Warning - high risk of overload

July 29, 2005

Feeling swamped by too much information? Harriet Swain finds that there are many ways of dealing with the data you are deluged with, ranging from traditional library-based approaches to high-tech filters

Ting! Now which are you going to do first? Answer that latest e-mail, read this feature or start on that stack of journal articles you've been meaning to tackle for weeks? You're reading on? You want to know how to cope with being overwhelmed by information? There is no need to feel guilty. According to Alison Mackenzie, library services manager at Manchester University and project manager for the Joint Information Systems Committee, many staff are reluctant to admit that they have problems managing information because they worry that it reflects badly on their academic integrity.

But it is a good idea to continually ask how best to sort information, she says. It is a mistake to rely on methods you have used successfully in the past. "That works if you are operating in a fairly stable environment, which academia is not these days," she says. "It is a dynamic environment." The first step, she says, is to find out what support your institution provides and to push for more if you feel it is inadequate.

Toby Bainton, secretary of the Society of College, National and University Libraries, says the library is a vital early port of call in the search for ways to deal with information overload. Solutions can range from traditional methods, such as reading reviews or journal articles rather than entire books, to electronic alerting services and the subject-specific filters of web material available through Jisc.

Bainton says it is important to keep on top of new resources because initiatives are being developed all the time. But you should not ignore more basic methods of sorting information, such as speaking to people.

Some universities have librarians who specialise in particular subjects.

Bainton says you should find out if your university has such people and, if it does, use them.

Communication is essential. "The important thing for the librarian is to know exactly what your needs are," he says. This is vital for everyone from research students, who should let the librarian know the title of their PhD, to professors working on a book. "You may find you get help that you did not know was there," he says.

At a university where Bainton worked as a librarian one lecturer used to send all her PhD students to see him early on so that he could alert them to any new book or article of likely interest to them. "It is a bit of a luxury, but it can be done - and librarians love doing it," he says.

Melissa Highton, senior staff development officer at Leeds University, says you should approach your library for information about e-mail notifications for the tables of contents of your favourite journals or search alerts from a bibliographic database for new papers published in your subject area.

Book, patent and conference alerts are other options, as are the RSS news web feeds that alert you to news from websites and services that you have specified.

It is also worth investigating bibliographic reference management packages, such as EndNote and Reference Manager, which can help you store references that you use frequently and share reference libraries among different users. Bolt-on software such as RefViz can help you sort downloaded lists of references from bibliographic databases into subject piles, which makes it easier to identify the most relevant papers from your searches, Highton says.

She says that you could also ask what courses your university's staff development unit offers in intelligent web searching, mind-mapping, speed reading and memory training.

Malcolm Batchelor, staff information skills set programme manager for Jisc, says information management "is a set of personal and generic skills". He advises thinking about exactly which skills you need to develop. "The answers are related to the individual, the institution they are in and the role they undertake in that institution," he says. They will dictate whether help is more likely to come from your university's staff development department, the librarian or the IT department, but Batchelor suggests trying staff development first because they should know everything that is available.

Mackenzie says staff with administrative responsibilities should conduct an information audit at the appropriate level (institutional, faculty or departmental) to look at where information comes from, how appropriate and accessible it is and who receives it.

Sheila Webber, a senior lecturer in the department of information studies at Sheffield University, says this can be done on an individual level too.

She advises taking some time to think about how you acquire information and whether you can stop it. She says: "This might mean getting around to unsubscribing from a discussion list ornegotiating with a colleague not to copy you into all their e-mails."

Anne Morris, reader in information science at Loughborough University, says you have to work out whether you are suffering from information overload or work overload. "Delegate if you have the opportunity," she says.

Her tips include having several e-mail accounts to keep work-related e-mails separate from those likely to spark junk, setting aside specific times to look at e-mails rather than being constantly distracted, keeping a small inbox, and filing e-mails scrupulously.

Batchelor says that learning to manage information is not something that can be treated as a one-off or separated from the rest of your working life. So assimilating information about how to assimilate information will be a never-ending process. Ting! Just like answering your e-mails.

Further information www.jisc.ac.uk - Joint Information Systems Committee www.sconul.ac.uk - Society of College, National and University Libraries

TOP TIPS

Don't be satisfied with organising information the way you always have

Use any information filters available to you

Establish a relationship with your university librarian

Think about your individual information habits and needs

Stop information sources that are not proving useful

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