Personal information management

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.). There are six ways in which information can be personal:

  • Owned by “me”
  • About “me”
  • Directed toward “me”
  • Sent/Posted by “me”
  • Experienced by “me”
  • 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 information). They then have more time to make creative, intelligent use of the information at hand in order to get things done, or to simply enjoy the information itself.

History and background

Although PIM is a relatively new field, information management began in spoken word; people would use mnemonics as PIM for the human memory.

Knowledge acquisition/elicitation has been an important area of study in its own right receiving special prominence in the 1980s as a way to define rules to drive expert systems.

A seminal paper in personal information management research is “Finding and Reminding” by Barreau and Nardi in 1995. It shows how ethnographic field studies can be used to derive testable theories for improving personal information management practices and tools. Many publications by others followed, until a workshop series was initiated with the first NSF-sponsored workshop on PIM held in Seattle, Washington, on January 27–29, 2005. The group gathered at this workshop started defining the field in a published report. This report formed the basis of the book Personal Information Management and follow-up workshops.

Research in the area of PIM also relates to work done under the term personal knowledge management. Whereas the focus there is on philosophy and integration with the theories created within knowledge management – a holistic approach – the focus of PIM research is on collecting statistically relevant data to support the core hypothesis of PIM (see for example the work of Steve Whittaker), and on creating and validating tools for 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.


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.

Related activities and areas

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.

Human-computer and human-information interaction

The study of PIM is also related to the field of human-computer interaction (HCI). However, 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

Management of data, information, knowledge, time and tasks

The study of information management and knowledge management in organizations relates to the study of PIM.

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.

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