PIM definitions

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PIM has been defined by several researchers. Although definitions are similar to one another they also supplement each other. The main reason is that some authors have different understanding of what personal information is. Richard Boardman for example defines personal information as information under one person's control. William Jones on the other hand understands personal information in a much broader sense.

Before defining Personal Information Management a few other terms have to be defined.

Personal Information

Mark Lansdale defines personal information as such: information not in a sense that is private, but that we have it for our own use. We own it and would feel deprived if it would be taken away [1].

Richard Boardman defines personal information as information owned by an individual and over which this individual has a direct control.[2]

William Jones and Jaime Teevan state that personal information can take various senses. They extend above the definitions of personal information with three other areas [3]:

  • the information a person directly or indirectly keeps for personal use,
  • information about a person kept under control of others (e.g. medical records),
  • information experienced by a person but not in a person’s control (a book from library) and
  • information directed to a person (email).

It has to be noted that personal information can exist in various formats and types and it resides in physical or real world and in many digital worlds on our digital devices.

Information Item

Information item is a self contained unit of information which in digital world exists in different technological formats (files, emails, web pages, etc.) and may contain metadata defined by the user or system (size, creation date, name, etc.).[2]

Another definition describes information item as packaging of information in a persistent form that can be acquired, created, moved, grouped with other information items, given name and properties, distributed, deleted or otherwise manipulated. Information items exists in various information forms or types determined by tools or applications that make it possible to manipulate them. [3]

Information items as described above can be for example: a MS Word file, a digital photography, stapled papers, a printed photo book, a cut out article from a newspaper, a book, etc. Any of these information items can be manipulated as a whole.

There is another view on this issue. People reference to sentences, paragraphs, chapters in books. They might be interested in only one recipe in a recipes book for example. Or they are interested in only a small part of a web site or an email. Or they refer to a table in a digital document which has 100 pages. As Scott Fertig, Eric Freeman and David Gelernter argued that desktop metaphor is full of artifacts that shape our information management [4], maybe documents' formats are artifacts that prevent us to manipulate information chunks. Some might argue that copying/pasting a piece of text does allow us to use information from one item in another but it loses its original context. Some PIM tools (Snip!it, Haystack) have addressed this issue and allowe users to granulate information. The opened question is what is a piece of information to users in relation to an information item as described above.

Personal Information Collection

Personal Information Collections (PIC) are formed by information items.

Boardman describes a collection of personal information as a self-contained set of information items that share the same technological format and can be accessed in a particular application (with the exception of a file system that holds files in different technological formats): email collection, web bookmark collection, a collection of email addresses, etc.[2]. Alvarado et. al. call this a corpus: a corpus is a major subset of documents threated as a group by application (email client for managing emails, bookmark and file manager, application for managing photos, music, videos, etc.)[5].

Jones and Teevan do not limit PICs to one technological format, rather PICs are formed based on person’s activities. As such a PIC can take forms of a sub-collection of well organized files or stored bookmarks or even contain files, emails and other information types. PICs are important as they represent smaller chunks (e.g. folders in a hierarchy) out of PSI which can be managed together.[3]

Examples of PICs by Jones and Teevan from the book[3]

  • The papers in a well-ordered office and their organization, including the layout of piles ona a desk and folders in a file cabinet
  • The papers in a specific file cabinet and their organizing folder (where the whole office is a mess)
  • Project related information items dumped in a folder in a file hierarchy and organized over time
  • A carefully maintained web bookmarks collection to useful reference sites on the Web
  • A Bibtex/EndNote reference database of articles

Task Information Collection

To complete a task information from various sources is needed. Such information could be only residing in one tool and managed together as a PIC. Creation of a PIC is based on a performed task but it also depends on actual application used to manage it. For example information items in one hierarchy can be stored and managed as a PIC together in a folder which provides a simple yet intuitive way of storing semantically connected information of one technological format (or more if we have a folder of files). Simple problems arise when an item belongs to several folders. But more often information needed to complete a task is managed by several tools.

