How do we cope with our growing digital lives?  How do we manage the ever increasing amounts of digital stuff we create and use?  This is the challenge of Personal Information Management.   




Dipping my sneakoscope into the tweet stream

As a curmudgeonly and reluctant Twitter user (bah humbug!) I have been pleasantly surprised by the sorts of discovery that Twitter can enable.  Until recently, I dismissed Twitter as the latest shiny thing that the cool kids had to have; you know the kind. But no more. I find the ability to search twitter interesting, and even more the ability to save a Twitter search and track it in my RSS feed reader.

I am currently a partner in a startup that provides tools to help academic libraries weed their book collections. Accordingly, we have all developed an "unhealthy" interest in weeding or "deselection" as it is sometimes called.  So it is with some interest that I can see what people who are actually doing this have to say about it.   A search today reveals the following tweets that contain the words "books" and "weeding":

Love weeding books. Hate weeding books. Love/hate relationship.

Weeding the food pyramid books #nightlibrarian

How do librarians have fun? Ruthless weeding of old, crappy books.

Weeding through the closed stacks' oversized reference TT books; there's years of Pittsburgh coal dust along the tops of them! #fb

Still, on the plus side, I've a been weeding again today :-) Bye bye grotty books.

Shifting AND weeding. Have moved 800 books so far. Catalog still won't delete records, tho, so piles threatening to take over.

I think stock weeding is my favourite job of all. I've always enjoyed throwing books away. #badlibrarian

Spent most of the day weeding books. #notenoughshelves

Weeding is kinda fun once you overcome the natural compulsion to horde books.

I find reading these interesting and informative. Interesting, because they connect me with the humanity of our potential customers; informative, because they tell me about issues with weeding.  Who knew that some librarians *like* to weed?  The reference librarian in me is happy that I have a shiny new hammer to use.   I'm sure I'll graduate to other, productive uses of Twitter, but for the time being, this makes me happy.



On the costs of tooling up

The next phase in my plan to build out my personal information managememt (PIM) system is on hold. My plan is to buy a ScanSnap scanner from Fujitsu to allow me to scan and OCR all my printed documents and thus make my personal document archives more searchable, saveable, and portable.  I even freed some cash specifically for this task, by allocating the proceeds of my recently sold comic book collection. Yet some months later it still hasn't happened. 

There are predictable reasons for this: procrastination and other stuff needed to be done, and the fading of that initial enthusiam that comes with being seduced by a new possibility.  The key reason, though, is that I didn't have an immediate project I was going to use it for.  And my recent experience has shown me that it is easier to buy a new tool or technology than it is to effectively integrate it into your life.  Kevin Kelly speaks nicely to these issues in a recent post titled Techno Life Skills

"Anything you buy, you must maintain. Each tool you use requires time to learn how to use, to install, to upgrade, or to fix. A purchase is just the beginning. You can expect to devote as much energy/money/time in maintaining a technology as you did in acquiring it."

"What do you give up? This one has taken me a long time to learn. The only way to take up a new technology is to reduce an old one in my life already. Twitter must come at the expense of something else I was doing -- even if it is just daydreaming."

"Technologies improve so fast you should postpone getting anything until 5 minutes before you need it. Get comfortable with the fact that anything you buy is already obsolete. Therefore acquire at the last possible moment."

 I think it will eventually happen, just not today.





To remember or not to remember, that is the question

Having recently trumpeted my aquisition of a tool that frees me from remembering passwords, I came across an interesting podcast on "The End of Remembering" which reflects on how the transition from antiquity to modernity has been accompanied by an ever decreasing reliance on human memory.  The speaker is a journalist named Joshua Foer who researched the culture of memory competitions and ended up becoming a competitor himself (also discussed in this article in the NY Times Magazine).  Given my interest in Personal Knowledge Management (PKM) this topic seemed relevant. Here are some interesting points that were made:

  • When books were scarce and few, people read them over and over again. They read them aloud to one another and could recite large passages from memory. Today, we gallop through books with barely a pause and rarely do we read them again.
  • The art of memory enhancement goes back to the ancient Greeks, who learned to use visual structures or "memory palaces" to help them remember large amounts of information. These techniques were widely used in the Middle Ages and Renaissance but have passed out of common use.  
  • The trick is in making things that are unmemorable, memorable.  The use of absurd, bawdy, even obscene imagery is part of the game.
  • People of average mental abilities can learn these skills. The ability to memorize large amounts of information is not limited to savants and extraordinary individuals.  

