Personal information management (PIM) is the activities people perform in order to acquire, organize, maintain, retrieve and use personal information items such as documents (paper-based and digital), web pages and email messages for everyday use to complete tasks (work-related or not) and fulfill a person's various roles (as parent, employee, friend, member of community, etc.). More simply, PIM is the art of getting things done in our lives through information.
Practically, PIM is concerned with how people organize and maintain personal information collections, and methods that can help people in doing so. People may manage information in a variety of settings, for a variety of reasons, and with a variety of types of information. For example, an office worker might manage physical documents in a filing cabinet by placing them in folders organized alphabetically by project name, or might manage digital documents in folders in a hierarchical file system. A parent might collect and organize photographs of their children into a photo album using a temporal organization scheme, or might tag digital photos with the names of the children.
PIM considers not only the methods used to store and organize information, but also is concerned with how people retrieve information from their collections for re-use. For example, the office worker might re-locate a physical document by remembering the name of the project and then finding the appropriate folder by an alphabetical search. On a computer system with a hierarchical file system, a person might need to remember the top-level folder in which a document is located, and then browse through the folder contents to navigate to the desired document. Email systems often support additional methods for re-finding such as fielded search (e.g., search by sender, subject, date). The characteristics of the document types, the data that can be used to describe them (meta-data), and features of the systems used to store and organize them (e.g. fielded search) are all components that may influence how users accomplish personal information management.
Studying, understanding, and practicing PIM can help individuals and organizations work more effectively and efficiently, can help people deal with "information overload", and can highlight useful strategies for archiving, organizing, and facilitating access to saved information.
There are six ways in which information can be personal:
One ideal of PIM is that people should always have the right information in the right place, in the right form, and of sufficient completeness and quality to meet their current need. Technologies and tools such as personal information managers help people spend less time with time-consuming and error-prone activities of PIM (such as looking for and organising information). They then have more and better insight in making creative, intelligent use of their time, or to simply enjoy the information itself.
PIM is a new field with ancient roots. When the oral rather than the written word dominated, human memory was the primary means for information preservation. As information was increasingly rendered in paper form, tools were developed over time to meet the growing challenges of management. For example, the vertical filing cabinet, now such a standard feature of home and workplace offices, was first commercially available in 1893.
With the increasing availability of computers in the 1950s came an interest in the computer as a source of metaphors and a test bed for efforts to understand the human ability to process information and to solve problems. Newell and Simon pioneered the computer's use as a tool to model human thought. They produced "The Logic Theorist," generally thought to be the first running artificial intelligence (AI) program. The computer of the 1950s was also an inspiration for the development of an information processing approach to human behavior and performance. After the 1950s research showed that the computer, as a symbol processor, could "think" (to varying degrees of fidelity) like people do, the 1960s saw an increasing interest in the use of the computer to help people to think better and to process information more effectively. Working with Andries van Dam and others, Ted Nelson, who coined the word "hypertext", developed one of the first hypertext systems, The Hypertext Editing System, in 1968. That same year, Douglas Engelbart also completed work on a hypertext system called NLS (oN-Line System). Engelbart advanced the notion that the computer could be used to augment the human intellect. As heralded by the publication of Ulric Neisser's book Cognitive Psychology, the 1960s also saw the emergence of cognitive psychology as a discipline that focused primarily on a better understanding of the human ability to think, learn, and remember.
The computer as aid to the individual, rather than remote number cruncher in a refrigerated room, gained further validity from work in the late 1970s and through the 1980s to produce personal computers of increasing power and portability. These trends continue: computational power roughly equivalent to that of a desktop computer of a decade ago can now be found in devices that fit into the palm of a hand. The phrase "Personal Information Management" was itself apparently first used in the 1980s in the midst of general excitement over the potential of the personal computer to greatly enhance the human ability to process and manage information. The 1980s also saw the advent of so-called "PIM tools" that provided limited support for the management of such things as appointments and scheduling, to-do lists, phone numbers, and addresses. A community dedicated to the study and improvement of human-computer interaction also emerged in the 1980s.
