Noteworthy productivity tools for personal knowledge management

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Date: May-June 2012
From: Online(Vol. 36, Issue 3)
Publisher: Information Today, Inc.
Document Type: Article
Length: 2,319 words

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Librarians at the Georgia Institute of Technology use notebook programs as one key tool to help them with personal knowledge management on the job and at home. Some use Microsoft OneNote, while others prefer Evernote, from Evernote Corp. This article traces the evolution of knowledge management and delves into practical ways that notebook products can be used to enhance time management and workplace productivity for librarians. We compare the advantages and disadvantages of Evernote and OneNote so that readers can make informed choices about which product would best fit their personal needs.


Information bombards us every day via multiple devices, media types, and locations. It assaults us for a multitude of varied purposes, related to both our work and our personal lives. Long before smartphones, tablets, ebooks, and 4G networks, experts were talking about the problem of "information overload," a term popularized in the 1970s by Alvin Toffler's The New York Times' bestselling book Future Shock.

With the current economic environment pushing workplaces to trim already lean budgets, improving efficiency and retaining employees who are adept at doing more with less becomes critical to an organization's survival. Employees and employers alike continue to search for ways to ease the impact of information overload coupled with the pressures of tighter deadlines and leaner resources.

Libraries are feeling this same pinch, and librarians continually face the challenge of meeting the call of providing superior service with less and less.

Facilitating information retrieval was once the sole bailiwick of librarians in corporate, academic, and public environments, whose careful indexing and documenting of materials provided systematic ways to find information on demand. With the advent of personal computers and the internet, information exploded, as did the need for personal knowledge management. Librarians, businesses, and the general public found themselves more dependent on the technical knowledge of computer professionals who knew how to manipulate these new environments.

Computer professionals focus on optimizing resources, improving information flow, and handling mammoth amounts of data, their vision of knowledge management. For decades, their systemized study of how individuals can better handle these issues did not progress past the Holy Grail of the daily planner, a fat notebook of calendars, to-do lists, and other "productivity" charts and techniques. Users were expected to laboriously and faithfully complete these each day to manage their time and organize every aspect of their lives.


It was around the turn of the 21st century that the term "Personal Knowledge Management" first began to be used, as explained by Jason Frand and Carol Hixon in their UCLA Anderson School of Management working paper, "Personal Knowledge Management: Who, What, Why, When, Where, How?" (

Its growth in popularity was slow, with limited published scholarly research. The advent of Web 2.0 brought a new focus--the idea of users being content generators as well as passive readers. The web exploded once again, this time with new applications and tools designed by users for users. Among these were new tools to help individuals manage the diverse amount and types of data and information they dealt with on a daily basis. Some of the tools were freely available on the web, while others were packaged for sale.

This new breed of application development took on varied forms and focused on many different kinds of problems, several related to personal knowledge management. There were applications designed to create computer-based to-do lists, sites dedicated to connecting users with friends and family, and sites for storing user-created videos or photographs. Vehicles such as blogs and wikis allowed people to share their ideas and their lives. Forums arrived in which people could ask questions and gather ideas about how to solve myriad problems.


Librarians responded to the Web 2.0 concept by developing a companion concept. Aptly named Library 2.0, it placed renewed emphasis on the traditional library focus of serving our users by introducing increased participation by the user in the development of library features more suited to their needs. These user-centered enhancements included allowing users to add content to the library catalog via tags and encouraging user participation and feedback on new features. Librarians also became much more active in the use of online social media to reach users at their point of need.

The surge of Web 2.0 applications and concepts also significantly affected our daily work lives. Employees who once had to handle the organization of memos, research papers, books, and project notes now had the added challenge of organizing information gleaned from emails, slide presentations, blogs, wikis, photographs, videos, and other multimedia sources of data. Various application developers introduced new tools that, like the paper day planner of old, purported to answer all of a person's organization needs.

Riding along on this wave of information applications, librarians remained one of the early sources of support for those seeking guidance through this new world. In schools, media specialists find themselves teaching students new technologies, such as how to create their first blog. They are often the first responder to teachers who want to incorporate new technologies into their classrooms.

Academic librarians have similar roles, assisting professors who want to provide supplemental information sources for their courses and helping students who are trying to traverse the mountains of information that they need to distill into meaningful projects and theses. Public librarians, corporate librarians, and other information professionals have similar requests from their user groups. Librarians themselves become bogged down trying to organize and manage all of the information sources they encounter each day. Everyone, it seems, is searching for the magic answer to conquer information overload. The search for the Holy Grail continues.


We would love to be able to present that organizational Holy Grail application that magically organizes a person's life, but the truth is that no single product will meet every organizational need of an individual: One application does not fit all.

That being said, one type of product has made a significant impact on improving our efficiency and organization--the electronic notebook. Consider electronic notebooks as ecosystems for organizing work and personal life. They are applications that allow users to collect myriad data in varied formats (web content, text, images, audio, and video) in one place. While perhaps better known to students who frequently use electronic notebooks to take notes for classes, these tools have significant value to library employees as well. The two most popular products are OneNote and Evernote.

There are as many different ways to use electronic notebooks as there are users of the applications. The open design allows users to customize the contents to fit their particular needs. Unlike document and spreadsheet applications, where the structure is predefined by the user, notebook programs allow data to be moved around, reorganized, and sorted very easily.

They are also designed to sync with different devices and different locations, allowing multiple users to edit and update the files. This makes these products excellent for group collaboration at work as well as for organizing family life at home. They offer powerful search engines for finding the right note among many. Additionally, optical character recognition (OCR) lets you scan or photograph handwritten notes and turn them into editable text.


