Lumber in Holmes’ library

Lately, I have been thinking about the intersection of IA with the everyday person’s life. The more information we encounter, the more we are challenged to keep it organized. The problems we discuss in Thom Haller’s Information Architecture class are relevant even to the challenges my colleagues face as my organization switches from Novell GroupWise powered mail (with folders) to Gmail (with labels).

In “The Five Orange Pips,” Sherlock Holmes reminds Dr. Watson of a time when Watson decided to audit (if you will) the knowledge of Holmes. Watson noted some peculiar omissions from Holmes’ understanding the world—most famously, Holmes’ inability to recall that Earth revolves around the Sun. Holmes’ defense of his eclectic knowledge is this:

“I say now, as I said then, that a man should keep his little brain-attic stocked with all the furniture that he is likely to use, and the rest he can put away in the lumber-room of his library, where can get it if he wants it.”

The differentiation is superb: knowledge in your brain is completely ready to use at a moments notice; knowledge in your library (or email, or bookmarks, or textbook) requires a bit or even a lot of prep to use. I am very quickly reminded of Norman’s knowledge in the head and in the world—wonder if he’s a Sir Arthur Conan Doyle fan.

What I further wonder is this: How do we get the masses to practice the kind of efficient library organization that Holmes practices? In The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, the reader frequently witnesses Holmes immediately pulling the correct reference book off his shelf. He can also surround himself with a mass of papers in a train car, and come out with just the information he needs, without bothering to methodically organize the papers first. Holmes knows when to organize, and when not to bother.

That’s the sort of organizational scheme that I hope to eventually help my coworkers discover, as they learn the benefits of Gmail labels, filters, and search. But that’s a topic for another day.

About Veronica Erb

Designs, researches, illustrates, and writes code. Plays ukulele. Dances Balboa. Grew up in a geodesic dome, and hasn't gotten over it.
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