Thing 14: Personal Information Management

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Personal Information Management: What's that?

Personal information management (we’ll call it ‘PIM’ from now on), consists of the activities that a person undertakes to organize the seeking, acquisition, storage and discovery/re-discovery of all of the information pertaining to the diverse components of one’s life -- at work, at home, at play, with the family, anything relevant to any one person (Jones 2012).

By Sahra693 CC BY-SA 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons
PIM can refer to information in any kind of format. It can refer to electronic and paper documents, and electronic information can include web-based electronic information or information stored locally (as in one’s desktop email application, or information in a local hard drive).

PIM is a whole field of study within information management, one that studies and considers the behaviour of people vis-à-vis the information they use. Its practitioners tend to be interested in studying this behaviour to come up with cool tools to help people become more literate – more conscious of, more effective, better able to make informed choices and be more effective practitioners – about their own personal information. It also involves a lot of quite technical debates.

We’re just going to scratch the surface of all that a bit here, and see if we can use this phrase as a way to approach some cool tools that are out there that are, in general terms, there to help one’s organize one’s life – or, more loftily, enhance your ability to create meaning out of the information you engage with day by day. One aspect of PIM we’ll work with is its assumption that people take an active role in giving shape to their own information environments. People aren’t merely recipients of information; they aren’t just consumers of it, even vis-à-vis information platforms widely associated with the mere consumption of information, like the web, particularly 1.0 as compared to 2.0 (Jones 2012; Whittaker 2011).

Lots of hash by Michael Coughlan CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr
PIM might seem like an overly fancy way of referring to a collection of very mundane, everyday activities. What’s being referred to are things like creating folders and folder hierarchies to store information; or applying labels to information to help better find it later on. It’s important to remember though, that people order information according to their own priorities; this ordering and making sense of information is a conscious, critical, even creative act. It’s in the spirit of this assumption that Whittaker refers to these activities as ‘curation’ (2011). This is also a good way to refer to the management of one’s personal information (it’s the term we used in an analogous Thing
in Rudai 23’s first iteration).

One hot topic in PIM is the difference and interplay between different modes of ordering information: specifically, the difference between folders and folder hierarchies, and tags or labels referred to, above (for example, see Bergman et al 2013). Tags experienced a burst in popularity as of the emergence of Web 2.0, as people started using them to find information circulating over social media (two examples of note being the hashtag that Twitter made famous, and the social takes of the now, finally, probably, maybe not defunct social bookmarking tool Folder-centric systems like Windows O/S eventually took these on, and you can now tag up documents as well a store them in a (nested) file in your hard drive. More pertinently, tags and labels tend to be features of the kind of web-based tools that are Rudai 23’s bread and butter.
Lettuce from the garden by Robert Course-Baker CC BY 2.0 via Flickr

Expert PIM practitioners are really interested in bringing down the barriers between information systems, moving towards a tool that brings all the information in one’s life into an interoperable, organized personal system – bringing information currently separated by incompatible systems together into one tool. So one collection of researchers, for example, are currently working on something called ‘Thymeflow’, which integrates emails, calendar and contacts with location history. To some, this might seem pretty handy (see Montaya et al, 2016).

Some research has shown that a lot of people don’t really like these kinds of omnibus, life-organizing tools (Jones 2012: 66-67). What we’ll be presenting here is a bit of a taste of both. On the one hand, we’ll introduce tool that can do quite a lot in terms of information management (particularly web-based information): Evernote. Then, we’ll introduce a small collection of tools that are good for organizing particular aspects of your life.

“Remember everything.” That’s part of Evernote’s current slogan. Evernote is sometimes referred to
as a tool to organize your ‘notes’. Indeed, you can keep and organize notes in Evernote. But better than your average binder/coloured divider combo, a ‘note’ in Evernote is a blank space where you can jot down, yes, your thoughts, those of your lecturer or team leader or whomever, but it’s a place where you can put pretty much any electronic information. Web links are a big one, and thus one potential use for Evernote is as a souped up bookmarking tool: you can save webpages here, but also annotate them, with text or image.
You can also attach related documents to notes; it can be an annotated document drive. You can attach reminders to notes, so that Evernote can function as a kind of task manager. There are many sharing features, and increasing interoperability between Google tools in particular. And of course, you can organize: create a system of Notebooks into which to organize your documents; and come up with labels for your notes to make them searchable.

