Some final notes

As our investigations relating to collecting practices in the Icon Age have taken a somewhat different turn since we first undertook this work, we have decided to terminate work on this Knowledge Development journey. As noted in the previous post, a wide variety of issues were revealed by the study. It made it clear that the texts selected for mark-up in the present day were often, but not always, distinct from those that had been selected many years before. This was not, in itself, surprising, but we wanted to understand what trajectories of reasoning had changed the most and this was not so easy to pinpoint. We were interested in whether things like the type of document marked up, when it was originally marked up, the place of work at the time, and the interest in the topic would make a difference to the degree of contiguity between the original markup and the new markup. However, none of these seemed to have a consistent effect. More than anything, we have concluded that understanding the nature and relevance of document markup practices for knowledge development is something that would require significant further investigation in its own right.

The story of storyboards

It’s been well over a year and a half that I displayed the second set of storyboards on the side of my bookcase – plenty of time to experience what its like to live with them. However, I can’t say I’ve given them a great deal of use. Every now and then I’ve selected another sheet, hung it on the display, and had a glance at its contents – but perhaps only a dozen times across the period. That’s not to say I didn’t find the contents interesting. On the contrary, I found I was coming across points I’d already forgotten about, or wouldn’t ordinarily connect directly with the main topic of the storyboard – a finding which I also experienced in the first trial (see the heading facts/Discovered/Re-discovered in the ESB Evaluation Results post). Other members of my family were also interested when I showed them the display and explained what it was all about – but not enough to spend any further time exploring, even when some of the topics were things they were familiar with. The fact that this set of storyboards included several other types of items other than books (which the first set was limited to), seemed to make no difference to myself or to family members. Perhaps this overall reaction is understandable since viewers have no real reason to examine the installation in more detail. Like a picture on a wall, it provides an interest for the eye but demands no closer inspection. People need to have a reason, an incentive, to do more.

Of course, the fact that this is a static, paper-based, display conceals its hidden content: it does not connect with a modern person’s notion of interactivity. A screen-based display, as originally envisaged for the storyboards, might perhaps inspire a greater curiosity; though, beyond an initial inspection, I suspect there would still have to be a rationale for exploring. Maybe such displays are, in fact, just pictures on a wall – but with an additional dimension of background links which have to be displayed automatically, in turn or in other configurations, to enable its viewers to experience its complete composition. Would that inspire people to interact with the display, or would they simply stand and watch? Well, perhaps a bit of both: at least one doesn’t preclude the other – though probably best not at the same time unless by picture-in-picture.

As with the first trial, I had created PDFs of the storyboards for display in the Sidebooks app in my iPad. In addition, I created an equivalent display in my laptop. The latter was able to link out directly to associated items held elsewhere on the laptop (as opposed to including all the material in a single PDF for the Sidebooks display). I did look at the Sidebooks storyboards occassionally in order to follow a particular link. However, I rarely, if ever looked at the laptop version. I guess the iPad was simply closer to hand and provided more immediate access. The laptop version is certainly a powerful beast providing access to the complete version of the books, for example, which were not included in their totality in the Sidebooks PDF. However, on trying it out while writing this post, I found that it annoyingly shuts down the master front-end index PDF when a link is selected and another file is opened. No doubt this will fixable somehow or other, but it’s another example of how there will always be glitches when trying to interlink systems and files.

Inspiring viewers to access storyboards may be a little difficult, but that is the least of the challenges associated with such displays. Their production demands some creative energy and is extremely time-consuming: individuals would need a huge incentive to undertake the work for rewards which are way in the future. Perhaps, it would be easier to undertake the analysis as each item is acquired, instead of trying to produce a whole set in one go. However, people have difficulty in just labelling and placing newly acquired items in an organised store, let alone going through such a rigorous analysis process as well. In discussing this with my son, he pointed out that, in any case, one’s feelings about an object may be very different at the point of acquisition from those several years later. This thought prompted him to develop the notion of revisiting an object periodically to build up a picture of how one’s feelings for an object were changing over time – a development that could be displayed graphically on a screen. However, this would demand yet more work from innocent owners who just want to add something to their collections. There is one piece of information which would not require any work to generate and which could be used by a system to generate a timeline display, and that is the date of creation of the digital object. That might be interesting – but would only be factually correct if all the items were born digital; the date of items which were acquired in physical form and digitised later would bear an incorrect acquisition date.

