What is your personal knowledge management ecosystem?

Elisabeth here, wondering what your PKM ecosystem consists of.  Someone at THATCamp last week said she hadn’t thought of herself as having a personal knowledge management system, so let me elaborate:

Personal knowledge management is an activity people have been grappling with long before there were technology tools of the type we have today – but now it has a new label and there is more information coming at us as well as more tools.  What did we have 15 years ago – file folders, piles, bulletin boards, sticky notes, index cards, highlighters, dog-earing . . . ?

Typically, we didn’t ask how well those worked together.  Now, some of us are searching for the tool that will do it all for us – here are the functions that need doing on my list (in addition to the doctors’ phone numbers and the shopping list):

  • drop random thoughts in easily
  • store results of article database searches in subject folders
  • extract citation data and reformat it in different styles
  • save things I find on the web, or allow me to re-find them easily
  • help me organize our ideas
  • help me make sense of our ideas
  • store articles I want to read
  • let me make notes on those articles
  • tag articles with different subjects/keywords
  • search the texts of articles I’ve stored
  • let me write more productively than typical word processors
I still yearn for one tool, although years ago, when I took a personal knowledge management workshop with Steve Barth, who was about the only expert at the time, he told me I’d have to  give up that dream.  It took me years to accept that he was right.  Why?  I can find a tool that does one or two of these things the way I like to do them, and that does it really well.  The more functions it adds, the less likely I am to be satisfied by the way it does all of them.  And the less likely it is that it will do them all well.  Bigger programs tend to be clumsier and slower.
So I have not one PKM tool that does everything for me, but a PKM ecosystem. Here are the main software pieces, several of which I have used for years:
  • Evernote, my “junk drawer” :  it’s quick and easy to throw things in here, and I don’t have to think about how I want to classify them, but it’s also easy to re-find them (unlike my physical junk drawer).  This is the first stop for most things, and many will never need another home.  Some get tagged or put in a special notebook within Evernote; I also go through periodically and put some in another container, depending on how I want to use it.  Evernote is available on my Android phone, on and offline, and online on my Android tablet (which runs an ancient version of Android, since the manufacturer went out of business almost as soon as I bought it – hardware components are another post).
  • Zotero, for scholarly sources.  I still use the Firefox version, though I have the freestanding version as well.  One reason I stick with Zotero: it has metadata categories for source types beyond books and articles, such as blog posts, podcasts, interviews, cases, patents, etc.  Also, I like the fact that the main working interface is my machine; I am sometimes in the mountains with wretched internet service, and cloud-based storage would not work for me.  I love the notes features – both child notes (about articles) and free-standing notes, which I often use at the end of the day to note what progress I have made during the day (i.e., finished searching x database with search terms a, b, c, and here are my thoughts about how to start tomorrow)
  • TheBrain, a dynamic information mapper (most people would call it a mind map, but that term has negative associations for me, so I talk about information or idea mappers).   This is where I put things I want to visualize in web form.  It has copious notes fields and can handle many forms of attachments.  It’s the only one of my tools that requires a non-negligible expense, though I don’t consider it expensive.  One thing I love is that it recenters itself around whatever ide
    a I click on, so I am never lost on the fringe of my web.
  • Compendium , when I want to structure complex arguments logically, or track a wide-ranging discussion over time.

These are the main elements in my ecosystem – what are in yours?  How well are they working for you?  Where is your workflow breaking down?  What do you wish worked better?  What would entice you to change?

Note: TheBrain, PersonalBrain and WebBrain are trademarks or registered trademarks of TheBrain Technologies LP. Used with permission.


Welcome to Academic PKM!  I am Mary Axford, one of the blog’s ruling triumvirate.  The three of us – Crystal, Elisabeth, and myself – all come to the topic of PKM and productivity from somewhat different though overlapping viewpoints and interests.  We hope that makes for a stronger blog as we complement (as well as compliment) each other.

My interest in personal knowledge management (PKM) has grown out of my interest in library technology and is still anchored in it.  Since new productivity technologies and apps come out every day, I feel rather like the easily-distracted Dug the Dog in the movie Up, who announced his distraction (squirrel!) as he galumphed away to chase it.  I find myself often distracted by a shiny new toy of an app and want to tell you about it RIGHT THIS MINUTE.  In fact, many of those shiny toys don’t apply to academic libraries or our users, or duplicate what another product already does well.  So I will attempt to temper my enthusiasm and ask questions such as:

  • Is this product useful for librarians or those they serve [we will cover technology useful for faculty and students as well as librarians]
  • Is it specifically useful for productivity?  How do we define productivity?
  • Which trends in technology and services are having the most impact on productivity?  Is the impact negative, positive, or a combination of the two?

I am sure it is not original to her, but I remember being struck, while reading Meredith Farkas’ book Social Software in Libraries, by her insistence that Library 2.0 not be an end in itself, but that libraries evaluate new technologies by asking if it answers a need.  That will be my watchword for my blog entries.

Your comments will be valued and contribute to making this blog a dialog.

PKM and the digital humanities

Crystal, Mary and I had the opportunity to attend a THATCamp, a digital humanities camp, at the Atlanta University Center last week.  All three of us work more with  science, engineering and the social sciences than with the humanities; though I now support graduate work in the humanities at Kennesaw State, my career up till now has been with social and economic development and entrepreneurship, so I am just learning how people in humanities work.

I presented a typology of tools for PKM with examples of each type, and Crystal and Mary presented Evernote and OneNote in more depth.  From the discussions, we found that people in the humanities face the same kinds of issues as the folks we have been dealing with, that morass of mostly unstructured qualitative information which were not handled well by old-style personal information managers, with their largely structured and field-based approaches.

Someone raised the question, what is the difference between information and knowledge, and what is the difference between information management and knowledge management?  I answered by introducing the data-to-wisdom hierarchy (summarized by Bellinger, Castro and Mills here). However, I think what we refer to as PKM is a mixture of information and knowledge management, characterized by the need to simplify our systems by using containers that can hold both, and by the need to transform information into new knowledge.  I don’t want to enter into definitional discussions here.  I also think that  PIM brings to mind contact managers and similar software, which is far more limited than the kinds of tools that interest me.  Hence, for convenience, I have always used the term personal knowledge management, and hope that it  is fairly self explanatory.

I’d be interested in hearing from others whether you’ve found differences in PKM practices or needs across disciplines.  And of course – any reactions to the information/knowledge management terms.

Wanted: PKM Adventurers to join Us

Mary, Elisabeth and I all discovered our joint areas of interest in the field of Personal Knowledge Management (PKM) over the lunch table. We soon realized the value of sharing our individual experiences and discussing PKM concepts and tools together.   Extrapolating that idea, we began to talk about ways to engage other librarians and academic professionals ; we shared the desire to take part in a larger group discussion, yet we were not easily finding the platforms where other librarians were talking about PKM.  So we have created this blog to continue our discussions and to provide a place where others can join us in our exploration and adventures.  We plan to talk about PKM and its related concepts both in terms of theory and practical applications.  I’m sure there will be software reviews and “here’s a problem I’ve solved” posts.  There will also be “here’s something I’m still struggling with” entries and we will probably head down some dead ends on our adventure too.  Our hope is that others will become equally intrigued.  Wouldn’t a PKM for Librarians blog circle be a cool goal for our community?