Personal information management

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Personal information management (PIM) refers to the practice and the study of 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.).[1]

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:[1]

  1. Owned by "me"
  2. About "me"
  3. Directed toward "me"
  4. Sent/Posted by "me"
  5. Experienced by "me"
  6. Relevant to "me"

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.

History and background[edit]

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.[2] 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.[3]

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.[4][5] 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.[6] 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”,[7] developed one of the first hypertext systems, The Hypertext Editing System, in 1968.[8] That same year, Douglas Engelbart also completed work on a hypertext system called NLS (oN-Line System).[9] Engelbart advanced the notion that the computer could be used to augment the human intellect.[10][11] As heralded by the publication of Ulric Neisser’s book Cognitive Psychology,[12] 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.[13] 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.[14][15]

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.[16][17] Malone characterized personal organization strategies as ‘neat’ or ‘messy’ and described ‘filing’ and ‘piling’ approaches to the organization of information.[18] Other studies showed that people vary their methods for keeping information according to anticipated uses of that information in the future.[19] Studies explored the practical implications that human memory research might carry in the design of, for example, personal filing systems,[20][21][22] and information retrieval systems.[23] Studies demonstrated a preference for navigation (browsing, “location-based finding) in the return to personal files,[24] a preference that endures today notwithstanding significant improvements in search support.[25][26][27][28] 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.[29][30]


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.[31]) and on how people search and use information (human information behavior).[32] For re-finding a person has to a) remember (to look), recall and recognize, and repeat.[33] Remembering to look is difficult even when using online bookmarks.[34] 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 [35] because people often fail to remember existing folders and tags and create new instances leading to information dispersion.

Meta activities[edit]

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,[36] and usually don't have reliable backup routines.[37]


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.


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.

Related activities and areas[edit]

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 and cognitive science[edit]

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.[38] To take another example, signal detection task[39] 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.[40]

Or consider categorization and concept formation. How are categories and concepts learned and used? Categories and concepts can 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.

Human-computer and human-information interaction[edit]

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.[41] Another JASIST paper with evidence and implementation for the approach was published in 2008.[42] The paper had won the Best JASIST Paper award in 2009.[43] The first user-subjective design scheme was developed and positively evaluated in a Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems paper published in 2009[44]

Group information management[edit]

Group information management (GIM, usually pronounced with a soft “G”) has been written about elsewhere in the context of PIM [1] . 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.

Management of data, information, knowledge, time and tasks[edit]

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.[45]

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.

Relation to time management and productivity[edit]

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[edit]

