Combating Information Overload

Information overload remains a serious issue for many (information) professionals. At a recent knowledge management (KM) conference in New York sponsored by WestKM and Recommind, I presented a paper on the topic of information overload. I discussed three main aspects:

1) The History of Information Overload

2) The Negative Impact of Information Overload

3) KM Tips and Techniques to Combat Information Overload

1) The History of Information Overload

One thing I discovered was that our current situation may not be that unique. Some interesting research (see the bibliography at the end of this post for the articles in the Journal of the History of Ideas) points out that since the 1200’s – but more particularly after the implementation of Gutenberg’s printing press – people have been complaining about information overload. Everything is relevant. For example, scholar Ann Blair (see below) cites French scholar Adrien Baillet from 1685 stating that “We have reason to fear that the multitude of books which grows every day in a prodigious fashion will make the following centuries fall into a state as barbarous as that of the centuries that followed the fall of the Roman Empire.”

There were a number of coping techniques used in the past to deal with the “multitude” of books, techniques that can be useful even today:

  • Navigational tools such as the incipit to mark the start of textual passages was an early technique to design the layout of information. We take for granted today the use of tables of contents, page numbering, alphabetical indices and so on but these were techniques that were developed over time based on the need to better organize printed texts. The design and layout of information is no less important today – we speak of computers in book-like terms, including the concept of “bookmarks”, a “desktop”, etc. Many websites, moreover, often have an “A to Z index” as an additional way to allow users to find information.
  • The bookwheel, invented in 1588 by Agostino Ramelli, was a sort of early day, mechanical search engine to search large bodies of information quickly (check out the picture of a bookwheel here)
  • The commonplace book (a sort of diary of miscellaneous quotations organized by topic or theme), could perhaps be considered an early precursor to the blog or a wiki.
  • Encyclopedias – The notion in 1728 that Chambers’ Cyclopedia could capture the entire body of knowledge seems quaint today (see a screen shot of the wonderful frontispiece here from the University of Wisconsin’s Digital Collections that seeks to capture in a single painting the entire body of knowledge). I noticed that the third edition of Halsbury’s Laws of England (circa mid-1950’s) purported to be “a complete statement of the whole law of England” (emphasis added). The more recent fourth edition of Halsbury’s makes no such claim for exhaustiveness (as far as I could tell)
  • Taxonomies and maps: Ogilvie (see below) discusses the huge increase during the Renaissance in the number of plants being identified by botanists. The huge increase required new taxonomies to classify the large amount of information. The role and importance of taxonomies is of course very familiar to the modern day knowledge manager. The map concept is also a nice metaphor for the idea of visually capturing on a single page a much larger body of information.
  • Marginalia: The idea that Renaissance scholars would add marginal notes to the Gutenberg Bible would be scandalous today but these notes were a way for scholars to add commentary to their documents for the benefit of subsequent users.

Although it is easy to see the impact of new technologies on the increase in the availability of information (and too much information is likely better than no or not enough information), it is all relative and it is somewhat comforting to know that our predecessors had similar issues with the new technologies of their day and invented ways to cope with the overload of information.

2) The Negative Impact of Information Overload

They are numerous studies to suggest that information overload makes us dumber: Persons exposed to excessive amounts of information are less productive, prone to make bad decisions, and risk suffering serious stress-related diseases.

In a law firm setting, information overload generally falls into one or more of the following categories: too much information, too many sources, too many interruptions, and information too quickly.

E.M. Hallowell has actually identified the negative neurological effects of information overload by describing it as “attention deficit trait” (ADT):

[There is] a very real but unrecognized neurological phenomenon that I call attention deficit trait, or ADT. Caused by brain overload, ADT is now epidemic in organizations. The core symptoms are distractibility, inner frenzy, and impatience. People with ADT have difficulty staying organized, setting priorities, and managing time. (See E.M. Hallowell, “Overloaded Circuits: Why Smart People Underperform” (January 2005) Harvard Business Review 55 at 55-56).

Other studies have shown that sufferers of information overload:

  • become highly selective and ignore a large amount of information or give up and don’t go beyond the first results in many cases (David Bawden, “Perspectives on Information Overload” (1999) 51(8) ASLIB Proceedings at 252)
  • need more time to reach a decision (J. Jacoby, “Perspectives on Information Overload” (1984) 10 Journal of Consumer Research 482)
  • make mistakes (N.K. Malhotra, “Reflections on the Information Overload Paradigm in Consumer Decision Making” (1982) 10 Journal of Consumer Research 436)
  • have difficulties in identifying the relationship between the details and the overall perspective (S.C. Schneider, “Information Overload: Causes and Consequences” (1987) 7 Human Systems Management 143), and
  • waste time (Nick Parnell, “Managing Information Overload” (2001) Business Information Review 45 at 48).