Information related to one task can include sets of files and folders, web pages, contacts, to–do notes, calendar inputs and emails, information from the physical world and new items can enter a collection as well as old items leave it. Such information can reside in several PICs managed in different applications in different ways and can include also individual information items dispersed in (digital and physical) PSI which are not a part of any task based PIC (a set of all emails in Inbox). This information neede to complete a task is called Task Information Collection (TIC).[6]

With present tools managing TICs is left to users as PIM applications do not support managing items dispersed over several folders, hierarchies (applications) and devices. Users create mental links between information items of a TIC. TIC includes also mental links information pieces that are ac quired knowledge in users’ heads. Mental links between items in one TIC and across TICs form a complex interrelated alive environment of information items.

Note the difference between PIC and TIC.

  • While PIC can be managed together, TIC can not be
  • The whole PIC or just a part of PIC can take part of one or many TICs (eg. a folder in a well organized web bookmarks collection takes a part of a TIC)
  • Several PICs (or sub PICs) and individual information items that take part of a TIC are mentally linked in users' heads
  • TIC is of temporal nature (users forget links when information is not used anymore) while PIC is more time resistant

Personal Space of Information

Boardman calls a complete set of collections a Personal Information Environment (PIE).[2]

Jones and Teevan call it a Personal Space of Information (PSI). [3]

PSI or PIE is not limited to a person's digital world. Rather it includes all (four groups of) personal information from the physical and digital worlds on different devices.

Personal Information Ecosystem

Another term was coined by Manas Tungare to describe the system of digital devices (desktop, portable computers, mobile and smart phones, PDA's, etc.) that we use to complete our task and the flow of information from one device to another. As he explains it:[7]

A personal information ecosystem can be defined as a system of devices and applications that are present in the information environment of a user, that interact closely and richly with one another, to help the user achieve the goal of fulfilling his/her information needs.

To illustrate his idea he describes an ecosystem of the iPod and iTunes. The two devices were designed to be used together, so much so that the iPod cannot be used effectively without iTunes. As a contrast of a badly designed ecosystem (if we can call it as such) is when users work on documents on different devices (e.g. a work computer and a home computer) but when moving files between the two devices, they struggle to keep track of their files on both devices.

The personal information ecosystem is a subset of PSI. It describes the cohabitation of digital devices and applications in relation to user's tasks.

Personal archive

Kaye et. al. use the word personal archive to describe all information one accumulates over time [8].

Their definition of archiving has a lot of similarities with the below definitions of PIM. They describe archiving as an activity that occurs across media, locations, careers and time, an ongoing practice of selection, organization, collation, display, storage, retrieval and disposal.

Boardman noted that there is a lack of terminology in the area. Especially the word archiving ha different meanings:

  • Whittaker and Sidner defines archiving as: categorizing (filing) long term information to be easily retrieved later. Archives or archiving are not important at the task at hand but are constructed for reference and possible future use [9].
  • Barreau defines the archiving as the removal of an item from a collection for storage elsewhere [10].

Personal Information Management

Here are some definitions by different authors ordered by year of publication. Definitions are similar to one another but are supplementing each other as well.

Mark Lansdale[1] - 1988

PIM are the methods and procedures by which we handle, categorize, and retrieve personal information on a day-to-day basis. Personal information is information not in a sense that it is private, but that we have it for our own use. We own it and would feel deprived if it would be taken away. The primary reason (there may be others) for keeping this information is to be able to retrieve and use it in the future.

Deborah Barreau[10] - 1995

A personal information management system (PIM) is an information system developed by or created for an individual for personal use in a work environment. It includes a person’s methods and rules for acquiring the information which becomes part of the system, the mechanisms for organizing and storing the information, the rules and procedures for maintaining the system, the mechanisms for retrieval, and the procedures for producing the various outputs required.

Victoria Bellotti et. al.[11] - 2002

Personal information management is the ordering of information through categorization, placement, or embellishment in a manner that makes it easier to retrieve when it is needed. It may also involve a great deal of information related to coordination and collaboration (collaborative information management). It may involve resources such as piles, collections, file hierarchies, notes, to-do lists, calendars, contact managers and so on.

Richard Boardman[2] - 2004

The management of personal information (information owned by an individual, and under their direct control) as performed by the owning individual.

