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Cathy Marshall on Personal Digital Libraries

Yesterday I attended a lecture given by Cathy Marshall on her nascent research into Personal Digital Libraries. Cathy has written a lot about hypertext, digital libraries, the experience of reading, and other such subjects, and it’s now seeming to come together in research on how we will maintain our own digital libraries.

Cathy’s work strongly dovetails with the burgeoning discussion on personal information architecture. Cathy’s talk isn’t served well by providing verbatim notes, so I’ll summarize the main points.

Personal Libraries
Cathy began the discussion of Personal Digital Libraries by wondering, “What is a personal library, anyway?” She showed photos of her “library”, which was essentially a bunch of bookshelves, file folders, stuff strewn about on desks and tables.

One of the things I took away is that it might be better to distinguish between “library” and “collection” — and I would argue that Cathy is talking about Personal Digital Collections.

A key element of personal collections is their heterogeneity — photos, documents, books, receipts, tax forms, software, video, audio, pin buttons, etc. etc.

The Equation
So then she asked, “Well, why isn’t a personal digital library just my computer and all the files on it?”

And she claimed that it’s more than that, that:

Personal Digital Library = PC + X

Where X=
{readability, contextual search, a means to organize and browse, ways to share, security}
{interactivity, re-encounter, sustainability}

The focus of her talk was the last three, which are newer issues to face… The first five are pretty well-understood and well-addressed problems.

Cathy rehashed claims that “people don’t/won’t read on the screen,” and then went on to dispute them. She said that the technological feasibility of screen readability is fast approaching, and that claims otherwise tend to be borne of unwarranted anxiety or skepticism.

[Side note: I’ve never fully appreciated this fear of reading on the screen. Maybe it’s because I’ve been reading on screens since I was 12. This strikes me as so obviously a generational issue.]

The Changing Nature of Reading
She addressed some cultural conditions that may be changing the nature of reading.

We read in alignment with our fragmented schedules — “I’ve got 20 minutes, I’ll read X.”

There’s so much reading to do that it’s becoming demand-driven.

People who print digital documents to “read them later” almost never do — the act of printing serves as a psychological substitute for reading.

Mobility increases screen reading. When it was a desktop PC, people read less, but now with laptops and wi-fi, people are able to get comfortable and read.

And, obviously, we get more of what we read in digital form.

And now… back to the missing pieces in thinking about personal digital libraries

Interactivity is missing from most digital material. There’s no record of its use. She quotes Baudrillard (Cool Memories II) “The compact disc. It doesn’t wear out, even if you use it. Terrifying. It’s as though you’d never used it. So it’s as though you didn’t exist. If things don’t get old any more, then that’s because it’s you who are dead.”

Many of the reasons people *do* print digital material is to share it, file it, write on it, and stack it up for later — all interactions that are not well-supported by computers.

Three key kinds of interaction with reading that Cathy’s observed that people do over 15 years of field research:
– personal annotation
– clipping (either to save for self, or to share)
– gathering/triage (combing through many sources and weeding to specific items for research)

And for each, the computer suffers

Annotation — it’s un-self-conscious to scribble in margins, or underline a printed piece. Using a keyboard and mouse to make annotations makes it a conscious act.

To-handedness — Ripping a page out of a magazine is easy and compelling… Trying to do the equivalent in a PC is not

Informality of expression — with printed things, piling things on your desk is often more compelling than filing them away — particularly if you’re doing research. On a PC, things automatically get ordered, it’s hard to recognize “where” they are.

Cathy spent a very long time discussing annotations.

[Side note: I don’t annotate printed material. At least, not *in* the printed material. None of my books have marks made by me. I do occasionally take notes in a notebook about something I read.]

The biggest takeaway for me about annotations was that they are fundamentally personal — they are not meant for others. Oftentimes, they are extremely temporal — a week later, people don’t remember what they meant by a particular annotation. So the question is… will people want to share annotations if they are so personal? What does that do to “annotating”?

Clipping occurs for many different reasons. The classic reason — to keep something for later reference — is probably the least salient.

People clip items they haven’t finished, so they can finish it later.

People clip items as reminders for action. Think about putting an event notice on a refrigerator.

People clip to share — “Did you see this?”

A problem with clipping and computers is that it’s really hard to “leave things out” on a computer. The power of clippings is that they turn up throughout your life to remind you they are there.

This is about interacting with multiple documents for a single project/purpose. Oftentimes when we’re doing this, we organize documents spatially. This becomes very hard on a computer, where we have to consciously classify everything — we can’t just say “this belongs next to that”.

Personal Geography
People organize their “library” relative to the specific task at hand at a particular point in time. Over the long-term, the point of a particular organizational scheme may get lost. What does this mean for “personal libraries”?

Cathy claimed that “over both the short and long term, the most important effect of these artifacts of interaction is to form a personal geography.” I think “personal geography” is a powerful notion — recognizing spatiality, inter-relatedness, etc.

A key finding in Cathy’s research has been that there is a third way of returning to stuff in our personal libraries.

The two most commonly understood methods are
1. search
2. browse

The third, not-well-understood method is
3. re-encounter
Re-encounter is “when the thing itself reminds you of something.” It’s serendipity. It’s how the artifact spurs thinking, thinking that was forgotten until the artifact was seen again.

As we mentioned, clippings often serve this role of reminding us to do something. “I left this photo out, to remind me to send a letter to a colleague in chicago.”

Cathy pointed out that, as search gets better (with things like, say, Google Desktop), the chance for serendipity *decreases*, which means the chance of re-encounter decreases.

Cathy then spent a very long time talking about how we will preserve/archive/maintain/sustain the items in our personal digital libraries. This was very much about media (how do you read a 5 1/4″ floppy these days?), formats, etc.

She pointed to a recent New York Times Article, “Even Digital Memories Can Fade” .

Personally, while I recognize the value of people worrying about sustainability, it’s hard for me to get really interested in it, so my attention started to wane.


That was the gist of Cathy’s talk. I’ve got plenny more thoughts on Personal Information Architecture which I’ll share.

But first, off to Santa Cruz Wine Country.

  1. This is a good question for the people who use Flickr and

    With digital text you’re confined to the same problems we have with emails and AIM. Do we use Icons to show emotions? Do you draw a sketch with a mouse?

    The physical act of browsing will still feel like work as you use the same actions while at work. When I’m browsing I like to sit at the couch (or the can). When I work I sit at the computer. Maybe tablet-pcs with WiFi will solve the problem(s)?

    I’ve been tackling this for a while with my personal site. In the end, I still go for the physical book. no format issues, no power issues, no location issues, no crashing!

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