3) KM Tips and Techniques to Combat Information Overload

By definition, KM is the solution to combating information overload. I see there being two major components: a technical solution and a “human” solution. Many of the tips and tricks for combating information overload are relatively trite. On the technical side, it is reasonable to assume that if new technology is partly responsible for causing information overload that new technology can also solve the problem of information overload. There are a number of technical solutions identified in the literature:

  • Better, smarter search engines that go beyond full-text searches and that allow large search results to be easily further refined or filtered
  • Better email management – much of the anxiety of information overload may in many cases be instead caused by email overload. Taking advantage of the various rules or filters in Microsoft Outlook is one way to help better manage email. Removing yourself from unnecessary listservs is another. Avoiding the temptation to constantly check one’s PDA is also important.
  • RSS feeds: Dennis Kennedy was quite positive on the possibility of RSS being used to better control what information is received. However, he has more recently been a bit skeptical on this point as it applies to lawyers since some law firms or lawyers seem to be late-adopters of the technology (see also Elizabeth Ellis’s post on SLAW on RSS feeds on this point).
  • Design: The design of online information can greatly affect information retrieval. Information that is well-designed will reduce the stress that sometimes accompanies the information-gathering process. Studies have shown that data that is visualized, compressed and properly aggregated is much easier to process (see R.L. Ackoff, “Management Misinformation Systems” (1967) 14 Management Science 147 and J. Meyer, “Information Overload in Marketing Management” (1998) 16 Marketing Intelligence and Planning 200).
  • On the “human” side, there are a number of things that knowledge managers or law librarians can do to help lawyers:

  • Time management: Some of the responsibility for combating overload rests with the individual. However, while in the midst of suffering from overload, users may not see a way out of their problem. Teaching basic time management skills to young lawyers, although seemingly trite, is very important.
  • Stress management: Hallowell (cited above) discusses the importance of “turning your brain off” (in a good sense) by taking breaks and, for example, doing a crossword puzzle in order to allow the rational part of your brain to gain control over the anxiety caused by overload.
  • Training/information literacy: Teaching lawyers and law students personal knowledge management skills can go a long way to putting them back in control. Learning how to evaluate information sources and organize information is extremely important.
  • Annotations, taxonomies, analysis: Just as renaissance scholars added marginalia to their texts to aid the reader, we as knowledge management lawyers can do the same with our annotations, taxonomies and analysis.
  • Culture: To the extent that a KM Department can nudge a law firm into a knowledge-sharing environment, so much the better for reducing information anxiety. If lawyers and students are comfortable sharing their information concerns and issues with their colleagues, the potential negative impact on any single individual in the firm is potentially lessened.

If any readers have additional tips or tricks they would like to recommend, please do so.


Selected prior SLAW postings on Information Overload:

How Do You Keep Up? (6 October 2005, Connie Crosby)

RSS and Lawyers – What’s Real and What’s Not (2 March 2007, Elizabeth Ellis)

Changeful Complexity (28 June 2006, Simon Fodden)

Paris Hilton and BIALL (14 August 2006, Simon Chester)


Select bibliography:

Blair, Ann. “Reading Strategies for Coping With Information Overload ca.1550-1700” (2003) 64(1) Journal of the History of Ideas 11-28;

Ogilvie, Brian W. “The Many Books of Nature: Renaissance Naturalists and Information Overload” (2003) 64(1) Journal of the History of Ideas 29-40;

Rosenberg, Daniel. “Early Modern Information Overload” (2003) 64(1) Journal of the History of Ideas 1-9;

Sheehan, Jonathan. “From Philology to Fossils: The Biblical Encyclopedia in Early Modern Europe” (2003) 64(1) Journal of the History of Ideas 41-60;

Yeo, Richard. “A Solution to the Multitude of Books: Ephraim Chambers’s Cyclopaedia (1728) as the ‘Best Book in the Universe'” (2003) 64(1) Journal of the History of Ideas 61-72.


  1. Nicely written Ted. Soon to be published?

  2. Good article, thanks for your efforts on this!