As befits the "information" focus of PIM, PIM-relevant research of the 1980s and 1990s extended beyond the study of a particular device or application towards larger ecosystems of information management to include, for example, the organization of the physical office and the management of paperwork. Malone characterized personal organization strategies as 'neat' or 'messy' and described 'filing' and 'piling' approaches to the organization of information. Other studies showed that people vary their methods for keeping information according to anticipated uses of that information in the future. Studies explored the practical implications that human memory research might carry in the design of, for example, personal filing systems, and information retrieval systems. Studies demonstrated a preference for navigation (browsing, "location-based finding) in the return to personal files, a preference that endures today notwithstanding significant improvements in search support. and an increasing use of search as the preferred method of return to e-mails.
PIM, as a contemporary field of inquiry with a self-identified community of researchers, traces its origins to a Special Interest Group (SIG) session on PIM at the CHI 2004 conference and to a special National Science Foundation (NSF)-sponsored workshop held in Seattle in 2005.
Interest in the study of PIM has increased in recent years. One goal in the study of PIM is to identify ways to introduce new tool support without inadvertently increasing the complexity of a person's information management challenge. The study of PIM means understanding better how people manage information across tools and over time. It is not enough simply to study, for example, e-mail use in isolation. A related point is that the value of a new tool must be assessed over time and in a broader context of a person's various PIM activities.
PIM research can be organized according to the three main PIM activities:
Finding and re-finding information can take place in a public space (e.g. the Internet) or private (e.g. a person's hard drive). Research on finding is largely focused on finding public information (e.g.) and on how people search and use information (human information behavior). For re-finding a person has to a) remember (to look), recall and recognize, and repeat. Remembering to look is difficult even when using online bookmarks. Recall and recognize is what typically happens when people do a (desktop) search by typing in search terms and then scanning the list of results until they recognize what they are looking for. The whole process of remembering, recalling and recognizing is repeated in case the information sought consists of multiple parts.
When people encounter information it can be consumed immediately (e.g. a game score) or keep it for later use in which case a decision needs to be made of how and where to keep it so it can be found again. This process is error prone. Filing and tagging information is difficult because people often fail to remember existing folders and tags and create new instances leading to information dispersion.
Meta activities are strategic activities that consider a person's information collections, how their information is organized and how well this organization is working, and whether the information is secure and backed up. Making sense of and using information after it has been found is also part of these activities. Generally people struggle to organize their information, and usually don't have reliable backup routines.
A challenge in PIM research is to develop more practical methods for study of current PIM practices with more practical implications for the development of improved tools, techniques and training in support of better PIM. PIM requires the study of people, with a diversity of backgrounds and needs, over time as they work in many different situations, with different forms of information and different tools of information management. This scope of PIM inquiry brings a need for practical, cost-effective methodologies that can scale. Further, there is a need not only for descriptive studies aimed at better understanding how people currently practice PIM but also for prescriptive studies aimed both at evaluation and also towards the recommendation of proposed solutions in the form of new, improved tools, techniques and strategies of PIM.
It has been noted that the nature of PIM makes its study challenging in the extreme. Researchers seek to understand how people manage information using tools of information management. But it is important that the information managed be "personal". Traditional laboratory tasks risk abstracting away the "personal" from PIM. Furthermore, people don't just keep information; they keep information within the established organizations of their personal spaces of information (PSIs) - the folder structure of their laptop, or the drawers and layout of their physical desktop or a Facebook timeline.
There are a number of tools available for managing personal information, but these tools can become a part of the problem leading to "information fragmentation". Different devices and applications often come with their separate ways of storing and organizing information. NOTE: Many people confuse PIM tools with the study and practice of personal information management itself. See personal information manager for information about tools for personal information management.
