Saturday, August 08, 2009

Stump the Organizer! Organizing A Lot Of Information

I can tell we are truly in the frenzied "Back to School" mode. There were no questions for the Stump the Organizer! post this week.

But visitors to my booth at the Spirit Seeker Summer Expo had some very good questions for me. Here is one of the more thought-provoking questions:

"I collect information. My interests are very diverse. How can I organize my information so I can find it?" In this gentleman's case, almost all of his information is paper.

Many people are naturally curious and collect information like this gentleman; however, we are living in a time when information is increasing in an exponential rate. In other words, information goes stale - or becomes misinformation - very quickly. "Simplify" is the best organizing principle to apply to the situation. Eliminate the paper that is a likely candidate for becoming obsolete soon.

Think of the billions of resources that are available on the internet. A well-constructed search can retrieve more information than we could possibly acquire in our own physical sphere. Google is one of the most popular search engines. To search scholarly works you can use Google Scholar.

That being said, sometimes there are unique and irreplaceable documents that are part of a collection and need they need organizing. Another organizing principle to apply: store items according to how they are used and accessed. The salient question to ask yourself is "What am I going to think about when I need this particular piece of information?" The answer to the question points you to the "keywords" that you would use to do a search on the internet for the information.

The keyword concept can be applied to the physical world as well. For each document think of several keywords to describe it. Build an index that assigns a file number to the document's title and captures the relevant keywords as well. Use your favorite spreadsheet software to create the index (Excel or Google Docs, for example). Make sure that you create a "Date" column as well so you can enter the document's date of printing. Label the physical file with the file number and put it in the file cabinet.

When you want to access all of your documents that contain a particular key word, refer to the index that you created and you will find the pertinent file numbers to retrieve from your file cabinet. The files are loading into the file drawer in sequential order by file number. Organizing the physical files by file number makes it easy to add files - just go to the next file number in the sequence - and delete files - just leave a hole in the file number sequence. But you will not be able to find specific files without the index.

A word about the date column. It's good to know how old the information is. After all, if a document is really old, you may want to question the validity of its information. Additionally, the date column can be useful in identifying very old files when it's time for a file-purging project. I like to format date as "YYYYMMDD." This format allows me to search for dates less than a chosen date. For example, if I want to locate all the files that are older than ten years I would search the spreadsheet column for dates less than "19990808."

For those of you who do not want to create your own index, there is a software solution: "Paper Tiger." Paper Tiger is highly regarded as an excellent organizing tool. You can find it at I could write another page listing the benefits of Paper Tiger, but I'll let you just visit their site.

In the next few days I will be posting some information for getting your students ready for school. Two local papers recently printed articles I wrote for "Back to School." Your can either pick up the Java Journal and the Spirit Seeker at your favorite establishment or visit them online at and, respectively.
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