The idea of searching, finding and keeping what you've found is becoming more relevant as the pools of information available to computer users grow enormous and unmanageable.

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When University of Washington professor William Jones gives speeches, he likes to ask the audience what he calls “the Google question.”

Many computer users sort their information into folders. But what if there was a Google-type search engine that allowed a person to quickly find anything in a computer? Could we then get rid of folders altogether?

The answer is always a resounding no.

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In the years Jones has been asking that question, Google and other companies have in fact developed desktop search tools for finding just about any file in a computer in a matter of seconds.

But people still want to classify, to order, to sort their information in ways that will help them find it again on their own. This idea of organizing your electronic stuff — be it e-mail, favorite Web sites, letters, addresses or anything else — is the foundation for a nascent field called personal-information management.

The UW’s Information School wants to become a leader in this field. It has devoted people and projects to this growing area, and last month held what its researchers said was the first-ever conference on personal information management.

Scholars came to Seattle from around the world to talk about their work in the area.

“There isn’t yet an identified field of study called personal information management,” said Harry Bruce, an associate dean for research at the Information School who organized the conference with Jones. “I would like to see this as one of the signature programs of the Information School. The momentum is building on this.”

Bruce and Jones also head one of the more prominent projects in the UW’s study of personal information work.

Called “Keeping Found Things Found,” the project is designed to ensure that, once you’ve found that electronic needle in a haystack, you don’t lose it again.

The idea of searching, finding and keeping what you’ve found is becoming more relevant as the pools of information available to computer users grow enormous and unmanageable. The Web is so vast that even the most comprehensive search engines cover only a fraction of it.

Computer hard drives can store so much data that some users might never have to delete anything. It’s common for e-mail inboxes to have hundreds, perhaps thousands, of messages a user can’t bear to throw away.

Fitting pieces together

“The effect is that all these different things are pulling us in opposite directions,” said Jones, who adds that the general theme of his project is “bringing the pieces of your life back together again.”

Easier said than done. Just as people have their own methods of sorting the stacks of papers in their homes or offices, computer users have different ways of tackling electronic information.

And, Jones said, studies have shown people will not use separate computer programs designed to help them stay organized; they want to use the programs they already have. Or they’ll fall back on tried-and-true tools: posting sticky notes on their monitors or sending e-mail messages to themselves.

Electronic labels

With that in mind, Jones and Bruce set out to build organizational tools on top of programs already in use.

Working with a team of assistants, they created a way to attach electronic labels to documents and e-mail messages. Everything related to work, for example, could be given the “my work” label.

The labels can be grouped together and organized into separate folders. Because they are just shortcuts to documents, they can be moved around the computer without disturbing the location of the original document.

The team is starting to work on more complex organizational tasks, such as creating a program to manage projects. The researchers say they would like their ideas to be in widespread use one day.

Personal information management came into fashion in the 1990s as gadget lovers embraced the idea of portable calendars and appointment books. Sales of Palms and other personal digital assistants soared.

But some cellphones now have many of the basic information-management tools that made the Palm popular, and worldwide shipments of phone-less PDAs have declined for three straight years.

Last year was the first time since 1999 that PDA shipments dropped below 10 million units, according to research firm IDC.

“It’s not that personal information is dying out,” said David Linsalata, an analyst with IDC. “It’s more that personal information management is moving to a new platform, at least in the mobile space.”

Jones said the term “personal information management” is not ideal for his field of study, because it is so much broader than the features of the latest gadget. He prefers to call it something like “personal life management.”

People have lost faith in new technologies and gadgets as the sole solution for getting organized, he said.

“Personal information management is about figuring out what we really need in order to make effective use of our information,” he said, “in order to get things done and make good life decisions.”

Kim Peterson: 206-464-2360 or kpeterson@seattletimes.com