Many of the uses of electronic notebooks apply to anyone's productivity needs. However, we've found several that are of particular value in library settings.

* Research: Keep the notebook open at all times to easily clip items in a common place when doing research and scholarly writing.

* Replacing the old accordion folder method of project organization: Copies of documents, minutes, spreadsheets, diagrams, photos, videos, and more can be tagged with a common project name for easy retrieval. Separate notebooks or notebook sections can be created.

* Replacing the paper day planner binder: Some electronic notebooks offer free templates to re-create different formats of calendars and to-do lists. That heavy day planner can instead be accessed on a user's desktop or smartphone.

* Collection development: Notebooks are a perfect place to collect those materials under consideration for collection development orders, especially after department funds for the year have been spent and it is necessary to keep track of the items until next year's budget is available.

* Bin lists: Our department is constantly collecting ideas for future events for library-hosted graduate and faculty talks. Shared notebooks are a great place to collect interesting news articles, websites, books, snippets from slide presentations, photographs, and other idea generators.

* Administrative tasks: Save receipts for a project or department; create schedules; record phone calls; set meeting agendas; and store travel plans and itineraries.

* Report preparation: Notebooks are great places to collect all those miscellaneous memos, task lists, statistics, and project timelines from all kinds of different sources and in different formats that serve as the background data for annual reports.

* Directory of system problems: A library's system department can use notebooks to collect system problem tickets. Screen shots can be captured along with notes from technicians on resolutions. If problems recur, you can search for the previous solution.

* Keeping track of contacts: Electronic notebooks offer more functionality than the traditional address book. Use the containers/notes to list birthdays, pictures, the importance of the contact, personal preferences, family members' names, and other information.

* Ultimate conference buddy: In addition to capturing contact information, you can also take notes on sessions and capture presentation summaries, websites mentioned, pictures of speakers, and even audio clips. Organize notes from products seen at vendor demos, and keep task lists for follow-up. Scan handouts from important sessions and save them with the rest of the relevant data. Have maps of the area, airline ticket and hotel information, copies of receipts, and reimbursement information stored together.

* Service desk buddy: Use electronic notebooks at the service desk to keep track of system outages, printer outages, locations of events, and hot questions (with their answers!) of the day. Easy to update and consult by staff working different shifts, notebooks are a quick way to keep everyone alerted to all those up-to-the-minute details.

* Capturing meeting notes: Take a picture of whiteboards filled with notes from working meetings, attach the photo to a notebook page, and then use the OCR capabilities of many notebooks to search those notes later.


OneNote and Evernote are the two market leaders in the electronic notebook arena. They have many features in common, but each offers unique advantages and disadvantages. Here are a few of these distinguishing characteristics to help librarians making a decision regarding which product to adopt:

Advantages of OneNote

* There is a hierarchical structure to notes: With notebooks, sections, groups, pages, and subpages, there are more than 150,000 organizing areas available.

* Direct synchronization with Outlook's calendar is possible.

* There is a "print to OneNote" feature from all Office products that allows for a quick transfer of data from Microsoft applications to OneNote with a simple click.

* Hyperlinking between pages and notebooks is supported, as is working in tables.

* MindManager mind maps can be directly exported to OneNote.

* There are myriad helpful templates, including an extensive set of project management tools.

* Audio and video indexing: A meeting can be recorded by OneNote, while the user also takes notes on the discussion. OneNote can sync the keywords from the written notes to the corresponding section of the audio recording, which is also stored in the notebook. Also, a search can be done. Anywhere the search term is used in an audio or video file, OneNote will take the user to that exact spot so the file can be played.

* When using a tablet or smartpen, OneNote has strong handwriting recognition capabilities.

* The OneNote application automatically comes with all 2010 Microsoft Office programs.

Disadvantages of OneNote

* OneNote trails Evernote in mobile applications. OneNote developers focused first on creating Windows-based apps and more recently released applications for iOS and Android devices. These apps work in conjunction with Microsoft SkyDrive but lack key components of the desktop versions such as the ability to create new notebooks or to apply special formats to text.

* There is another app that is compatible with iOS and Android devices (that is not from Microsoft) called MobileNoter. It must be purchased, and a choice has to be made between syncing by cloud or by Wi-Fi. It is not an ideal answer.

* OneNote is not free; it requires purchase of the 2010 Microsoft Office Suite or OneNote as an individual product.

* Other than via Outlook, there is no "email to OneNote" feature.

Advantages of Evernote

* Evernote works on most devices and operating systems and syncs across them.

* It works with a variety of hardware and software, for example, scanners, mind-mapping software, and the graphics-editing app Skitch (also an Evernote product). The Trunk section of the Evernote website has details on these third-party applications.

* There is a freemium model: Most features are available for free, while advanced features are available with a subscription ($45 per year for individuals).

* Export to OneNote is available.

Disadvantages of Evernote

* It is not as highly organized as OneNote: There are three levels of hierarchy as opposed to thousands.

* "Print to Evernote" is not available from other software.

* Alerts cannot be added for task management.

* Templates are not yet available, but they have been promised as a future enhancement.

While there exist a number of note-taking software platforms (see, OneNote and Evernote have the most features and by far the most users. Both are excellent products, and we do not recommend one over the other. Instead, we suggest trying both products and then adopting the one that best suits the purposes of the individual or organization.

Mary Axford ( and Crystal Renfro ( are librarians in the Faculty Engagement Department, Georgia Tech Library.

Comments? Email the editor (

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A288979714