need to be spent just to keep up with everyone else. Information worriers may have a nagging feeling they could do better in their choice of supporting tools and strategies. But they don't know where to begin.

Even if these descriptions are stereotyped, many of us can probably think of people we know who come close to fitting each description. Perhaps you are an information warrior or an information worrier. Or perhaps, like me, you are a little of both.

The simple fact is that even if we embrace new developments in information technology, we must recognize that we don't always have the time to learn about all the latest developments.

We need a basis for deciding whether a new tool or a new way of doing things is likely to work for us. We'd like to avoid investing money and, more important, time to learn to use a new tool or strategy only to conclude belatedly that it won't work for us.

Better [personal information management] starts by asking the right questions. Better [personal information management] means that each of us becomes a student of our practice of [personal information management].

Continue reading about the study and practice of personal information management by downloading a free .pdf of "Personal information management: History and details."

Read an excerpt from Chapter 4 of this book, called "Personal information management: Finding information -- again."

Read more excerpts from data management books in the Chapter Download Library.

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