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.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Jones, William (2008). Keeping Found Things Found. Morgan Kaufmann Publishers. ISBN 978-0-12-370866-3. 
  2. ^ F. A. Yates, The art of memory. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1966.
  3. ^ J. Yates, Control through communication: The rise of system in American management. Baltimore,MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989.
  4. ^ A. Newell and H. A. Simon, Human problem solving. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1972.
  5. ^ H. A. Simon and A. Newell, “Heuristic problem solving: The next advance in operations research,” Oper. Res., vol. 6, pp. 1–10., 1958.
  6. ^ D. E. Broadbent, Perception and communication. London, U.K.: Pergamon Press, 1958.
  7. ^ T. H. Nelson, “File structure for the complex, the changing, and the indeterminate,” in Proceedings of the 1965 20th ACM/CSC-ER national conference, Cleveland, OH, 1965, pp. 84–100.
  8. ^ S. Carmody, W. Gross, T. Nelson, D. Rice, and A. Van Dam, “A hypertext editing system for the /360,” in Pertinent concepts in computer graphics, Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1969, pp. 291–330.
  9. ^ D. C. Engelbart and W. K. English, “A Research Center for Augmenting Human Intellect,” in Proceedings of the December 9-11, 1968, Fall Joint Computer Conference, Part I, New York, NY, USA, 1968, pp. 395–410.
  10. ^ D. Engelbart, “Augmenting human intellect: A conceptual framework.,” SRI Rep., 1962.
  11. ^ D. C. Engelbart, “Special considerations of the individual as a user, generator and retriever of information,” Am. Doc., vol. 12, no. 2, pp. 121–125, 1961.
  12. ^ U. Neisser, Cognitive psychology. New York: Appleton-Century Crofts, 1967.
  13. ^ M. Lansdale, “The psychology of personal information management,” Appl Ergon, vol. 19, no. 1, pp. 55–66, 1988.
  14. ^ S. K. Card, T. P. Moran, and A. Newell, The psychology of human-computer interaction. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1983.
  15. ^ D. A. Norman, The psychology of everyday things. New York: Basic Books, 1988.
  16. ^ Cole, “Human aspects of office filing: implications for the electronic office,” in Human Factors Society 26th Annual Meeting, Seattle, WA, 1982, pp. 59–63.
  17. ^ D. O. Case, “Collection and organization of written information by social scientists and humanists: a review and exploratory study,” J Inf Sci, vol. 12, no. 3, pp. 97–104, 1986.
  18. ^ T. W. Malone, “How do people organize their desks: implications for the design of office information-systems,” ACM Trans. Off. Inf. Syst., vol. 1, no. 1, pp. 99–112, 1983.
  19. ^ B. H. Kwasnik, “How a personal document’s intended use or purpose affects its classification in an office,” in 12th Annual ACM SIGIR Conference on Research and Development in Information Retrieval (SIGIR 1989), Cambridge, MA, 1989, vol. 23, pp. 207–210.
  20. ^ W. P. Jones, “The Memory Extender Personal Filing System,” in Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, New York, NY, USA, 1986, pp. 298–305.
  21. ^ W. P. Jones, “On the applied use of human memory models: the memory extender personal filing system,” Int. J. Man-Mach. Stud., vol. 25, no. 2, pp. 191–228, Aug. 1986.
  22. ^ M. Lansdale and E. Edmonds, “Using memory for events in the design of personal filing systems,” Int. J. Man-Mach. Stud., vol. 36, pp. 97–126, 1992.
  23. ^ D. O. Case, “Conceptual organization and retrieval of text by historians - the role of memory and metaphor,” J Am Soc Inf Sci, vol. 42, no. 9, pp. 657–668, 1991.
  24. ^ D. Barreau and B. A. Nardi, “Finding and reminding: file organization from the desktop,” SIGCHI Bull, vol. 27, no. 3, pp. 39–43, 1995.
  25. ^ D. Barreau, “The persistence of behavior and form in the organization of personal information,” J Am Soc Inf Sci Technol, vol. 59, no. 2, pp. 307–317, 2008.
  26. ^ O. Bergman, R. Beyth-Marom, R. Nachmias, N. Gradovitch, and S. Whittaker, “Improved search engines and navigation preference in personal information management,” ACM Trans Inf Syst, vol. 26, no. 4, pp. 1–24, 2008.
  27. ^ O. Bergman, S. Whittaker, M. Sanderson, R. Nachmias, and A. Ramamoorthy, “The effect of folder structure on personal file navigation,” J Am Soc Inf Sci Technol, vol. 61, no. 12, pp. 2426–2441, 2010.
  28. ^ O. Bergman, S. Whittaker, M. Sanderson, R. Nachmias, and A. Ramamoorthy, “How do we find personal files?: the effect of OS, presentation, & depth on file navigation,” in Proceedings of the 2012 ACM annual conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, New York, NY, USA, 2012, pp. 2977–2980.
  29. ^ O. Bergman, R. Boardman, J. Gwizdka, and W. Jones, “A special interest group session on personal information management,” 2004.
  30. ^ W. Jones and H. Bruce, “A Report on the NSF-Sponsored Workshop on Personal Information Management, Seattle, WA, 2005,” in Personal Information Management 2005: A Special Workshop Sponsored by the National Science Foundation, Seattle, WA, USA, 2005.
  31. ^ Looking for Information / Case (2014)
  32. ^ Information Behavior Research: Where Have We been, Where are We Going / Julien & O'Brien (2014
  33. ^ The Psychology of Personal Information Management / Lansdale (1988)
  34. ^ Saving and Using Encountered Information / Marshall & Bly (2005)
  35. ^ Information Behavior That Keeps Found Things Found / Bruce, Jones, & Dumais (2004)
  36. ^ Getting Lost in Email: How and Why Users Spend More Time in Email Than Intended / Hanrahan (2015)
  37. ^ The Long Term Fate of Digital Belongings: Toward A Service Model for Personal Archives / Marshall, Bly, & Brun-Cottan (2006)
  38. ^ Jones, W., Phuwanartnurak, A. J., Gill, R., & Bruce, H. (2005, April 2–7). Don't take my folders away! Organizing personal information to get things done. Paper presented at the ACM SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI 2005), Portland, OR.
  39. ^ Peterson, W. W., Birdsall, T. G., & Fox, W. C. (1954). The theory of signal detectability. Institute of Radio Engineers Transactions, PGIT-4, 171-212.
  40. ^ Jones, W. (2004).Finders, keepers? The present and future perfect in support of personal information management. First Monday.
  41. ^ The user-subjective approach to personal information management systems - Bergman - 2003 - Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology - Wiley Online Library. Retrieved on 2013-09-09.
  42. ^ The user-subjective approach to personal information management systems design: Evidence and implementations - Bergman - 2007 - Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology - Wiley Online Library. Retrieved on 2013-09-09.
  43. ^ Best JASIST Paper Award. Retrieved on 2013-09-09.
  44. ^ It's not that important. Retrieved on 2013-09-09.
  45. ^ Jones, W. (2007). Personal information management. In B. Cronin (Ed.), Annual Review of Information Science and Technology (ARIST) (Vol. 41). Medford, NJ: Information Today.

