Collect to organize, search as last resort

As unique as each person is, so is each personal library. People organize information they need on a daily basis in what could be called a "personal library". Studies about personal search engines showed, that such a personal library is not only for storing, but also for organizing your daily work. If your library is well structured, you get an overview on your projects and current tasks. This is why structure is needed to organize the collected information, and a search engine to dig through a pile is not enough.

A personal library could be very small or quite large, it could spread across many disks and web applications or it could be kept in a single folder. However large or fragmented, we need to organize it. If we concentrate on personal file collections stored on personal computers, than we can observe some interesting facts about the way people work. From research studies we know that personal file libraries are often organized by project (for example "cid project" or "repair roof") or document type ("powerpoints", "photos").

Now it is tempting to ask: given good personal search engines, do I need to collect and organize or can I just search in a big pile of information?

File cabinet by redjar

Researchers have looked at this question and  found some interesting answers. Jaime Teevan and her team found out, that a personal library is not only a place to search information, but also a place where you can spend time. Similar to walking around in front of your living room bookshelf or the boxes in your attic, browsing through information is a quality on itself. The browsing and navigation within an information library can give you hints on where to look next, you start to orient yourself by the clues you see. This combination of navigation and orientation can be called "orienteering" and the study says: 

The relatively small steps taken in orienteering also appeared to allow participants to maintain a sense of where they were, helping them to feel in control, to know they were traveling in the right direction with the ability to backtrack, and to feel certain they had fully explored the space when unable find what they were looking for.

So a personal library is not only a place to find information, but also to travel and orient yourself. They also found out that people usually preferred to navigate first and tried the desktop search engine only after navigation did not work. There is a need for us humans to organize information in a way that lets us orienteer inside the library. People rely on folders and other ways to collect information. Another study by Ofer Bergman and others showed that improvements in commercial search engines don't seem to affect retrieval and storage. Improved search engines do not lead to reduced reliance on folders. One could say, that making the perfect search engine is not going to help you find information, because we prefer to use navigation instead of searching.

What does this mean for you?

If you are organizing your personal information library, you can benefit from a good structure of folders and you will be able to orienteer yourself within your library. If you want to start with this today, you may take this article about  efficient file management as input. If you do not organize yourself, you may even lose money. For collaborative work and if your library is very large and is fragmented over more than one application, even that may not work as expected, then a tool like Refinder may serve you better to organize your personal library.