Joseph Kaye[8] - 2006

Although defining the word archiving their definition holds for what most researcher call PIM.

Archiving is an activity that occurs across media, locations, careers and time, an ongoing practice of selection, organization, collation, display, storage, retrieval and disposal of information ... The goals of information archiving are: to find it later, share with others, fear of loss, identity construction and impression management.

William Jones[12] - 2008

Formal definition

Personal information management (PIM) refers to both the practice and the study of the activities a person performs in order to acquire or create, store, organize, maintain, retrieve, use and distribute the information needed to meet life's many goals (everyday and long-term, work-related and not) and to fulfill life's many roles and responsibilities (as parent, spouse, friend, employee, member of community, etc.). PIM places special emphasis on the organization and maintenance of personal information collections in which information items, such as paper documents, electronic documents, email messages, web references, handwritten notes, etc., are stored for later use and repeated re-use.

Informal definition

PIM is about finding answers to questions such as these:
  • What should I do with all my digital photographs and videos? Will I still be able to see these in thirty or forty years or will they disappear like all the data on my first PC disappeared?
  • Why do I seem to practically live in my email inbox? (if you can call this living). I try to keep up with email but then I don't seem to get anything else done.
  • How should I organize my hard drive? I know what to do with paper documents but my computer files are a mess! Sometimes I think I'd be better off reformatting my hard drive and starting all over again.

But PIM is also about finding answers to this question:

  • How can I get smarter about the way I manage my information so that I have more time for my family, friends and the things I really care about in life?

Matjaž Kljun[6] - 2009

PIM can be described as management (handling, storing, classifying, organizing, sharing, protecting, archiving) of personal information by a person for various purposes (later retrieving, reminding, collecting, decorating etc.) to support needs and tasks.


  1. 1.0 1.1 Mark Lansdale. 1988. The psychology of personal information management. Applied ergonomics, 19(1:55-66. Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "lansdale" defined multiple times with different content
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 Richard Boardman, 2004, Improving Tool Support for Personal Information Management, Doctoral dissertation, Imperial College, London
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 William Jones and James Teevan, editors. Personal Information Management. University of Washington Press, 2007
  4. Scott Fertig, Eric Freeman and David Gelernter, "Finding and reminding" reconsidered, SIGCHI Bull., 1/28, 1996
  5. Christine Alvarado, Mark Ackerman, David Karger and Jaime Teevan. Surviving the information explosion. Technical report. 2003
  6. 6.0 6.1 Matjaž Kljun, Alan Dix and Franc Solina. A Study of a Crosstool Information Usage on Personal Computers: how users mentally link information relating to a task but residing in different applications and how importance and type of acquisition affect this. 2009 PDF
  7. Tungare, M., Pyla, P.S., Pe ́rez-Quin ̃ones, M., Harrison, S.: Personal information ecosystems and implications for design. Technical Report cs/0612081, ACM Computing Research Repository (2006)
  8. 8.0 8.1 Joseph ’Jofish’ Kaye, Janet Vertesi, Shari Avery, Allan Dafoe, Shay David, Lisa Onaga, Ivan Rosero, and Trevor Pinch. To have and to hold: exploring the personal archive. In CHI ’06: Proceedings of the SIGCHI conference on Human Factors in computing systems, pages 275–284, New York, NY, USA, 2006. ACM.
  9. Steve Whittaker and Candace Sidner. Email overload: exploring personal information management of email. In CHI ’96: Proceedings of the SIGCHI conference on Human factors in computing systems, pages 276–283, New York, NY, USA, 1996. ACM.
  10. 10.0 10.1 Deborah Barreau, Context as a factor in personal information management systems, Journal of the American Society for Information Science, 5/46, 1995
  11. Victoria Bellotti , Nicolas Ducheneaut , Mark Howard , Christine Neuwirth , Ian Smith. Innovation in extremis: evolving an application for the critical work of email and information management. Proceedings of the 4th conference on Designing interactive systems: processes, practices, methods, and techniques .2002
  12. William Jones, Keeping Found Things Found: The Study and Practice of Personal Information Management, 2008, Morgan Kaufman