PIM shares considerable, potentially synergistic overlap with disciplines such as cognitive science, human-computer interaction, information science, artificial intelligence, database management and information retrieval. PIM relates to but differs from other fields of inquiry that study the interactions between people, information and technology, personal network management.
Cognitive psychology, as the study of how people learn and remember, problem solve, and make decisions, necessarily also includes the study of how people make smart use of available information. The related field of cognitive science, in its efforts to apply these questions more broadly to the study and simulation of intelligent behavior, is also related to PIM. Cognitive science has strong connections to, some would say subsumes, the field of artificial intelligence.
There is great potential for a mutually beneficial interplay between cognitive science and PIM. Sub-areas of cognitive science of clear relevance to PIM include problem solving and decision making. For example, folders created to hold information for a big project such as "plan my wedding" may sometimes resemble a problem-decomposition. To take another example, signal detection task has long been used to frame and explain human behavior and has recently been used as a basis for analyzing our choices concerning what information to keep and how - a key activity of PIM.
Or consider categorization and concept formation. How are categories and concepts learned and used? Categories and concepts cannot be seen directly but may be reflected in the tags and folders people use to organize their information. Or consider the activities of reading and writing. Both are areas of study in cognitive psychology with clear relevance to the study of PIM.
Now large portions of a document may be the product of "copy-and-paste" operations (from our previous writings) rather than a product of original writing. Certainly, management of text pieces pasted for re-use is a PIM activity, and this raises several interesting questions. How do we go about deciding when to re-use and when to write from scratch? We may sometimes spend more time chasing down a paragraph we have previously written than it would have taken to simply write a new paragraph expressing the same thoughts. Beyond this, we can wonder at what point a reliance on an increasing (and increasingly available) supply of previously written material begins to impact our creativity.
As people do PIM they work in an external environment that includes other people, available technology and organizational setting. This means that situated cognition, distributed cognition, and social cognition all relate to the study of PIM.
The study of PIM is also related to the field of human-computer interaction (HCI). But PIM research puts emphasis on the broader study of how people manage their information over time using a variety of tools - some computer-based, some not.
The user-subjective approach is the first approach dedicated specifically to PIM systems design. Its theoretical foundations were first published in a Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology paper in 2003. Another JASIST paper with evidence and implementation for the approach was published in 2008. The paper had won the Best JASIST Paper award in 2009. The first user-subjective design scheme was developed and positively evaluated in a Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems paper published in 2009.
Group information management (GIM, usually pronounced with a soft "G") has been written about elsewhere in the context of PIM. The study of GIM, in turn, has clear relevance to the study of computer-supported cooperative work (CSCW). As a useful way to relate acronyms we can say that GIM is to CSCW as PIM is to HCI (human-computer interaction). Concerns of PIM substantially overlap with but are not fully subsumed by concerns of HCI (nor vice versa). Indeed, some of the more influential papers on PIM over the years have been published in HCI journals and conference proceedings .
However, the "I" in PIM is for information - how can we as individuals (the "P"), better manage (the "M") our information (in all 6 senses as listed above) regardless of the form it takes - papers and books, digital documents and emails or even the letter magnets on a refrigerator in the kitchen. The "I" in HCI stands for "interaction" as this relates to the "C" - computers. A similar distinction can be made with respect to GIM and CSCW.
The study of information management and knowledge management in organizations relates to the study of PIM. Jones notes that issues seen first at an organizational level often migrate to the PIM domain.
PIM can help to motivate and will also benefit from work in information retrieval and database management. For example, data mining techniques might be applied to mine and structure personal information.
By similar argument, a discussion of time management or task management on a personal level quickly takes us back to a discussion of PIM. Both time and task management make heavy use of information tools and external forms of information such as to-do lists, calendars, timelines, Gantt charts, etc.; this information, to be managed like other information.
Personal network management (PNM) is a crucial aspect of PIM and can be understood as the practice of managing the links and connections for social and professional benefits.