For me the question is, when would it make sense to memorize lots of information?  Joshua Foer does it because it's fun.  Fun and games aside, I don't see any immediate uses for this.  But I do like the idea of mastering information in a specific domain and being able to quickly draw on it without having to consult a book or a computer. Perhaps some of these techniques could provide better interior scaffolding on which to arrange this information. That, it seems, might be worth pursuing.

Robert Fludd, The Memory Palace of Music



Getting the password management problem under control and then some

For 10 years my password management system has been a piece of paper in my desk drawer where I wrote down all the passwords to my different accounts.  Well, almost.  It seemed I never had them all in one place and was always having to reset one or another password because I had forgotten it.  Or I was at work or someplace else and didn't have access to my piece of paper.

Not anymore.  A couple of weeks ago I installed a software package called 1Password that allows me to keep all my passwords and related identity and account information in one file, protected with a single master password.  Forget or lose this password and the system fails, but in every other respect it seems a good solution. Not only does it let me store all my passwords and login information, but it lets me store all my account numbers, frequent flier numbers, software license keys, and even secure notes, so that I can remember what my "secret questions" and answers are that some sites require.  It is integrated with my browser so that I can capture and store logins whenever I access a system, and then it provides an easy way to generate strong passwords so that I can start using different passwords and strong passwords for every system I have access to, something that wasn't the case before.  

I had been thinking of getting such a tool for a while and was finally spurred on by a fascinating article about how a security firm was brutally hacked because the CEO was careless in the way he managed his passwords (among other things).  Like me he used the same password for multiple systems and in some cases used passwords that were weak and easily cracked.  With a tool like 1Password, there is no excuse for doing such a thing.  

The encrypted file sits in my Dropbox folder, which means it is synchronized across all my devices.  There is also an iPhone app that has access to this information.  So whether I need to remember the password to my wireless router or whether I need to get my frequent flier number, it's available from any of my devices.  I just need to remember the one password.  To me this is a key piece of my personal information management (PIM) puzzle and I'm glad I've got it under control.


   One password to rule them all


Letting go is hard: the challenges of weeding our collections

This week I put my comic book collection up for sale. Started in my boyhood, it was taken over by my brother and hugely expanded. When he died in 1993, it came back into my hands and it has followed me ever since.  2300 in total, the core collection included Thor, Dr. Strange, Master of Kung Fu, and Conan the Barbarian. The Archie and Richie Rich comics were taken by nieces and nephews a long time ago, along with a few X-Men.  But other strange titles remain, including Ren and Stimpy, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and various "mature" comic books from Neal Gaiman, Clive Barker and others. Three moves later I have decided it's time to say goodbye. I haven't read one in over 10 years and I need the space because my girlfriend just moved in. 

A few weeks later... 

Now that they're gone I feel better.  I've got more space for things that are part of my future, and am relieved that a decision much delayed has finally been made.  But letting go was hard. Hard because so much effort had gone into creating and caring for the collection; hard because the dreams of my collecting past had not been allowed to die, or at the very least been given a proper burial; hard also, because the task of getting rid of them was a time consuming chore.

I work for a startup that is developing tools to help academic libraries weed their print monograph collections and I can see a similar dynamic at work. There are lots of rational reasons for these libraries to substantially reduce their print collections: huge numbers of titles that aren't being used, an increasing shift to electronic resources, and space and budget pressures that compel action.  Yet here, too, letting go is hard. It takes time for people to let go of existing investments, both emotional and financial.  Helping libraries do this will be part of our work.

