Organising Information

One of the reasons I got interested in Library Studies was because I wanted to find the correct way to organise information. In the old days, I worked as a tour manager. Keeping track of lots of different projects and timelines at once was my bread-and-butter. I did all of my work offline. I had master books, diaries, plans, maps, notebooks, folders, post-its and assorted filing cabinets. All tried and tested methods of organising information for quick retrieval.

Looking back on it, I find it hard to believe that I was working that way up until 2007. That is not to say that these methods were in any way inferior from their online counterparts. Far from it. I just find it amazing that things have changed so much in such a short time. I had heard of Excel and Email back then but they were for the deskbound rather than someone on the road. Being mobile in 2007 was quite different to today. However, I did know that change was coming and when I began to look at a career change, the organisation of digital information drew me in.

Photographer Thomas J. Wynne, 1838-1893 by National Library of Ireland on The Commons, on Flickr found here

Photographer Thomas J. Wynne, 1838-1893 by National Library of Ireland on The Commons, on Flickr found here

I was disappointed when I discovered that there is no right or wrong way to organise information. I learned this in my first Information Retrieval class in SILS when each group of us classified an article about The Beatles music while the other groups tried to retrieve it using what they thought were relevant search terms. As you can imagine, how people divide up their lives has a lot of bearing on how they assess information. This was the wonderful dance between context, relevance and aboutness that has kept search engines from becoming completely predictable.  There is no perfect way to organise information. At best, all I can hope for is an efficient method that at least I can understand. For me, consistency is the key.

Ruth St Denis and Ted Shawn in the Dance of the Rebirth from... by New York Public Library, on Flickr found here

Ruth St Denis and Ted Shawn in the Dance of the Rebirth by New York Public Library, on Flickr found here

My own personal info-organising and retrieval behaviour is what Barreau and Nardi (1995) call location based browsing. I will not use in-built search unless I cannot find what I am looking for. Whether it is a physical library with stacks and shelves or a virtual folder and file system, I recognise where I am when I get there. While some might think that this is the old male “why-won’t-he-stop-and-ask-for-directions” cliche, browsing is different to map-reading. A lot of the time I find information because it is grouped with similar information. I like information to be organised so that I can see how it is connected. Visual hierarchies like Pearltrees and Symbaloo (which I have blogged about before here) are good examples of this. So too are library maps. I can jump into stacks or branches and browse pretty quickly to what I am looking for. Barreau & Nordu agreed that this was a common search behaviour among both new and experienced searchers. However, when it came to my Information Hunt projects in university,  I was told that locating medical books through synchronicity and gut feeling was not a dependable search strategy. I agree, but sometimes books just jump out at you.

Man searching for lost item in fountain from Stockholm Transport Museum on Flickr, found here

Search strategy from Stockholm Transport Museum on Flickr, found here

What I have found is that information organisation has to be practical and pragmatic.  My strategy for storing information is simply to pile it into hierarchies. This allows me to chunk my information and navigate in different directions (up-down or sideways) as I need. I have experimented with numerous different ways and means of organising my own files and folders and what works for me is that I organise according to use. In most of my information systems my first level folders are divided into current or archived.

I am a weekly cleaner-outer of files and I know the working week is really done when I sort my current folder. I like to archive at the end of every working week and then open up my current folder to get ready for each new week. I also tend to work on a lot of stuff that I don’t even know what it is going to turn into until it is done. This means that anything that is in my archived folder has usually got its aboutness as tied down as it is going to be. As a browser, having a folder where I can see everything that I am working on is my holy grail.

Student in the library, 1981 by LSE Library, on Flickr, found here

Student in the library, 1981 by LSE Library, on Flickr, found here


I divide my second level hierarchies by ownership as Boardman & Sasse (2004) suggest. Was the information created for business?  Is this my personal stuff (e..g. drafts, random thoughts, creations)? Does this belong to someone else (e.g. articles, downloads etc)? This is my main way of remembering information. Someone gave it to me or I made it or I made it for a very specific business purpose. Finally, I create another level of folders so that I can store files by file type. I tend to know if I am looking for an image or an excel sheet or a text page so this is how I like to have it laid out. I can mirror this structure across different web tools (Evernote. Google Drive etc) with very little adaption (apart from email which has different requirements because it is about personal communication and that can get a bit complex).

Here is a rough breakdown of the decision making process involved in classifying my information down as far as the first level.

information flow

Rough diagram


Barreau, D. & Nardi, B. (1995). Finding and reminding: file organization from the desktop. SIGCHI Bulletin, 27(3), 39-43.

Boardman, R. & Sasse, M.A. (2004). ‘Stuff goes into the computer and doesn’t come out’: a cross-tool study of personal information management. CHI Letters, 6(1), 583-590.

Khoo, C., Luyt, B., Ee, C., Osman, J., Lim, H.H. & Yong, S. (2007). How users organize electronic files on their workstations in the office environment: a preliminary study of personal information organization behaviour. Information Research, 12(2), paper 293 [Available at]