Summing up my experiences with my two sets of storyboards, I have to conclude that, while the results are very interesting, the work to produce them is probably going to be too great for most collectors. Perhaps the circumstance which would provide the greatest incentive to undertake such work is when a collection is to be digitised prior to the disposing of the physical items – as was the case in my first storyboard trial when I digitised 36 books to remove them from my book shelves and destroyed them in the process. The heartache an owner might feel in undertaking such a final no-going-back act, might inspire the production of a set of storyboards in memoriam.

Practice Hierarchy writings

About a year ago I reported that my colleague, Peter Tolmie, and I were working on a book about digitisation’s impact on collecting, based upon all the investigations and writings already described in this blog, as well as auto-ethnographic investigations of a variety of collections that Peter and myself have been associated with. The book will expand many of the notions put forward in the OFC tutorial, and therefore I shall continue to provide updates on our progress on the book, within this Order From Chaos journey.

Since my last report, we have moved on from the auto-ethnographic investigations and derived a draft Practice Hierarchy for collecting, which has eight upper levels – Initiating, Equipping, Acquiring, Depositing, Using, Revealing, Maintaining, and Disposing. We are now in the process of fully verifying, describing and illustrating all the elements. Having done that we plan to analyse and describe how digitisation has affected all these practices – though it may take us several months to get to that next stage.

Placing PAWDOC

Construction of the book on collecting that I’m writing with Peter Tolmie, is now well underway. However, this Personal Document Management section of the OFC website doesn’t seem an appropriate place to report on the development of such a wide-ranging text. Instead, I shall record details of our progress in the Order from Chaos section of this blog.

This journey on Personal Document Management has nearly run its 40 year+ course. I summarised my findings on that extended trial in some entries a few years ago; and there is only one remaining aspect that I am actively investigating – to find a permanent repository for the PAWDOC collection. Its going to be challenging: despite contacting several possible institutions over the last seven years, and publicising my goal in various forums, I’ve had no success so far. Just to be clear, this is what I’m offering:

  1. The PAWDOC digital collection of 31,000 documents dating mainly from 1972 to the present day, fully labelled, and documented in 17,300 index entries; and all of them in Windows folders under the control of an established Digital Preservation maintenance regime.
  2. Two archive boxes of some 330 PAWDOC items that were judged worthy of keeping in hardcopy form, and for which the reasons for keeping were recorded in a spreadsheet and described in the unpublished journal paper ‘IV in PIM: The applicability of Intrinsic Value in Personal Information Management’.

  3. A few other associated documents that could be included with the collection, such as a leather-bound volume of 63 reports of visits to UK, European and US organisations during the period 1979 -1982;  a bound copy of the organisational documents, proceedings of, and delegates to, the first European CSCW conference in 1989; a bound copy of reports on, proceedings of, and delegates to, the first US CSCW conference in 1986; a signed and bound copy of ‘The Network Nation’ by Hiltz & Turoff annotated with notes for the 1983 book ‘Introducing the Electronic Mailbox’; and copies of the books ‘Sorties into the IT Hurricane’ and ‘Meteor: a story of stamp collecting in the eye of the IT hurricane’.

Anyone interested should get in touch with me.

Taking Stock and Set to Go

In 2019, I started collaborating with Peter Tolmie with the aim of producing some overall results from my 40 years experience of personal electronic filing. It wasn’t long before Peter observed that my PAWDOC filing collection was just another manifestation of my inclination to keep things; and he suggested I keep a log of my keeping activities. I realised then that whatever we produced would be about more than my PAWDOC activities, and that I might as well write up my latest thoughts on PAWDOC there and then in this blog. Peter and I prefaced this summation with a post about the impact of digitisation over the last 40 years. Since then, Peter has gained further insights into my activities by investigating my attempts at understanding knowledge development; and by reading my write up of comments I made when being reunited with certain documents after many years.