  Here are a few old Thor titles, part of the "crown jewels" of the collection




In search of the right notebook and notetaking system

In my last post, I wondered about whether the commonplace book is a good model for personal knowledge management or,  to put it more plainly, whether it is a good tool for capturing and remembering key ideas and concepts.  This has increased my interest in good examples of notebooks in use. This past week the VizThink blog posted an interesting 7 minute video of a designer discussing his notebooks, mostly filled with sketches and how they figure in his creative process.  I have also come across the blog Taking Note, "a blog on the nature of note-taking" which discusses notetaking tools and systems.  The most recent post discusses the diary entries of an Austrian writer concerning his system of notetaking:

Musil tried to make the vast material accessible to himself by assigning to entries a sequence of numerals and letters. Apparently, there are 100,000 of them. This system of reference is, however, very opaque to outsiders. In any case, his approach is not too dissimilar from the way in which other authors and thinkers tried to master the results of their note-taking and thinking. Whether Musil's system was more effective than that of others may be doubted.

I doubt my system needs to be terribly complex but it does need to be electronic. When I used a Windows machine I used Microsoft OneNote  and liked it, but now that I am using a Mac I am looking at tools like Devonnote, Scrivener, and OmniOutliner.  The solution has to have the ability to quickly organize and reorganize my notes and to create links between them which show the relationship of one idea or note to the other.  Thus, outlining capabilities are important as are linking capabilities. Otherwise I would like to keep it simple. One possibility: Mindmanager has the ability to switch between mindmap and outline view modes.  If each topic in a mindmap linked to a file containing a document or note that might work.

 Charles Darwin's first diagram of an evolutionary tree from his First Notebook on Transmutation of Species (1837)


Old wine in new bottles: the commonplace book as model for personal knowledge management

The ability to keep key information close at hand and easily accessible is a function of personal knowledge management. But in centuries past people didn't have iPads or PCs.

"Time was when readers kept commonplace books. Whenever they came across a pithy passage, they copied it into a notebook under an appropriate heading, adding observations made in the course of daily life. Erasmus instructed them how to do it . . .They broke texts into fragments and assembled them into new patterns by transcribing them in different sections of their notebooks. Then they reread the copies and rearranged the patterns while adding more excerpts. Reading and writing were therefore inseparable activities. They belonged to a continuous effort to make sense of things, for the world was full of signs: you could read your way through it; and by keeping an account of your readings, you made a book of your own, one stamped with your personality."

Robert Darnton,"Extraordinary Commonplaces," The New York Review of Books, December 21, 2000

I like this idea of taking the best of what I read, write, or see and putting it someplace close, where I can repeatedly read it, organize it, and shape it to match my evolving understanding. By keeping it close, I would make sure that I didn't lose it amid the distractions of everyday life. And through repetition I would make sure that I mastered this content and could speak to it at anytime with ease and with facility.

The closest I come to this now is a series of online mindmaps that I use to capture key ideas, goals, and readings that have intrigued me.  As a tool, my Mindmeister account meets many of the criteria I would have for my commonplace book: the maps are easy to add to, edit, and reorganize. They let me link to related information and I can access them from most any electronic device, though for now I only use them from my PC or laptop.  But they don't resemble a book and they don't follow me around like a commonplace book might if it was in my vest pocket.  It has to be easy to enter new thoughts and to make changes on the go, so the iPhone I carry won't cut it.  Likewise it has to be easy to grab snippets of content from other electronic sources. Outlining software seems like it would be  helpful.  Pen based input would be nice, too, though not strictly required. Right now I'm thinking the iPad might be the right size for this sort of thing. 


Yes, Virginia, you can take your data with you 

As more and more of my digital life takes place in the cloud I have much to be happy about.  I can access my information through services like Google Docs, Flickr, and Facebook from any computer and even from my iPhone.  I can easily share this information and collaborate with others secure in the knowledge that my information is backed up in professionally managed data centers.  Yet I wonder—will all this information be around in 5, 10, or 20 years?  Will Google and Flickr still exist?  Or will they pursue new business models that don't leave room for my data?  As new data formats come on the scene, will my stuff make the leap?  Or will it fall into the chasm of rotting data, and lie withering alongside the 8-track tapes and Betamax videocassettes.  In yet another scenario, what if I run afoul of Google's "terms of use" agreement and they delete my Gmail account?  You know, those pages of tiny print that we agree to and rarely read and which can change at any time?  If I didn't have a local copy of my emails, I would be out of luck.