Books and articles on PIM[edit]

  • Bellotti, Victoria, Ducheneaut, Nicolas, Howard, Mark & Smith, Ian. (2003) "Taking email to task: the design and evaluation of a task management centered email tool." In Proceedings of the SIGCHI conference on Human factors in computing systems. Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, USA : ACM
  • Bergman, Ofer, Boardman, Richard, Gwizdka, Jacek & Jones, William. "Personal information management." Extended Abstracts of the 2004 Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (pp. 1598–1599), Vienna, Austria.
  • Bergman, Ofer, Beyth-Marom, Ruth & Nachmias, Rafi (2006). "The project fragmentation problem in personal information management." In Proceedings of the SIGCHI conference on Human Factors in computing systems. Montréal, Québec, Canada : ACM.
  • Bergman, Ofer, Beyth-Marom, Ruth & Nachmias, Rafi (2008). The user-subjective approach to personal information management systems design: Evidence and implementations. Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology 59(2): pp 235–246.
  • Bergman, Ofer, Beyth-Marom, Ruth, Nachmias, Rafi, Gradovitch, Noa & Whittaker, Steve (2008). Advanced search engines and navigation preference in personal information management. Special Issue of ACM Transactions on Information Systems on Keeping, Re-finding and Sharing Personal Information 26(4): pp. 30–54.
  • Bergman, Ofer, Whittaker, Steve, Sanderson, Mark, Nachmias, Rafi, & Ramamoorthy, Aanad (2010). The effect of folder structure on personal file navigation. Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology 61(12): pp 2426–2441.
  • Boardman, Richard & Sasse, M. Angela. (2004) "Stuff goes into the computer and doesn't come out": a cross-tool study of personal information management." In Proceedings of the SIGCHI conference on Human factors in computing systems. Vienna, Austria : ACM.
  • Dumais, Susan, Cutrell, Edward, Cadiz, J. J., Jancke, Gavin, Sarin, Raman & Robbins, Daniel C. (2003) "Stuff I've seen: a system for personal information retrieval and re-use." In Proceedings of the 26th annual international ACM SIGIR conference on Research and development in information retrieval. Toronto, Canada : ACM
  • Jones, W. (2004).Finders, keepers? The present and future perfect in support of personal information management. First Monday, 9(3). Available at
  • Jones, W. (2007). Personal information management. In B. Cronin (Ed.), Annual Review of Information Science and Technology (ARIST) (Vol. 41). Medford, NJ: Information Today.
  • Jones, W. (2007). Keeping Found Things Found: The Study and Practice of Personal Information Management. Burlington, MA: Morgan Kaufmann Publishers. Book info at: Morgan Kaufmann | Amazon ISBN 978-0-12-370866-3
  • Jones, W. (2012). The future of personal information management, part I: our information, always and forever (Vol. 4). Morgan & Claypool Publishers. Retrieved from
  • Jones, W. (2013). Transforming Technologies to Manage Our Information: The Future of Personal Information Management, Part 2. Synthesis Lectures on Information Concepts, Retrieval, and Services, 5(4), 1–179.
  • Jones, W. & Teevan, J. (Eds.) (2007). Personal Information Management. Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press. Book info at: University of Washington Press | Amazon ISBN 978-0-295-98737-8
  • Kaye, Joseph 'Jofish', Vertesi, Janet, Avery, Shari, Dafoe, Allan, David, Shay, Onaga, Lisa, Rosero, Ivan & Pinch, Trevor. (2006) "To have and to hold: exploring the personal archive." In Proceedings of the SIGCHI conference on Human Factors in computing systems. Montréal, Québec, Canada : ACM.
  • Lansdale, M.W. (March 1988) "The psychology of personal information management." Applied Ergonomics. 19:1, pp. 55–66.
  • Ravasio, Pamela, Schär, Sissel Guttormsen & Krueger, Helmut. (2004) "In pursuit of desktop evolution: User problems and practices with modern desktop systems." ACM Trans. Comput.-Hum. Interact.. 11:2, pp. 156–180.
  • Teevan, Jaime, Jones, William & Bederson, Benjamin B. (2006 January) "SPECIAL ISSUE: Personal information management." Commun. ACM. 49:1
  • Trullemans, Sandra & Signer, Beat (2014) "From User Needs to Opportunities in Personal Information Management: A Case Study on Organisational Strategies in Cross-Media Information Spaces" In Proceedings of the International Conference on Digital Libraries. London, UK
  • Trullemans, Sandra & Signer, Beat (2014) "Towards a Conceptual Framework and Metamodel for Context-aware Personal Cross-Media Information Management Systems" In Proceedings of the 33rd International Conference on Conceptual Modelling. Atlanta, USA
  • Whittaker, Steve & Sidner, Candace. (1996) "Email overload: exploring personal information management of email." In Proceedings of the SIGCHI conference on Human factors in computing systems: common ground. Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada : ACM.
  • Whittaker, S., and Hirschberg, J. (2001). "The character, value and management of paper archive." ACM Transactions on Computer Human Interaction, 8, 150-170.
  • Whittaker, Steve (2011). Personal information management: From Consumption to Curation. In B. Cronin (Ed.), Annual Review of Information Science and Technology (ARIST) (Vol. 45). Medford, NJ: Information Today.

Other resources[edit]