Something quite interesting popped into my head, and thus prompted this post. As most know, I do a lot of reading as a part of my masters studies, and have done a lot of reading in the past regarding a host of different topics, particularly during my undergraduate work at Evergreen. Oddly, when I’m doing academic work, I almost never like to read anything else, since my energies tend to get a bit drained from having to keep up with the academic stuff in the first place — there’s residual effect as well in that I seem to not like reading much for time periods after the academic year has ended. Regardless, I find myself in a bit of a quandary; I’ve done a lot of reading on the subjects of sustainability and information management, but I really have no method as it stands of referencing all of that information or even recalling where something in particular cropped up.
This is a big problem, and spans a lot of different resources: textbooks, class notes, handouts, technical articles, magazine articles, programming code snippets, old web site designs, even in-line notations on whatever I’m reading. I come up with ideas for projects that (no pun intended) peter out (cough) after a while, either for lack of motivation or for lack of appropriate reference material – in general, it tends to be more the former than the latter, but lack of reference material also rears its ugly head occasionally. This isn’t because I lack the information; it’s because I’ve seen it somewhere but can’t find it again!
I’m not the only one. Not by a long shot. Everyone faces this. I have a slight advantage in that I’m beginning to recognize some of the ways that this is solvable, but at a slight disadvantage in that I am not quite as involved with stuff like social tagging or folksonomies — though I should note that Wikipedia has it wrong; folksonomies and social tagging are not the same thing, and saying they are is misleading. Anyway, the main reason I have a problem is that I don’t have a quick way of finding any annotations or relevant readings for a particular topic. If I wanted to remember a bit about economics, for instance (a highly relevant subject for me at the moment because of PB AF 594), I don’t have any way of knowing what articles I’ve read related to the subject or where my books are that cover that subject or what I might’ve taken as notes in classes three or four years ago that talked about the subject. This is partly lack of time to look all this crap up. This is also partly because that requires locating things – like my ink in my last blog post, I may not know it’s already around or may think I loaned the book on the subject to someone else. I actually thought I had loaned one of my economics books to my mother (don’t ask me why I thought this) until I spotted it going to bed one night on a bookshelf directly across from the bed!
I’ve tried recently to reduce the amount of stuff I hang on to that makes it harder to find things. I’ve started a “clippings binder”, where I rip out magazine articles that I think might be useful for future reference and recycle the rest of the magazine. I can’t bring myself to do this for my copies of eco-structure, since those are just pure gold, but most of the other magazines I have floating around succumb to this sooner or later. I can’t do this to books (and won’t – my father, who is doubtlessly reading this, would about have a conniption and ban me to the seventh or eighth layer of hell). Last year before moving to Seattle, I donated a bunch of (admittedly mostly fiction) books to Olympia’s Goodwill branch to reduce the number of books I had sitting around. But really, this hasn’t done much – I still have a lot of books I want to be able to reference.
There’s an extra dimension here – not only is there stuff I have read, but there’s stuff that looks relevant that I want to read, but can’t find the time.
It seems like the only really good way of doing this would be to start creating additional notes on every single book I read that might be relevant to future work, but that in and of itself is a lot of additional work. Would it increase my ability to look for and find information? Probably, especially if it were implemented correctly (I’d guess a wiki system with some sort of tagging grafted on would work quite well for this). Perhaps I’ll take a sabbatical in 2009 after I graduate and spend the summer reading and making notes and putting them into some coherent system. Yeah, right. So how do we organize all these resources that we personally find relevant? There are answers — maybe — and those answers are (fairly) likely to be relevant. But in the meantime, if I want to remember all I’ve seen on sustainability, I’ll have to read it all over again, or at least spend a copious amount of time reading over whatever notes I made in the margins of books or on paper somewhere in a binder buried in my closet.
That’s assuming those notes existed at all, and that’s a whole ‘nother problem.