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Magazines > Computers in Libraries > March 2014

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Vol. 34 No. 2 — March 2014
PIM 101: Personal Information Management
by Jan Zastrow

Somewhere between benign neglect and frantic metatagging and database building, there lies a middle ground of reasonable husbandry of our personal digital belongings.
Welcome aboard a new quarterly column on topics concerning digital archives, electronic records management, digital heritage collections, memory and human-computer interaction, and related issues. In keeping with our theme this month of workflows and cloud sourcing of information and infrastructure, I’ll be talking about PIM—personal information management—that is, the management of information by individuals for their own personal use as opposed to organizational record-keeping systems. To clarify, we’re talking personal information management, not personal information management (such as Social Security numbers, personnel records, or medical information about others).

The term was first used in the 1980s in reference to office design systems and applied ergonomics, and it resurfaced within the framework of computer-generated content at a National Science Foundation (NSF)-sponsored workshop in Seattle in 2005. It’s defined as “the practice and study of the activities people perform to acquire, organize, maintain, retrieve, use and control the distribution of information items such as documents (paper-based and digital), web pages and email messages for everyday use” (Jones and Teevan, 2007).

My earliest encounter with this concept (if not the actual acronym) was on my first day of library school. Our professor asked each of us why we were interested in becoming librarians, and one of our new classmates quipped that she wanted to learn how to organize her own personal files at home! We all roared with laughter, never imagining that a few short years later this would become an academic field of study and a subject of much concern to anyone who’s ever tried to refind that seminal Word document, the funny photo of a new professor now retiring, a seemingly innocuous but later incriminating email, or that crucial quotation/tweet/blog post that would really illustrate a point in an upcoming presentation. And all those thousands of vacation photos you took with your iPhone? Fuhgeddaboudit!

Digital Is Different

Unlike analog materials, which can last decades or centuries in the right climate, “store and ignore” doesn’t work very well in the digital world. Hardware and software become obsolete. Previous generations of the same software may not be readable on newer versions. And even file transfer and format migration can be risky, as anyone who’s ever attempted an upgrade or system migration can attest.

Lack of organization and the use of multiple platforms make finding files difficult too: Are they on my desktop PC, my home laptop, or that old hard drive that I saved “just in case” in the bottom of my file cabinet? Are they in my work email as an attachment (or was it my Yahoo account)? On my thumb drive, and if so, which one? Did I back them up on a CD, DVD, or, horrors, are they still on those old floppy disks in the garage? Did I upload those photos to Flickr or Facebook or was it Dropbox? Needless to say, we all have a lot of files to keep track of.

[N]o one in the future will know which digital items were truly significant, unlike, say, a dog-eared photograph tucked away inside a scented envelope in the sock drawer.

One stewardship strategy is simply to save everything in the cloud. Although this sounds like an easy solution, commercial services may go out of business, change the services they offer, accidentally lose your files, or delete content after a period of inactivity (not to mention your own loss of control and privacy concerns). And in the case of permanent inactivity, some providers refuse to allow even digital executors access to a, shall we say, moribund account.

Appraisal and Findability

Professionally curated collections in a memory institution are appraised for permanent historical value. Only those records deemed to be useful for future research are kept, and due to resource constraints, this means that something else can’t be saved later on. There are formal collecting policies and in almost every case, the creator of the record is not the one making such decisions.

In a personal collection, however, archiving is a side effect of the creative impulse. Documenting the process of finished work is a chore undertaken to make it refindable again in the future or possibly as a source of inspiration for other projects. The creator of the record is the one deciding what to keep, in which format, and where. But once again, digital changes everything: Computer storage space is cheap, and with powerful search engines, we can usually find what we’re looking for even if we do save it all. The need for hard appraisal decisions is becoming less obvious. The downside, of course, is that no one in the future will know which digital items were truly significant, unlike, say, a dog-eared photograph tucked away inside a scented envelope in the sock drawer.

Personal Archiving Literacies

In a survey of the personal archiving practices of 110 writers, most admitted to practicing “benign neglect” as a records management strategy, and 80% said they would welcome instruction on digital preservation as they felt they lacked the technical ability and knowledge to back up and preserve their own files. Most surprising, even writers who were professional librarians and archivists admitted to being lax about their personal files when it came to their writing: “I have little in the way of ‘saving conventions’ when it comes to my own work. … I don’t really apply much of anything I know from working in archives to the saving and storage of my work” (Becker and Nogues, 2012). If even professionals—who know how to back up, migrate, and manage digital files—don’t do so in their personal digital lives, how can we expect anyone else to either? Apparently, some writers are more concerned with their craft than with its long-term survival.

In an earlier field study to understand the state of personal digital archiving in practice, researchers identified four main challenges: 1) people find it difficult to evaluate the future worth of their files; 2) personal storage is distributed both online and offline, so they have a hard time remembering where it all is; 3) people are having trouble managing large groups of files, creating metadata, and migrating them to new formats; and 4) desktop search makes it difficult to find what they’re looking for, particularly when it’s not a known (or remembered) object (Marshall, Bly, and Brun-Cottan, 2007). Our patrons—and practically anyone who uses a computer—need help!

As info pros, this means new opportunities for literacy instruction with not only students, faculty, and colleagues, but authors, photographers, videographers, musicians, digital humanities scholars, historians, and other content creators who need tools to manage and preserve their files. The Library of Congress (LC) has taken the lead by holding a Personal Digital Archiving Day during the American Library Association’s (ALA) Preservation Week and by partnering with public libraries to give presentations on personal digital archiving. LC has even developed a kit so institutions can stage their own Personal Digital Archiving Day events (see the Resources sidebar).

