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The Tension between the Personal and the Public

Cathy Marshall touched on this in her talk on personal digital libraries, and Gene addresses it in his post on personal information architecture: these new systems necessarily call into question the relationship between the personal and public.

Cathy discussed it with respect to annotations, markings, etc., that we might have in our personal digital library — the are typically made for ourselves… what happens when they get “published”?

Gene makes a comment that the lines between individual and group construction are blurring. To me, that doesn’t seem right… I think there’s a tension there, a butting up of the local and the social that’s not about smearing the boundaries.

Here’s what I mean. Cathy began her talk thinking about her own personal library, and that got me to think of my own. One bookshelf in particular:

Click to enlarge

This shelf was organized by my girlfriend in a fit of spring cleaning. She doesn’t really know much about the content of these books, wasn’t interested in finding out, and so used the easiest organization method available — by color.

When I first saw it, I thought it was funny, but didn’t think much else of it.

Then I tried to use it.

You know what? It works *great*. At least, for known-item searching. When I had a book in mind, I could readily find it, because, in my mind’s eye, I could picture it.

So, here we have an example of an organization scheme that’s extremely useful to me, and likely impenetrable to others. This is what I mean when I say that “blurring” doesn’t feel right. I think there’s going to be an out-and-out tension to resolve.

On a somewhat unrelated manner, this also shows the potential perils of separating form and content. Form (size, shape, color) is very important, from a cognitive perspective, in helping me remember the content. If all my books were white, no matter how well they were categorized, it would take me longer to find the ones I was looking for. Form provides cues that we act on.

What are the cues in our personal digital collections?

  1. A San Francisco bookstore recently reorganized their books by color as part of a weeklong art installation. Read more here:

    I talked to one of the people who worked on this at a party recently. As someone who spent years working in the book industry I couldn’t get past the how and why questions. I will admit that we had a lot of people who described the books they wanted by color; they’d seen it somewhere, couldn’t remember the name or the title — only the color.

  2. Gene makes a comment that the lines between individual and group construction are blurring. To me, that doesn’t seem right… I think there’s a tension there, a butting up of the local and the social that’s not about smearing the boundaries.

    I did say that, and I still think I’m right (at least in some cases ;). It’s hard to look at Flickr and tags–our two favourite examples these days–and find the line between the personal and public. In the case of, by tagging my link I contribute to a distributed indexing of that resouce. Is that merely butting up? (Actually, I don’t know… but it seems like more to me.) I do know that my own tagging practices are now geared toward both sharing and re-encountering–meaning that I’m explicitly organizing for the group and myself.

    Anyway, good stuff as always.

  3. Wow, that brings back memories. 1983, high school, working for a small startup doing (paper) mailinglist and bbs software on IMSAIs with dBase II and assembler. One of the guys left a note saying “this place is a mess, at least clean up the books” before heading out to a customer site. We said “ok…” and did an upper shelf in rainbow order, and a lower shelf in brown-to-white-to-black intensity. The secretary loved it, since it was across from her desk, and it quite brightened up that part of the office… and, as you discovered, it *does* work – at least for books you have a strong visual memory for. “Oh yeah, I saw that in the blue binder” or “that was in that orange CP/M book” were quite effective keys. Of course, “I need in-for-mation from *some* CP/M book” but I don’t know which one – that fails.

    Cues like this are why I think Delicious Library (a very pretty mac program from, that manages your books with 3d-book-looking icons on wooden-looking shelves) is a step in a right direction, and not just Pretty Eye Candy. It’s only a step, though.

    (ps. you have I N F O as a stop word? that’s lame)

  4. I had the *exact* same experience…right down to the girlfriend during spring cleaning and the system working out so well despite it’s unusual logic. The O’Reilly books are really easy to find now!

  5. I do like the color idea… I might borrow it!

    I’ve been organizing my books by size for as long as I can remember. On the shelf, they go tall-mid-short-mid-tall. Mostly. Then, on top of the short ones, I can put extras in sideways. Each shelf is organized by topic. I have programming/computer books on 2, financial books on one, photo books on one, travel books on one, etc., etc., etc. So, they’re easy for me to find or browse, whatever the case may be.

  6. Hello,

    The time has come for my Adobe Bookshop installation to be taken down. It will happen over two days on January 15th and 16th – a Saturday and a Sunday. I need between 15 and 25 people to help me. If you can do this please let me know. Also I am thinking of doing two shifts. It is vital that people be able to spend at least 6 hours helping out, as it will be a huge task returning 20,000 books back to their original places. Some food and drinks will be provided. There will be a “pre-deconstruction” meeting on January 12th at adobe at 7:00pm we will discuss game plan and approach to getting everything back. Thanks for your help. Let people know we need all the help we can get.

    Chris Cobb

    Here are some places on the web that have additional material on the installation:
    National Public Radio:
    San Francisco Chronicle:

  7. Furthermore, if an atom is false in the well-founded model of a program then it does not belong to any of its stable models. ,

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