To get started with Evernote:
1.       Head to and sign in for a free account. (You can pay for premium access, which will give you increased storage space and extra functionality)
2.       Create a note or two or three using + in a green circle icon, at the top of the left-hand panel.
3.       Try typing into a note. Give it a title. Write something in the body. Attach a file (using the paperclip button at the top of the note, near the center). Insert a link to something interesting.
4.       Create a new Notebook to begin organizing your notes. Do so either within a note by placing your cursor in the note title, and clicking the drop-down menu above; or, if you’re in the body of your note, click the Notebook icon, second icon from the bottom in the left-hand panel (it's a nearly solid green book).

5.       (Optional). One of the handiest functions of Evernote is its web-clipper. This lets you ‘clip’ webpages to Evernote notes as you browse. Google 'Evernote web-clipper' to find and download the plug-in. Here are some of the options you have when you clip with this tool:

So Evernote can do a lot. The following tools are much more focused on organizing a particular aspect of your life.


One thing that Evernote won’t do is to organize RSS feeds. Feedly will. RSS feed readers seem to come and go with bizarre regularity. Feedly seems to have some staying power, and is a good one to try. To get started:
1.       Head to and start up an account.
2.       Add a blog or webpage that updates regularly by clicking on ‘Add Content’ at bottom right, then click ‘Publications & Blogs’.
3.       Cut and paste the URL of a blog or other publication you would like to follow. Click ‘Follow’ (Feedly will often detect multiple feeds, one that is usually the main blog post feed, then another for comments. ‘Follow’ whichever you feel useful.)
4.       You will have a choice to arrange your newly followed blog into categories that you will have made (click ‘New Feed’ at the bottom of the list to create a new category).

Remember the Milk

Remember the Milk is a task manager. (Tasks are be-devilling. The PIM research literature is really interested in managing tasks). You can create a task, and then label it with due dates, location, relevant personnel, as well as custom tags. To get started:
1.       Head to, sign up.
2.       Add a task you have forthcoming by clicking ‘Add a task’.
3.       Using the icons below where you’ve typed the task, note where you can add a due date, start date, location, then ‘give to’ a contact. You'll see how these become labels on your task.
4.       In the menu to the left (which looks a lot like email folders), you can define criteria, including contacts, lists and tags. Try definine a couple of lists and tags. Do these seem useful?

Not to be mistaken for a bookmarking tool, Pocket is a tool for saving online reading that you come across that looks interesting to you, but which you don’t have time to get to at the time. So you can put it in your Pocket for safekeeping, until you do have time. Then you delete it.

To get started with Pocket:
1.       Head to
2.       In a new tab, find some really heady article at or something like that. Cut and past the URL
3.       In Pocket, click the plus [icon], top right.
4.       Wait at least three hours, until you feel you have time to read a long article. Read it. Then click the garbage can to delete it.
5.       (Optional-ish). Google ‘pocket plugin’ and download the plugin. Pocket really works best with the plugin, so you can plunk things into your Pocket as you are browsing (without going to the website and cutting and pasting).

Your Tasks
1.       Set up a couple of notebooks in Evernote. Think of some projects you are or might or would like to work on. Find some online content to put into your notebook as notes, and add in some annotations of your own. Define some tags that might help you find the content at a later date. In other words: try it out!

2.       Try out two of the three smaller tools, from Pocket, Remember the Milk and/or Feedly. Do either of them seem like something you would use? Do they seem too limited in their functionality? Is there a way you can make them work together?

Take a look at our Evernote notebook for this Critical Thinker section of the course here. 

We also have notebooks for the previous two sections of the course: Communicating Visually and Networking Online as well as a general one on Technology in Libraries. 

Thing 14 was written by Kris Meen, currently Assistant Librarian of Academic Skills and Marketing & Engagement at NUI Galway library.

Works Cited
Bergman, Ofer, Noa Gradovitc, Judit Bar-llan and Ruth Beyth-Marom. 2013. “Folder Versus Tag Preference in Personal Information Management.” Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology, 64/10, pp. 1995-2012.

Jones, William. 2012. The Future of Information Management, Part 1: Our Information, Always and Forever. Morgan & Claypool.

Montoya, David, Thomas Pellissier Tanon, Serge Abiteboul and Fabian M. Suchanek. “Thymeflow, a Personal Knowledge Base with Spatio-Temporal Data”. 2016. Proceedings of the 25th ACM International on Conference on Information and Knowledge Management, pp. 2477-2480. DOI 10.1145/2983323.2983337

Whittaker, Steve. 2011. “Personal Information Management: From Information Consumption to Curation”. Annual Review of Information Science and Technology, 45/1, pp. 1-61. DOI 10.1002/aris.2011.1440450108


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