Organizing by folders versus relying on search is one of the most contentious debates in information management. It’s also one of the most pointless. You can’t know which is better for an organization or for an individual until you know how the business works and what the goals are. Instead of debating, we should be celebrating that there are multiple ways to locate the information we need.
Social media and enterprise collaboration tools emphasize reaching out to others. They encourage us to think out loud and engage in public conversation from the start. But that’s not how most of us seek information.
In my review of Keeping Found Things Found, I mentioned that I might want to check out some of the sources cited. Ambient Findability by Peter Morville was one of those books that appeared often in the footnotes, so I thought I’d check it out.
Ambient Findability is a brief and entertaining survey of search technologies and information architecture. In seven chapters, the author describes the current state of the art in fields of decision science, interaction design, and information architecture. He also speculates on where some of these technologies might take us in the future.
The central idea of the book is that we now live in an information-soaked environment. Advances in communications and information technology allow us to store and share far more information than in the past. As our tools and techniques for dealing with this flood of information improve, revolutionary new applications will emerge.
Most of these applications will enable near-instant access to volumes of information from wherever we are: Ambient Findability.
In the three decades since the invention of the personal computer, we’ve seen some amazing new products and services come into existence. Some of these are incremental improvements over existing technology. Shopping via the Internet is really just an improved version of shopping via mail-order catalog, for example. But some of these have led to completely new ways of doing things.
The best parts of Ambient Findability trace the evolution of these technologies to the current state of the art. You can read about early experiments, failed approaches, and the innovations that seem to have lasting power. This is the bulk of the book, so it’s definitely a worthy edition to your shelf if you’re interested in these topics.
The places where the author gets into trouble is where he tries to extrapolate from the current state of the art into the types of things we might see in the future. It’s these parts where Peter’s enthusiasm for the technologies lets him get carried away.
Sure, GPS is becoming a standard feature on our cell phones. And yes, it’s possible to implant GPS chips into our pets. And smart phones get smaller and more energy efficient every year. But I can’t imagine that I would want to go through surgery to embed a PDA-like device under my skin.
Then again, I can’t imagine getting a tattoo either, so maybe I’m just not cut out to be a cyborg.
One thing is for certain: the coming years will bring a lot of experimentation. We’ll slowly find out, through trial and error, what works and what doesn’t. It’ll take a while before we figure out the best ways to surf the information superhighway. (And maybe even longer to come up with sensible metaphors to describe the experience!)
Flights of fancy aside, Peter makes a great case that the Information Age is a technological revolution. It will profoundly change society, just like the Industrial Revolution did. And while the revolution thunders on, it’s anyone’s guess as to what the future will bring.
I recently finished Keeping Found Things Found by William Jones. It’s subtitled “The Study and Practice of Personal Information Management” but I think it ought to read “The Study of a Practice…”
The book is intended as a broad survey of information management practices and principles that individuals use to manage information. This is not a how-to manual or a self-help guide. It’s written in the style of an introductory textbook, which is not surprising given that much of the content was developed as part of the Keeping Found Things Found Project, run by the Information School at the University of Washington.
The academic style of the writing might appeal to some, but I found it a slow read. The footnotes and citations often got in my way as I was trying to absorb the material. Each chapter begins with a lengthy introduction and ends with a point-by-point recapitulation of key messages. These are probably useful for a semester-long course, but it’s overkill for anyone wanting tips and tricks.
Your mileage may vary, of course. I’m not the target audience for a book like this. If you want a primer on the personal information management field, Keeping Found Things Found is a decent place to start.
We live in a world awash with information. Some of it is useful to us, but much of it isn’t. The point of information management is to keep the useful information easily accessible while ignoring the unhelpful bits.
This is an extremely challenging task, because we use information in a variety of different ways depending on our current situation. It also requires us to make some guesses about the future. How likely is it that we will need to recall or retrieve the information again? Is it worth memorizing it? Writing it down? Saving a hyperlink or adding a bookmark to our browser? We can’t predict our future needs exactly, so we often wind up storing more information than we need.
And that leads us to develop strategies for organizing it, indexing it, and searching it. And because we’re all different, there are almost as many different methods for keeping found things found as there are people. Some of the strategies — like the post-it notes stuck to your monitor — are obvious. Others are subtle, like keeping a mental list of go-to people that are experts in a particular topic so that you can ask questions as needed.
Having recently worked at a firm making records management software, I was familiar with much of the material in the book. The main reason for reading it was that records management focuses on large-scale organizational methods used by government and corporations to store, track, manage and dispose of information. I wanted to find out whether there were specific strategies that work well for individuals or small teams. Were there methods or tools that might help us refine Infovark’s design?
Well, I didn’t spot any, though some of the sources cited in the book might be worth checking out.
One of the book’s themes that connected with me was that we are really operating in a different age. The amount of information available to people is orders of magnitude greater today than in the past. Many of us now have music collections on our iPods that would have put independent record shops a few decades ago to shame. We have vast amounts of movies, television, and other video available to us on DVDs and streamed across the Internet. And then there’s the mountains of text and reams of financial data. All this content means that we’ve outgrown many of the concepts that guided us and tools we used in the past.
Gordon and I saw this clearly in our old job. It seemed silly — ridiculous, even — to expect a large organization to get a handle on its information when most of its employees have difficulty dealing with their own email inboxes. And companies can’t afford to train all their staff in the ways of research librarians so that they can manage the stuff on the corporate intranet. We need new approaches.
And we’ll keep reading, and talking with people, and attending conferences, and scouring the Internet, until we find them.