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How Academics Manage their Personal Digital and Paper Information in their Digital Work Space

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This is a guest post from Assistant Professor Kyong Eun Oh and Doctoral Student Vanessa Reyes, Simmons College School of Library and Information Science.

I asked them to share their research with readers of The Signal because some of the digital preservation challenges that Simmons College faces — and Oh and Reyes researched — hold true for many other colleges and universities: spreading awareness to professors and students about curating their own digital files. How can their institution help? Should their institution even help?

Vanessa Reyes, Simmons College. Photo by Vanessa Reyes.
Vanessa Reyes, Simmons College. Photo by Vanessa Reyes.
As a part of our ongoing research project, Managing Paper-Based Personal Information in Our Digital World, we investigated the differences between managing personal digital information and personal paper-based information among academics. Advances in technology have affected personal archiving behaviors; what is relatively unknown is:

  • Which practices are being carried out by academics in managing different formats of personal information?
  • Is there is any preference for one format over the other?
  • What is the proportion of paper-based and digital personal information?
  • What are the strengths and weaknesses in managing two different formats?
Kyong Eun Oh, Simmons College. Photo by Keon Eun Oh.
Kyong Eun Oh, Simmons College. Photo by Anne Pepitone.

We recruited nine full-time faculty members in various disciplines, visited each of their offices and asked them to give a grand-tour of their offices while describing how they keep and manage their personal collections. Then we interviewed each of them about how they managed their personal paper-based and digital information in their offices.

A preliminary analysis of the results showed that regardless of discipline, professors predominantly kept personal digital information over personal paper-based information in their offices. Also professors maintained digital information for a longer period of time compared to paper-based information.

For example, Participant 8 stated, “So the electronic information, I basically have not stopped collecting them since I got a computer. I have a hard drive back in my apartment that has papers that I wrote for my freshman year. Paper-based information doesn’t tend to stick around that long.” The reason digital information items were kept longer seemed to be primarily because of the vast space available to store their digital information. For instance, Participant 9 said, “I’ve got, like, a gigabyte on my hard drive on my laptop. There’s no real reason to get rid of it.” These responses indicated the importance of having enough space to keep personal information.

The strengths of managing digital information, compared to paper-based information, included:

  • Easier management
  • Vast storage space
  • Accessibility
  • Findability
  • Ability to have multiple copies
  • Perceived longer lifespan.

For example, Participant 7 responded, “Digital information takes a lot less space and I think because the way I’m set up, it’s easier to organize and I always have it on backup.” In a similar vein, Participant 6 said, “Digital. I think it’s faster, it’s easier, it’s more ecological – how do you say, environmentally friendly, you know, you always have it there, you go back to your email and you do search.” These responses reveal the significance of easy management and findability of information in personal information management (PIM).

It also brings up a common issue in the digital preservation field, which is the importance of having personal digital information in a safe and accessible place, especially when there is no preservation plan. Based on the initial results from this study, we can think about the following questions to widen the conversation. (1) How many academics have a plan for maintaining their personal information? (2) If they have backups of their personal digital information, do they have a regular backup or maintenance schedule? To have digital information always available in a safe location, it is necessary to have an adequate plan or system that supports this. In the case of our study, no participants mentioned following a preservation plan for their personal digital documents or having a reliable system that supports preserving their personal information items.

We also found the weaknesses of managing digital information when compared to paper-based information. These included:

  • Difficulty in taking notes
  • Loss of physical interaction
  • Decreased readability
  • Less portability
  • Need to have a machine/device to access information
  • Loss of personal sentiment.

For example, Participant 8 mentioned that, “Sometimes, in meetings, it’s easier to just draw a quick few notes than trying to put things on the text in a way that I will be sure to remember that I put it there later, and it won’t just kind of blend in.” While describing what he/she likes about managing paper-based information, Participant 2 said, “Transportability, readability, and I have it. I don’t have to access it.” Participant 5 also mentioned that, “I think there’s something tangible and quantifiable and weighable about paper that evades the electronic forms of communication.” These statements showed that while managing digital information is easier that people still like to have a tangible relationship with paper, which is a unique characteristic of interacting with non-digital information.

What were mentioned as weaknesses of managing digital information files including “less portability” as well as “need to have a machine/device to access information” highlighted the importance of having a machine-independent storage, which can be accessed without using a particular machine, such as virtual spaces. For example, if the storage is virtual, personal digital information could be easily accessed independent from the physical location or device.

Investigating how professors manage their personal information has been fascinating. The issue of personal digital archiving on campus, especially among academics, is emerging as an important topic. As we found in our study, most academics in the digital age predominantly keep their personal data in digital formats, although they still manage paper-based information.

Our study suggests that it would be ideal for academics to have a content management system that:

  1. provides ample space
  2. is easily accessible from various locations
  3. preserves information securely
  4. has enhanced searching and sorting functions.

If academics can set up a privacy level for different personal information items, having this system as a campus-wide digital repository may also promote effective information sharing.

Another recommendation is to partner information professionals with academics to create a system based on academics’ needs. This will contribute to securely preserving academics’ scholarly work and supporting the productivity of academics.

What we have introduced here is a portion of our preliminary analysis of data. We aim to dig deeper and further examine this area to enrich our understanding of the practices of the academics’ PIM. We expect that the results from our research project will deepen our understanding of how academics manage their personal information. We also hope that this study will contribute to the development and design of various PIM systems, tools, and applications that support academics’ management of their personal information.

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