We both now feel it is time to get on and do what it takes to produce some outputs. Namely, a book on the subject of digitisation’s impact on personal curation of any assemblage of materials where the assemblage is premised upon not only current but potential future use. This will be based upon all the investigations and writings already described, as well as auto-ethnographic investigations of a variety of collections that Peter and myself have been associated with. The questions to be asked range from the Use, Curation and Searching of the collections, to the Security, Preservation and Loss of the contents; all considered from both pre and post digitisation perspectives. We now have the provisional list of collections listed down the left-hand side of a spreadsheet and the questions along the top, so we’re pretty much set to go.

Armchair living

I spend a lot of time doing things in my study – which is not a very sociable thing to do when your partner spends a lot of time in the lounge, particularly during lockdown times when we weren’t getting out much. I’ve often thought I could have been doing some of the things in the lounge – but it lacked a suitable work surface. Putting a desk in the lounge wouldn’t be acceptable; what’s needed is a work surface that can be concealed until you need it, and in a position preferably where you can watch the TV just like your partner. Clearly the answer is to build a folding desk into the back of a lounge suite armchair that you can either stand at (addressing the problem of too much sitting) or sit on a folding stool also incorporated into the back of the armchair. Maybe there’d also be space for a bit of stationery and paper storage.

Comments on reunions with old documents

My colleague, Clive Holtham, was instrumental in putting me in touch with suppliers who loaned me a scanner and document management software around 1995, to enable me to progress my mission to understand how personal electronic filing would work in practice.  Some six years later, in February 2001, Clive and I met up for dinner and a catch up on what we’d both been doing. I explained that as well as scanning new hardcopy as I acquired it, I was also trying to scan all the legacy documents I had acquired since 1981, when I started this electronic filing adventure. Clive pointed out that it would be interesting to see what I thought of each document in retrospect, as I carried out the scanning process. After all, the point of indexing and filing the documents, was based on the assumption that some of them would have some value downstream. Here was an opportunity to get an insight into what their downstream value might be.

I took Clive’s suggestion on board towards the end of 2001; but, to minimise the effort required, I decided I would only comment on those documents which prompted some particular thoughts. The comments would be recorded at the end of the Title field in my filing index; and they would be identifiable by being placed within a special set of characters in the following format: <<! Date: Comment Text here !>>. To make it easier, I created a script in my Indexing software to automatically place the delimiter characters with current date at the end of the title field, and assigned it the keyboard shortcut CTR-8. This seemed to work in practice, and I got into the habit of making my comments in real time as they occurred to me. After a while, I started to use the facility to record other information, such as a document being duplicated in another Index entry, or problems I had had with scanning a document. Now, in 2021, 20 years after starting to record these comments, I find that 584 records within my filing index possess such comments; and 20 of those have two comments.

This is an analysis of what those comments say. They have been placed into one or more of 5 categories:

  • Comments on the impact of the material (7% of the 584 records with comments)
  • Comments on the contents of the material (32%)
  • Comments which prompted questions and thoughts (23%)
  • Comments about memories forgotten and/or remembered (17%)
  • Comments about filing, indexing and scanning activities (46%)

The full list of comments and the categories to which they have been allocated is provided in this link. The comments have been further allocated into sub-categories  which are used in the discussion below. However, the following two salient points need to be born in mind when considering the results of this investigation:

Scale: Although 584 records with comments may sound a large number, in fact comments have only been made on a small subset of the contents of the filing system: 584 is only about 3% of the 17,350 records in the index. This could indicate that the sample size is too small to be generalised; though, I believe it is more likely to indicate that relatively few documents merited a comment. Unfortunately, there is no data to investigate which of these two possibilities is the case – the decisions to include comments were made in an arbitrary manner over many years.