These questions have prompted me to consider the question: can I take my data with me?  If not into the next life, at least into the next decade.  Thus I have looked at how the popular cloud-based services let me do this. Those of you who are Facebook users may be aware that they have recently announced a bulk download capability that lets you save your Facebook data offline.  I have tried it and it works quite well, providing a directory containing all the posts, messages, and photos that I had uploaded to Facebook as of that day. There is an HTML index file that lets me browse this content using my web browser.  So now, regardless of what Facebook does in the future—whether they go out of business or shutoff my account—I have a copy of this data. 

Google Docs has also done a good job with this, providing you the option of bulk downloading your documents (up to 2 GB at a time) and even giving you the opportunity of converting your files to a different format.  If you are using the Google Docs formats you have the option of converting your files to MS-Office, Open Office, Adobe PDF, plain text, and RTF formats.  Bravo Google!

Google Docs Export Screen

My chosen photo-sharing service, Flickr, on the other hand, is not as helpful.  I have a "Pro" account and have uploaded thousands of pictures, yet Flickr provides no bulk download option. I can download one photo at a time and even then, I won't get the captions, tags, or other metadata that I have added to my pictures.  Luckily, there are third party applications that have been created to do this. The most promising one is called Bulkr.  

I never thought about this issue when I signed up for these services but now see that the question of data portability is an important one.  Is the vendor locking up your data?  Do they let you easily export your files in industry standard formats that increase its likelihood of surviving into the next decade? But the responsibility isn't just theirs.  If the services offer these features you should use them, and periodically export your data and back it up using your own back-up system.  That is if you want to take it with you...



Mindmapping software: how far down this rabbit hole do you want to go?

In a previous post I discussed why mindmapping software is worth using.  Here, I want to talk about the software itself.

This category of software is best referred to as visual mapping software, because it includes functionality that goes beyond what mindmaps were originally designed for.  I think of it as visual information management software because I don't just use it to create and present information. I use it to manage information too: to-do lists, projects, and my research and learning work over time.

What follows is not a comprehensive review of available software, but rather recommendations based on my personal experience and research. I will start with the two products I am using: Mindjet's Mindmanager and Mindmeister, a web-based service.


Mindmanager was the first package I used and is probably the best known commercial mindmapping software package.  Targeted primarily at business users, it is an excellent tool:  easy-to-use, loaded with useful functionality, and available for both Windows and Mac users.  Here are a few things I like about it:

•    Its core mindmapping capabilities are as strong as any I have seen
•    It is good for creating and sharing presentation quality mindmaps
•    It is good for creating interactive maps that you can load on websites

It’s also well integrated with Microsoft productivity tools; so if you use MS-Office, Outlook, MS-Project, and even SharePoint, there are interesting opportunities to use the applications together. More recently, Mindmanager has beefed up its project management capabilities.  It's a Cadillac product, but with a Cadillac price: $350 for Windows users (version 9) and $250 for Mac users (version 8).  Luckily I got mine while I was still working at a university, and got a reduced educational price. 


I began using the second tool, Mindmeister, when I wanted to share my maps on the Web and collaborate.  I was drawn to the convenience of a web application that I could access from any browser on any machine, at home or at work.  What I found was a simpler tool than Mindmanager.  It had less functionality, but was easy to use, and for what I needed it was sufficient.  It has subscription pricing of $59 per year ($18/year for educational users).  In addition, there are mobile versions available for the iPhone and iPad.  The company is constantly releasing new features, and because it's a web application I get the new features when I login; no software upgrades required. 

