Monday, January 24, 2011

Hope for all-purpose document organization software?

I have recently been considering the enormous issue of whether there any programs that can effectively organize and store metadata for the whole range of born-digital (e.g., Word documents) and digitized (scanned) documents that I manage, or whether it is a necessary evil to use different software for all the different genres of information. Scholarly articles and books stored as PDFs seem to be best handled and organized by software (e.g., Zotero and Mendeley) that is designed to support all the metadata required for the specialized citation formats that researchers use. However, a completely different type software (e.g., EverNote) has arisen to address the organization of general “personal” or “business” information (tax records, notebooks, receipts, and other records). Unlike what is true for reference management software, it is much less clear here what the metadata fields should be.

For example, EverNote only offers the user two basic fields with which to annotate a “note” (to which PDFs and other documents can be attached), namely a custom tag and a URL. Zotero and Mendeley offer a plethora of fields, and researchers frequently clamor for the addition of yet more fields to support their target venue for publication. I read this contrast to mean that information meant for private consumption is to be organized according to the idiosyncratic preferences of the individual user. No one else need to understand my tagging system if I am ultimately the only person who will use this information. Information meant for public consumption needs to follow interchangeable standards.

However, at the same time it is also clear that personal collections of information can become more organized and even more meaningful by adopting public standards. Clearly many people enjoy organizing their private libraries using LibraryThing, which can copy Library of Congress cataloging associated with a given book when users add it to their library while at the same time allowing users to add their personal tags. My hope is that a piece of software like EverNote could adopt more fields, if only the 15 generalized ones agreed upon in the Dublin Core metadata standard (e.g., “Creator,” “Title,” “Subject,” etc.), so that it could better fulfill the need for a overall documentary organization software. I think if I could do this, it would better allow me to use some of the nifty cloud-computing features built into this kind of software. For example, both Mendeley and EverNote publish iPad and iPhone apps that allow for viewing one’s entire synchronized library of documents. However, it would be rather unwieldy (both space- and bandwidth-wise) to synchronize to different databases organized by different programs.