personal information ecology

I've been getting a lot of questions recently about what technology tools--both software and devices--I use for collecting, storing, and retrieving information. As someone whose academic training was in library science, this is a topic I think (and care) about a lot. And while I'm not very good at organizing my physical environment, I do a pretty good job of organizing my digital life. Here's a rundown of what I'm currently using, and for what...organized by task rather than by platform, because most of what I use is cross-platform anyways.

Much of the way I deal with information is shaped by the fact that I have two computers--a big, heavy MacBook Pro that mostly sits on my family room table, and a small, light MacBook Air that travels with me--as well as an iPhone and an iPad. (Skip the "ur a stoopid Apple fangirl comments, mkay? I use each for different reasons, I find them all useful, nearly everything I'm about to discuss will work perfectly well on PCs and Android devices, and none of that is really the point of this post.)

Note Taking

I have terrible handwriting, and stopped taking notes on paper a long time ago. I do nearly all of my note-taking on my MacBook Air. I used to put all my notes into plain text files, using BBEdit (a Mac-based ASCII text editor). But I had a hard time keeping track of them, and an even harder time accessing them from other devices.

Now I use Evernote for note-taking. I love it, for a number of reasons. First, there are clients for all of my computers and mobile devices. Second, there's a web interface that lets me access my notes from someone else's computer (or in a lab at RIT). Third, I can take photos of whiteboards and/or handwritten notes, and Evernote will do text recognition on the images. Since everything, including the images, is easily searchable, I seldom have trouble finding the notes I took on a given subject or at a specific meeting.

Even better, Evernote now seems to be integrated with my calendar on my iDevices, so when I create a new note during a time that a meeting is scheduled, it automatically names it with that meeting. That just makes me happy!

I know Evernote is useful for other things, but note-taking is pretty much all I use it for, and it's perfect for that task.

The Evernote software is free, but a premium account (which I have) will run you $5/months or $45/year. The big advantage of the premium account for me is offline access to any of your notebooks, which has been really helpful when I travel (especially overseas, where data is harder to come by). It has other perks, as well, like way more storage space, but since I use Evernote mostly for plain text notes and a handful of images, that's not a big issue for me the way the offline access is.

Saving and Sharing Things I Find Online

I was one of the earliest users of the social bookmarking site (a quick search of my archives indicates I started using it in December 2003-- good god, was it really over 8 years ago??), but after its acquisition by Yahoo my usage declined, and when it changed hands again last year I pretty much let it go. Since then, I've tried a couple of tools for online bookmarking, but hadn't really found anything that worked for me. (Including, which I had high hopes for but just didn't feel right to me.)

I loved two things about One was the ease with which I could share a set of bookmarks with others, by using a simple url that combined my username and a given tag. So, for instance, bookmarks related to the Intro to Interactive Media class (course number 295) could be referenced with The other was the fact that I could subscribe to the bookmarks of other users, and by doing that I was able to create a customized news page that showed me the links that people I was interested in were collecting. It was a great way to find new things, and keep up with what friends and colleagues cared about.

Over the past few months, I've found services that appear to address both of those needs, although not in the same system.

Pinterest is what I'm using to bookmark personal stuff--recipes, home decor and craft ideas, clothing, art, etc. It's great for an at-a-glance look at recipes or fashion, where recall is closely tied to how something looks, not what it's called. More importantly, it's what I'm using to see what other people are collecting. It's a highly visual site--everything is arranged by image, and you can't even add something that doesn't have an image or a video on the page (which is why this will never be my only bookmarking tool--there are too many things I want to save that are text only). It also suffers from a lack of tagging capability, so anything you add goes in one collection and one collection only.

Clipboard, a new service created by ex-Microsoft research exec Gary Flake, addresses my need to quickly bookmark and tag resources related to research and teaching. Unlike delicious, it actually allows me to grab a piece of the page (as large or small as I want...but not just as an image. The text and links come with it, as well, which is a really nice touch. As a result, I can find things by look as well as by text. I think this is going to become my new go-to site for organizing my work-related resources.