I do have complaints though. The maps are not as polished as what I can produce with Mindmanager.  For presentation purposes I prefer Mindmanager.  Also, I occasionally get network hiccups while editing a mindmap, which means I have to wait a few seconds and hit reload on my browser. (Update: the latest release adddresses this lag issue.) Nonetheless, Mindmeister is the tool I use the most.  Right now, I only use Mindmanager for presentation quality mindmaps and for creating mindmaps to embed on webpages.  Although Mindmanager has come out with an online collaboration service, it's more complicated and costly to use than Mindmeister.

Thinking about which solution is best for you

When considering what software or service to use, think about the following questions:

  1. How do you intend to share your mindmaps?

    Do you want people to be able to access them via the Web?  If so, do you want them to be able to have access to an interactive version that lets them open and close branches of the map, or is a static image sufficient?  If you will be printing them out, then look for good print formatting capabilities. Also look at the import and export capabilities.  If you will be presenting them in meetings then look at the presentation features.

  2. How important is the visual look of these maps?

    Is it important for you to make them visually distinctive?  Do you want an "organic" look to your maps?  Do you wish to make extensive use of icons and images?   If so, look for how well a package delivers on this.

  3. Do you intend to collaboratively create mindmaps with others?

    For collaborative creation of maps, I recommend a web-based service (i.e., Mindmeister).  Otherwise, your collaborators will need to get the same software package.  Also, web-based services can support simultaneous editing.

  4. Do you use want to use it for task or project management?

    Then look for calendar integration and the ability to set due dates and easily add icons to designate task status or priority.

  5. Do you want to create big mindmaps or manage lots of information with your mindmaps?

    If so, then look for filters and the ability to easily look at only 1, 2, 3...N levels of the map.  Look into the features for linking different maps together and managing collections of maps.

  6. Do you want to edit or view your mindmaps using your mobile device?

    Then look at applications for your mobile device or the ability to add topics using email or SMS messages.

Other packages to consider

There are lots of options out there and reviews of new and upgraded offerings that are regularly published. Among the many others, these are definitely worth considering (available for both Windows PCs and Macs):

  • Novamind – This is a polished, full-featured offering that is directly comparable to Mindmanager but costs less.  Its current version has been strongly reviewed and its new layout engine and visual formatting capabilities are reputed to be the best out there. The sense I get is that this tool is stronger visually than Mindmanager, but doesn’t have as many bells and whistles.

  • The Brain - This is mindmapping on steroids. I haven’t yet tried it, but I am intrigued by its 3-D interface, its ability to express different kinds of relationships between concepts, and the way it is positioned as a tool for managing large personal knowledge-bases or “brains.”  Check out the short video on their web site, and maybe you’ll be intrigued enough to create a “brain” for yourself.

Lower cost options

  • XMind – This is a capable, free, open-source offering that is a good choice for anybody wishing to get started in mindmapping but who doesn’t want to shell out any money. An upgraded version, XMind Pro, is available for a subscription price of $49 per year.

  • Freemind -  This is the best known open source mindmapping package.  Though not as polished as Mindmanager or even XMind, it's quite capable.  Compared with XMind, it uses less memory, and is reported to be quicker and more responsive. See also Freeplane, which is a splinter offering, based on the original Freemind source code. 

  • Inspiration - This software is targeted exclusively at the education market, which may account for its reasonable price: $69.  It doesn't contain much in the way of productivity features (task management, etc.) but lets you create more than just mindmaps. This includes concept maps, outlines, affinity diagrams and more. Kidspiration is a K-5 version.

My recommendation:  get started

The best way to see if mindmapping software is for you is to try it. Decide whether you want to use a client software package (loaded on your PC) or whether you want to use a web application. If you want client software, and money for a full-featured package isn't likely to be in the budget anytime soon, then start by using an open source or low cost package. Otherwise, test drive one of the full-featured packages like Novamind or Mindmanager. They pretty much all offer 30-day free trials.  If available, take advantage of video tutorials which are often helpful. My choice for a web application is Mindmeister, though if you want to look at other options, look at the list provided here.


A personal knowledge management system?

I'm always interested to see how people cobble together solutions for doing research and writing using the tools and services available.  The screencast below shows what online community pioneer Howard Rheingold is currently using: