07 February 2006


Organizing the kitchen

I've always been fascinated by how challenging it can be to make analogies between indexing and the "real world," when in fact we organize and retrieve things all the time. So I'm always looking at the kitchen as my model of information organization.

First of all, why is it so hard to find things in other people's kitchens? Doesn't everybody keep the trash can under the sink? Isn't cutlery always in a waist-high drawer near the sink? Don't people keep their drinking glasses and coffee mugs in the same cupboard? Apparently not.

We organize our kitchens for ourselves. If we are living alone, we only need to put things where we want them to be. If we are living with others, we do our best to compromise with our home-mates and protect our children. The things we rarely use go way up high; the things we don't want our kids to get are up high or behind a lockable door. Everything else goes where it fits, where we can reach, and next to the areas where we're most likely to use them. So for some people, coffee mugs and water glasses are stored together because they fit neatly beside each other (unlike glasses and bowls). For other people, the coffee mugs are stored closer to the coffee maker, in the same cabinet as the sugar bowl and the coffee filters. Both of these choices involve organizing by function -- the function of drinking, the function of enjoying coffee -- but the results are personal. The kitchen is ours.

Indexing involves turning your kitchen into a place that other people can use just as easily. This means you have to organize your kitchen in such a way that people don't have to ask you where the spoons are, but instead could just walk in and find exactly the spoon or other object they need. Your personal guidance should become unnecessary, because the kitchen is intuitively and universally organized. No one will ever open the wrong drawer or door or canister again.

Yeah, right.

Basically, you have four choices. The first choice is to label everything. Every drawer, every cabinet, every appliance, and every countertop object should have a little piece of paper attached to it. The cultery drawer might be labeled CUTLERY. The refrigerator might be labeled COLD FOOD. But this is not as easy as it sounds. What, other than cutlery, is in your cutlery drawer? A can opener? Twist ties? Napkin rings? Meanwhile, your refrigerator may contain cold food, but what kinds of food are kept cold? Are your apples in there, or are they in a bowl? Do you use fresh milk, or do you buy your milk in those boxes? You see, labeling is only as good as your labels. Don't you dare create a label for SPOONS, because you have teaspoons, dessert spoons, wooden spoons, slotted spoons, sugar spoons, serving spoons, antique decorative spoons, plastic spoons, and sporks in your kitchen.

Clearly the problem is that your kitchen isn't perfectly organized. Why aren't all your spoons in one place? So pull everything out and lay it down on a freshly washed floor, and reorganize it. Put all of your spoons in one place. Everything you might call a plate or a platter goes together. Everything you eat goes against one wall, and everything you don't eat goes against the other walls. And finally, your labels make sense. Of course, you've sacrificed your kitchen for the sake of everyone else, but wasn't that the point? No! This is the problem with the Dewey Decimal System in some public libraries: nobody knows how to find anything except the librarians! But I'll tell you, if you want to learn about a topic, you might just discover that everything on that topic is the same exact place.

Almost guarantee. Go the library with an interest in World War II, and you'll find yourself in the history section to read about history, the romance section to read historical fiction, the fiction area to find some spy thrillers, the newspaper archive to read old news articles, the magazine section to read current articles, the science area to read about radar, the aeronautics section to read about the airplanes, the humor section to read those funny WWII joke books, and so on. The same is true with our kitchen, where the same knife can be used to cut food, spread jam, open envelopes, and even unclog the drain. Your kitchen objects, like words in the English language, are used in many different ways; categorizing them becomes rather subjective. So when that guest comes in looking for fruit, will he find it in the refrigerator, in a bowl, in a box or can, or in the compost bin? Yes, yes, yes, and yes. Wow, I guess we need a FRUIT category.

The third approach, then, is to put everything everywhere! Put a teaspoon in every drawer, on every horizontal surface, in and next to every appliance, in each cabinet, and on every shelf. Now, when someone goes looking for a spoon, it doesn't matter where he thinks the spoon is, because he's right! There's a spoon on top of the microwave, in the Crisper drawer of the refrigerator, and in the sink. Of course, not only are spoons everywhere, but so are everything else: can openers, slices of bread, blenders! One of everything, everywhere! (Of course, to be truly practical, you'd need more than one at every location, since sometimes people need more than one spoon at a time. :-) By the way, this is how people use search engines, like Google. We create a web page, and then we attach as many keywords as possible. We want to make sure that everyone will find our stuff, no matter where they're looking. In fact, some people want their content discovered even when people aren't looking -- stumbling over spoons everywhere.

The final approach is some combination of all of these things: decent labels, better organization, and as much redundancy as the cabinets can stand. It won't be perfect for everyone all the time, but very few people are going to have to open more than one or two drawers until they find what they want, even if what they want is a tiny whisk or an egg timer. Everything is categorized, labeled, and multiply placed.

That's indexing.

I like the kitchen metaphor which shows how subjective categorization could be. The same is true for supermarkets and department stores. Products are usually divided up in categories. Would alphabetically arranged products make more sense? Probably not, even though the idea is funny. On the other hand, it could be very hard to find a specific product if it's not in the expected category. Wouldn't therefore product indexes in supermarkets and department stores be the ultimate solution?
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