Tools for Information Organization

Recently I have been thinking a lot about media ideologies and idioms of practice and having several conversations with various friends and colleagues about our own information organization strategies (maybe this is something the new year also brings out in us). In thinking through my own attitudes toward different tools and what precisely they are really useful for, I thought it might be helpful to list the tools that I use in managing my writing, coursework, research notes, bookmarks, etc. Thinking through how I do or do not use each of these has been helpful in navigating the information overload I find myself swimming in from time to time. It’s also worth noting, these are almost all (at least up to a point) free for personal use.

We use Asana in Pitt’s Visual Media Workshop, and it’s quickly become my tool of choice for tracking my personal projects and coursework. It’s not as unwieldy as a lot of project management software that I have had to use in the past, but still has a lot of the features that I find most useful, namely creating multiple projects, assigning tasks to team members (even when the team is only me), and assigning deadlines. I like the both the browser version and mobile app. Also, check off enough items and a unicorn rides by on a rainbow. So.

Full disclosure, when I heard that Evernote was facing some financial trouble, I upgraded from the free Basic account to Plus, as though my $24.99 would be just the help they needed. I realize how illogical that is. But Evernote is like public radio to me: I enjoy and find value in it every day, and I want to throw even a tiny handful of money at them as a token of my gratitude. I like the notebook organizational structure, and especially the ability to tag my notes to create additional access points. I don’t really use the web clipping feature, but it’s there if that’s useful to you.

I don’t take full advantage of Zotero’s functionality. I rely on it almost entirely for managing citation lists. As I read for a class or for a research project, I save citations to the appropriate Zotero collection from my browser or PDF reader. It’s nice for generating a bibliography, but also for just remembering what I’ve read.

Along those lines, I’ve tracked the books I read on Goodreads for the past few years. This tool mostly serves as a personal record where I can refer back to books I’ve read for work or school or pure enjoyment. I know this is probably mostly just another way for Amazon to capture data, but frankly, I’ve stuck with Goodreads because my friends use it, and I like to see what they enjoy so I can add to my ever-growing list of things to read. But for those who want to use something like this purely for tracking and less for the social features, LibraryThing is probably a better option.

Pocket, like Instapaper, is an online bookmarking tool. I use this to aggregate articles and websites that I intend to return to and read later. I find this especially helpful when taking a few minutes to scroll through Twitter. I like that items I find on any device are saved to a central application, and that I can also retreive them at any time. Since starting to use Pocket recently, I have found that I actually get around to reading so many more pieces of news and journalism than I did before. It’s easy to pull them up while I’m waiting in line somewhere, for instance. You can “archive” pieces once you’ve read them, if you want to reference them later. Though I am also partial to saving useful links to Pinboard.

One of my New Year’s intentions was to sort through the mess of bookmarks I’ve acquired and come up with a better way of organizing and saving things I find online (articles, tutorials, exhibits, etc.). I tend to simply bookmark interesting articles or projects as “To Read” in my Chrome bookmarks. This is problematic for all the obvious reasons, so I decided to return to Pinboard, a social bookmarking site that costs about $10 a year. As with Evernote, I can tag items to create multiple access points. I do often cite these in Zotero as well, but I like Pinboard for easy reference and retrieval. It’s similar in functionality to Delicious, but I like Pinboard’s stripped-down interface. Using Pinboard means I don’t have a monstrous, poorly organized list of links living in my bookmarks.


A kind of unexpected return to instant messaging. I’m really into it. We use it in the lab, and we use it for STS reading group on campus. My advisor uses it to share articles that her advisees might find interesting. It’s a nice way to send notes or share links. I so prefer having an ongoing chat session that I can reference to searching through email inboxes trying to find a specific correspondence.

I mostly use these for sharing files with others, but a secondary use for me is storing copies of finished papers or useful PDFs or images that also live on a computer or hard drive. A sort of emergency third location backup. I should add that I get Box storage for free through Pitt. As for DropBox, admittedly, having multiple email addresses and DropBox accounts (mostly associated with previous jobs) has meant that I haven’t actual hit the free storage limit and moved into a paid account.

Google Drive
I think I’m in the minority here, but I barely use Google Drive at all. There are three instances in which I use it:

  1. Collaboratively writing in a shared document. Once it’s done, I download and save final copies elsewhere.
  2. When someone shares files they’ve created through it
  3. When I’m working on a shared or public computer, and want to really quickly upload files to transfer elsewhere (this happens rarely, but I’m really trying to think of times when Drive is useful to me)

I know that a lot of people use it to store files, take notes, create presentations, etc. I just can’t really think of anything it provides that I don’t already get from another service, with the exception of simultaneous collaborative editing. This is at least partially superficial – I’ve never come around to the interface and I just find it sort of unpleasant to look at and navigate. But I think others do really use it for editing Docs and general file storage.

I’m obviously in the right field if conversations about file storage and note-taking systems are so interesting. But I do really like learning about the different programs that we prefer, and what features or affordances make us so loyal to them. Even in conversations about how useful a certain program is, I’m often surprised to find that friends and I will have completely different ways of interacting with them. In the end, we should use what works for each of us. For me, getting to better understand why one program works better for me than another has been part of the process of streamlining what I use to create, organize, and access information in my day to day routine.