Lag: The time between a document being included in the filing system and when a comment was made about it, has almost certainly affected many of the comments. Presumably, the more time that passes, the less likely the contents of a document are to be remembered, and this may make them more remarkable when they are encountered again. The actual lags that occurred have been calculated as a number of years by the difference between the Creation Date field in the Index, and the date recorded at the beginning of each comment. This shows that over 93% of the comments were made more than 10 years after the documents were included in the filing system; and over 50% had comments with a lag of over 20 years. Only 12 items had comments with a lag of less than 5 years.

Comments on the impact of the material (43)

These comments include remarks about documents which have influenced my thinking (8). For example, “This is a most important paper because it alerted me to the key insight that to get the most out of an OA investment the organisation must change the way it does business”. A further 9 comments relate to documents which were more generally important to my work, for example, “This was an important edition of EDP analyser and highly relevant to NCC’s OA team of which I was a part”. Finally, 26 comments were made about documents that are special in a variety of other ways, for example, “This is a great example of how to do brainstorming”, and “This is an interesting document to have from the early days of the net”.

Comments on the contents of the material (188)

Just over a third of this category is concerned with comments about a document I wrote or activity I was involved with. This is hardly unexpected given my intimate relationship with the events. For example, “Have just read the suggestions I made to Esprit about its CSCW program. I wonder if they made any kind of difference”; and “This was my one not very successful claim to broadcast fame – and I’m not even sure it got broadcast”. A quarter of the comments just remark on ‘interesting content’, for example, “This is a fascinating article because it represents a twilight period in the change from old style typists to individuals doing the typing all themselves”; and “This was worth another read – definitely food for thought…”. The remainder includes comments in a range of other sub-categories – listed below together with an example for each one.

  • Comments on technology developments (16) – “Seems very advanced for 1978”
  • Assessments of predictions (8) – “The prediction of a day in the life of the CEO in 2013 didn’t get it quite right”
  • Comments on the author or other people (8) – “I’ve been thinking about getting in touch with X again”
  • Comments on photos in documents (7) – “While scanning this I discovered that it contains a photo of X”
  • Content which I thought I might find useful (26) – “This document is highly relevant to the assignment I am about to start”
  • Comments which provide a critique of content (5) – “I think this process missed out the key element of Improvement by Learning by Doing”.

Comments which prompted questions and thoughts (135)

The majority of these comments – some 60% – were general reflections and musings prompted by the documents concerned. For example, “I think it demonstrates that prior to the internet and the web there was a different way of thinking about information: in those days having the information meant having the actual item, whereas today in the internet/web/mobile era having the information is all about having a device and knowing where to look”; and “It would be interesting – amazing – to re-run this event with the same people”. The other six sub-categories are all specific questions:

  • Is this still around/available/the case today? (10 comments – for example “I don’t hear the term ‘Groupware’ much these days – I wonder if it has fallen out of use”
  • What’s a person doing today? (15 – “I wonder If X is doing anything related to this now – havn’t seen him for about 20 years”)
  • Is this still relevant today? (12 – “This might be interesting to read to see if 25-year-old advice about dealing with Info overload still applies”)
  • How does this look in retrospect? (4 – “There was a big fuss about X’s thinking on this – would be interesting to see how it all looks in retrospect”.
  • What was the impact of this? (5 – “This work on Teletel was ground breaking and was subsequently successful. How it affected the French use and take-up of the web I don’t know”)
  • How did these predictions fare? (6 – “The Booze-Allen Hamilton report was very influential. It would be interesting to see how its predictions fared”)

Memories forgotten and/or remembered (100)

70% of these comments are about things I’d forgotten either partially or wholly; and 30% about things I remembered about associated aspects, or about people. Examples of each are provided below:

  • Forgetting something about a document or a related activity (28 comments), for example, “I’d forgotten these details and didn’t know I had these notes”
  • Forgetting about the document or activity all-together (41): “Can’t remember giving this talk”
  • Remembering associated aspects or it prompted memories (19); “This was a pioneering machine – we really liked the Snake game, and the early type of remote access mail through the phone lines was relatively quite advanced”.
  • Remembering the author/other person (12); “That’s a name I haven’t thought about for years! – think I met him”

Filing, indexing and scanning activities (266)

Over a third of all these comments concern filing practicalities – not an aspect which was envisaged when I established this comment facility. Recording information about the operation of a filing system is definitely an overhead, so there is a natural tendency to minimise the effort spent on it. Consequently, the fact that it was quick and simple to create comments in a form which was tightly coupled with individual documents and their index entries, made this facility an obvious choice for quickly documenting issues or important observations. The 22 separate sub-categories of comment listed below together with an example for each one, illustrate the extensive range of topics that were encountered as the PAWDOC collection grew and aged (note that over 93% of these comments were made at least 10 years after the document concerned had been included in the collection).

  • Practicalities of using PAWDOC (5) “Must force myself to search for stuff even if I don’t think it’s in this index!”
  • Deciding what to include/remove (5) “Artefact removed for inclusion in PAW personal collection”
  • Notes about where items originated (6) “The Quick Reference Card was included in Nov2018 when I found it inside the WGEM starter pack”
  • Notes about what version is filed (8) “This Aug86 version must have replaced an earlier version in my collection”
  • Notes about artefacts (6) “Specified this as an artefact at this late date because it’s the first issue I have in this new format”
  • Notes about cross-references in the collection (7) “See also PAW/DOC/0110/145”
  • Notes about duplicates in the collection (87) “Some of these documents are duplicated in PAW/DOC/7971/01”
  • Notes about Archiving (6) “This was in an archive box but archive status had not been specified in the Movement field”
  • Comments on Reference Number (16) “This document has the number PAW/DOC/0005/03 at the top – but that number is for something else”
  • Comments on Title field (9) “Inserted the info about the abstract when I was scanning because there was no reference to it in the title”
  • Comments on Creation date (12) “Don’t understand how the date on this paper is 1986 but the record was created in 1984”
  • Comments on Publication date (3) “2019 properties of the word doc say this was modified on 31May1985 so this was probably the publication date”
  • Comments on Movement field (10) “Don’t know why this says it was scanned and paper destroyed in 2004 – in Feb 2006 there was a full envelope of material in the box”
  • Losing/deleting index information (4) “I deleted the title text of this accidentally when scanning so this is a replacement title text”
  • Lost or misplaced documents (17) “Found the electronic version of this filed in FISH under PAW/DOC/4052/01”
  • Relationship with Personal files (8) “I found these PAW/DOC papers in one of my personal home files”
  • Notes about physical characteristics of items (17) “This printout had almost completely faded so it was a challenge to see if the scanner would bring the text to light – and it didn’t do a bad job!”
  • Notes about disks in the collection (6) “This included a disk containing a DOS version of the ITSforGKProposal”
  • Management of the FISH DMS (8) “This seemed very necessary at the time when disk space was short – and very complicated. Now in 2006 with 40Gb on my PC it doesn’t seem to be an imperative at all”
  • File formats & Digital Preservation (7) “No longer able to read the floppy disk when it came to take this material out of archive to scan it in 2006”
  • Notes about loading electronic files to FISH (17) “The Word version doesn’t have the appendices so I PDF’d the Word version and then scanned the appendix pages from the hardcopy. Unfortunately, the pagination of the Word document is slightly different from that of the hardcopy – but the words are all the same”
  • Notes about Scans and Scanning (49) “These pages were too thick to go through the duplex scanning process so I had to do one side first and then the other side”.

Conclusions

No great revelations have emerged from this investigation. However, its clear that reviewing old material in this way provides an opportunity to reflect, and perhaps to rediscover potentially useful material. These are luxuries that are hard to come by amidst the pace of modern life. Whether such activities actually provide any tangible benefits is hard to say: I can’t remember if any of the rediscovered documents made a difference in my subsequent assignments; and the benefits of reflection are difficult to pin down at the best of times (though I personally feel it is always worthwhile).