Some say digital collections outreach programs are laudable but “not an event most writers have on their calendars. Digital curation professionals need to approach [content creators] through the blogs, Twitter feeds, literature and listservs to which they are most likely to pay attention” (Becker and Nogues, 2012). This is exactly what the University of Minnesota did by setting up a PIM blog for its researchers: offering tips and tricks, software evaluations of citation managers, and advice on organizing digital workspaces. Even beyond social media, what other innovative opportunities are there for collaborating and providing instruction? This is, once again, an area ripe for investigation or fresh applications of existing research.

Furthermore, “the digital material in many of these personal collections is likely to be as significant for future users of historic collections as their paper equivalents are today, providing it survives for future access” (Beagrie, 2005). If personal digital collections are to become a major area of interest for research collections, we will want to assist future donors in preserving their materials. And since “future and current personal digital archives are distributed, collaborative, and social spaces in ways they never were before,” we must become more active in advising the general public about sound personal digital archiving practices, while at the same time keeping enough distance to allow these archives to retain their individual character (Becker and Nogues, 2012). In short, it behooves us as archivists, librarians, and information professionals to educate our publics to ensure their materials survive.

So What Should We Tell Our Patrons?

In a memory institution, archivists typically use a variety of tools such as inventories, spreadsheets, and end-user guides called “finding aids” to keep track of collections in their care. This is surely too much to ask of the wider digital public.

One strategy, proposed by Mike Ashenfelder of the LC, is to break down the “must-dos” into manageable tasks: locate everything to be saved; decide what to keep and toss the rest; organize the files using a consistent naming convention; save copies in different places using the “3-2-1 rule”—three copies, two different types of storage media, and one location other than where you live; and migrate to a new storage device every 5 years (Ashenfelder, Personal Archiving, 2013). It’s much simpler to do this up front rather than go back and organize files months or years after a project is finished. Once you have your basic file management framework set up, it’s a piece of cake to add new folders and branches to the hierarchy. Oh, and don’t forget to tell ’em to write down the URLs and passwords for estate planning purposes too!

As info pros, this means new opportunities for literacy instruction with not only students, faculty, and colleagues, but authors, photographers, videographers, [and] musicians. …

Yale University offers a concise one-page “Authors’ Guidelines for Digital Preservation” that would be useful for just about anyone. It’s divided into two sections, The Least You Can Do, which explains saving, backing up, naming conventions, and file organization; and Going Further, which provides additional information about hardware and software choices, migration standards, and backward compatibility. For best practices in file-naming conventions, see the eminently understandable four-page YouTube tutorial by the State Library of North Carolina. Finally, for tools to help keep everything organized, see Donald T. Hawkins’ excellent chapter “Software and Services for Personal Archiving,” in Personal Archiving: Preserving Our Digital Heritage (an abridged reprint appears in CIL’s November 2013 issue).

Do We Have to Save It All (And Does It Really Matter)?

Somewhere between benign neglect and frantic metatagging and database building, there lies a middle ground of reasonable husbandry of our personal digital belongings. Start by doing just one or two of Ashenfelder’s previously mentioned suggestions, or post a “PIM tip of the month” on your organization’s website. Even just a little bit of personal digital archiving can have long-term benefits when those files arrive in yourlibrary’s special collections or archives. As personal archiving literacy begins to spread, it will surely affect the long-term preservation of cultural heritage and may even help us fulfill the “Confucian responsibility of being good ancestors to our descendants” (Ubois, Personal Archiving, 2013).But, to play devil’s advocate, “history” is what doesn’t get thrown away. Stay tuned to digital futures coming your way … and for the next column in May!

Select References

Beagrie, Neil. “Plenty of Room at the Bottom? Personal Digital Libraries and Collections.” D-Lib Magazine Vol. 11, No. 6 (2005).

Becker, Devin and Nogues, Collier. “Saving-Over, Over-Saving, and the Future Mess of Writers’ Digital Archives: A Survey Report on the Personal Digital Archiving Practices of Emerging Writers.” The American Archivist Vol. 75, No. 2 (2012), pp. 482–513.

Jones, William and Teevan, Jaime, eds. Personal Information Management, Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2007.

Lee, Christopher A., ed. I, Digital: Personal Collections in the Digital Era, Chicago: Society of American Archivists, 2011.

Marshall, Catherine C. “How People Manage Personal Information Over a Lifetime.” In Personal Information Management (Jones and Teevan, eds.), Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2007, pp. 57–75.

Marshall, Catherine C.; Bly, Sara; and Brun-Cottan, Francoise. “The Long Term Fate of Our Digital Belongings: Toward a Service Model for Personal Archives.” Proceedings of Archiving 2006. Springfield, Va.: Society for Imaging Science and Technology, 2006, pp 25–30.


Hawkins, Donald T., “Software and Services for Personal Archiving.” In Personal Archiving: Preserving Our Digital Heritage (Hawkins, ed.), Medford, N.J.: Information Today, Inc., pp. 47–72. [Or see an abridged version in the Tech Tips column of the November 2013 Computers in Libraries, pp. 30–32.]

Library of Congress’ Personal Digital Archiving Day Kit

State Library of North Carolina’s File Naming Tutorial (in Four Parts)

University of Minnesota’s PIM Blog

Yale University’s “Authors’ Guidelines for Digital Preservation”

Jan Zastrow, M.L.I.S., M.A., and C.A. is a senior information professional, knowledge manager, certified archivist, and librarian based in Washington, D.C. Her favorite assignments have been with the U.S. Senate, the University of Hawaii–Manoa’s library, and as principal of Hyperclick Online Services in Honolulu. Contact her at
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