Finally, InstaPaper is what I use to save lengthy online text (magazine articles, long-form blog posts, etc) for reading later on a mobile device. When I'm in online browsing mode, I usually don't have the time to really immerse myself in a thoughtful text. But there are plenty of times during the day when I suddenly find myself with unexpected reading time--waiting for a doctor's appointment, sitting on an airplane, lying in bed unable to sleep. If I've saved the interesting things to read to Instapaper, I can launch the app on my iPhone or iPad and read them then. Instapaper strips out all the ads and awful formatting, and makes the text readable for even my aging eyes. There's no monthly charge for it, but I did pay for the iOS app.

Citation Management
I was an Endnote user for a very long time--I started using it for my dissertation research back in the '90s, in fact. But last year I finally switched away from Endnote, and started using Zotero for all of my citation management. What made it possible for me to make the jump to Zotero was that it allowed me to import my entire EndNote database--given that I had literally thousands of references, that was a non-trivial process.

Zotero is an open-source tool that runs inside of your browser. Until recently, it only worked with Firefox (cross-platform), but there's now a "standalone" version of Zotero, too. I haven't used the standalone version, so I'm going to talk about how the browser-based version works.

Zotero recognizes a large number of scholarly publication sites (like the ACM Digital Library, or JSTOR, or SSRN, or Google Scholar), and gives you a little icon in your URL bar that allows you to add the item to your library. If it's one of the sites it recognizes (generally one that has embedded appropriate metadata), it automatically adds all the bibliographic data to the citation for you. What's even better, though, is that it also grabs a snapshot of the item (or, in some databases, a downloaded copy of the PDF) and attaches it to the citation--so you've got easy offline access to the item at any point.

There's integration between Zotero and major word processors, just as there is with EndNote, so you can add in-text citations and a bibliography to your paper using whatever your preferred citation style is.

Zotero has some other nice features, as well--there's cloud storage, so you can sync your bookmarks to any computer you're using (and if you've got a giant library like mine, you can pay to upgrade your storage space), and there's the ability to create shared libraries that you can allow read and/or write access to for others. That works really well for collaborative research projects, or for bibliographies built by a class.

Sharing Data Across Computers
All of the tools above have the ability to allow me to access my data from any computer. But there are a lot of other files I work with on a regular basis--word processing files, spreadsheets, images, etc. For those, I use Dropbox. The free version gives you 2GB of space, but I pay for the next level up, which gives me 50GB for $99/year. It integrates into your OS (Mac or Windows), so that your Dropbox folder is simply another folder on your computer--but anything that you put into that folder gets saved to the cloud, and synced to your other devices when/if they're online. There are iOS clients, so I can access any of my files from any of my devices. And there's a web client, so I can grab a file from Dropbox from any internet-connected computer.

Because the files are stored locally as well as online, you have access even if you're not online (and even if the Dropbox server is down)--a big advantage over Google Docs, which always seems to have service outages during critical document editing periods for me!

You can also share a folder with other Dropbox users, so that any time one of you changes a file, the new version will be synced for everyone. This is great if you're working on a project with someone and don't want to be constantly emailing changed files back and forth. The downside is that you can't selectively grant read-only access to folders or files. That means if you share a folder with someone else, they could delete the contents of folder and the files would be removed from your computer, as well.


So, that's the gist of it. I've been using all of these tools (with the exception of Clipboard) for long enough now that they've become integral parts of my ecosystem. Many are "freemium" services (Evernote, Dropbox, Zotero) that I happily paid for once I realized their value to me. And the end result is that I have easy access to the information I need when I need it, despite the fact that I'm constantly moving between computers and mobile devices.

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This page contains a single entry published on April 18, 2012 9:29 AM.

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