The one practical finding that has emerged from this exercise is that there are significant advantages in being able to quickly and easily annotate a filing index with any relevant additional information, be that extra detail about content, or factual information about the way that content has been filed. The former augments the information provided by the filing system, and the latter assists in its smooth operation. In fact, the latter is more than a mere nicety. My experience has shown that, as this type of personal filing system grows and ages, the number of imperfections it possesses increases substantially. The long list above of sub-categories of ‘Filing, indexing and scanning activities‘, and their associated examples, provides an indication of the range of issues that can arise. Having the ability to quickly note details of those issues in a place where they are likely to be immediately visible to the user, is of great benefit.

Pandemic constrained Plans

The second of our investigations involved me marking up 19 documents on which I had previously placed sidebars next to parts of the text between 22 and 39 years ago. This was completed in August last year, and, since then, we’ve been analysing the results. My collaborator, Peter Tolmie, made a numerical assessment of the match between my mark-up of the original and my new mark-up; and I reviewed my original and new mark-ups and documented my comments on what I had done. We then recorded a one-hour video conference in which we discussed what had occurred with three of the documents – we had no time to discuss any more because such a wide variety of general points emerged from this conversation. The recording was processed through the Otter transcription service from which a written transcript of the session was produced. Peter is now planning to produce an overall interim report on our findings to date.

Our original plan (documented in the post for 10th August 2019) involved undertaking a further similar investigation of mark-ups on documents; but this time conducted in the form of a face-to-face interview in order to be able to examine the reasoning for what is marked up in greater detail, and to discuss the findings of the previous two investigations. However, the pandemic has interrupted these plans. We still feel this final investigation is worthwhile undertaking if and when travel restrictions are lifted. In the meantime, however, the Otter transcript and the interim report Peter plans to produce, will be the primary outputs from which we hope to be able to summarise some hard and fast findings in a post later this year.

New Boards Live

I finished compiling the physical story boards and associated self-contained PDFs on 24th December, and would have had them all printed out and up on the side of my bookcase before Xmas but for running out of printer ink (very poor stock control). Anyway, it arrived yesterday and I’ve now completed the job.

Regarding the cross-linking between Story Boards, this was straightforward for the in-Laptop version in which a simple link to the file of the relevant Story Board could be specified. However, in the iPad version it was necessary to include a copy of the target Story Board into the body of the relevant self-contained PDF.

I also encountered a few technology problems with the way the Sidebooks app handles PDF documents (inability to deal with sound elements, different sized documents, and links to multiple embedded photos), and these took time to understand and work around; and, in three cases required different versions of the Story Boards to be produced. In contrast, the in-Laptop solution was relatively trouble-free. This illustrates the problems of trying to produce a solution by integrating different systems.

While I was laminating the new Story Boards, I was struck again by how relatively permanent these Story Boards are. Their very physicality exudes factuality and veracity; even though I know how flimsy their fidelity is.

I will now live with these Story Board for several months, changing the Story on display from time to time, and perhaps inviting members of the family to experience them and comment. My personal overall assessment, and my thoughts on how this set of diverse Story Boards compare to the original all-book-related Story Boards, will appear here before the end of 2022.

Rethinking the Table Present

It’s been a tradition in our family to have table presents at the Christmas lunch, but this year we didn’t; it had all become a bit difficult and expensive, and, in this year of pandemic lockdowns, there were only three of us at the table. However, its quite a nice thing to do, so I got to thinking there might be an easier and cheaper way. Maybe the present could just contain a piece of paper describing something you think the person concerned might like but didn’t know about. For example, a holiday destination, or a hotel, or a book, or a hobby, or a restaurant, or a walking trail, or a type of pet, or a band, or a piece of clothing, or a voluntary job with a particular charity…. or almost anything really that you think the person might enjoy. Might also work for New Year meals as well.