Should I store files in folders?

As the family genealogist, I have regularly experienced the thrill of coming across a box full of photographs. It’s a surprise venture into the unknown to go through a stack of picture that may or may not have to do with each other. As the quantities of pictures get larger, the thrill starts to wear off as I think to myself that it would be much easier to deal with these pictures if they were in some kind of order. Compare this to coming across carefully organized and planned photo albums that have written comments and descriptions of who’s who. In the paper based world, it makes sense to put photos in albums or papers into labelled file folders. When it comes to the digital world, the same situation doesn’t necessarily apply.

Photo by Fancycrave.com from Pexels
a stack of photos may be fun to look through but can take forever to sort!

The benefits of storing files in folders

I’ve talked before about my method for organizing photos into folders. This gives structure and and easier ability to find photos. Combined with my method for naming and tagging photos, it makes finding that proverbial needle in a haystack a bit easier to find. This can be applied further to any types of folders, for example I keep folders of bills and statements sorted by company types, ie credit card, insurance, hydro, etc. If I want to find my Mastercard bill from 3 years ago, it’s easy enough to go through my folder structure to find the file that I know will be named something like ‘2016-03 Mastercard.pdf’.

I do the same thing with email. Several years ago I moved my email to Gmail. Gmail uses a structure for folders that they call labels. What this means is that you tag emails with a label name but you view them like folders. If you tag an email with more than one label, it will then appear to be in more than one folder. But if you delete it from a folder/label, it’s gone as there is really only one copy.

Photo by Mike from Pexels
those paper file folders did make finding information a bit easier

In the early days of computing, it made sense to apply structures from the real world into the computer world. Folders in your filing cabinet became folders in your computer. Photo albums also can easily be structured into a computer in the form of folders. I was talking this week with an older friend who agreed with me that this structure makes a lot of sense to him, but his son doesn’t necessarily agree.

An argument for one big free-for-all folder

Part of the power of computers is that they can do the hard work of sorting and searching. Imagine picking up a big box of photos and being able to find the one you want in seconds. That’s what computers have done for the digital world. Let’s look at how this might work in a few examples where we eliminate the use of folders.

Email with no folders

Anyone who has used Google knows at what speed search results are returned. Gmail and many other online email systems use this same concept to allow you to search your personal, private email. Although I choose to label all of my emails (into folders), I could leave them all in the inbox. When I want to find a message, I can just search for any words in it and/or the sender and the results will be returned as in a Google search.

Digital photos all in one big virtual box

Let’s say I put all of my thousands of digital photos into one folder. I could still search for them by date as every digital photo taken has the time and date embedded in the file. This isn’t the case for scanned photos but there is software that will allow you to set this information. Google Photos and other similar photo sharing services don’t use folders. You just upload all your pictures and Google lets you search and organize them into albums.

Files in one big folder

Going back to the example of the Mastercard statement. If I name my files in meaningful ways then I can search for them easily. Let’s say I had a folder with these files in it:

  • 2016-03_Mastercard_statement.pdf
  • 2014-03_hydro_statement.pdf
  • 204-02_letter_to_joe.doc

Searching the folders for any words that I know will appear in the name or maybe even in the content of the document will find the file. This would mean I could keep many unrelated documents in the same folder but still be able to find them.

So which way is better, folders or not?

It really depends on your way of thinking. On one hand, the folder structure is based on the physical world of folders and albums. If you are able to find what you want with searching then having less structure could make sense. Personally, I prefer more folders that allow me to browse when I want, but since all my files are searchable within the computer I can still do both. If I’m searching for copy of a specific statement from 5 years ago, I know exactly which folder to look in. If I want to find a letter that I wrote to a friend at some unknown time, I can search their name in my folders to find it.

Without some level of organization, certain data will drop into a virtual ‘black hole’ never to be found. Think about it this way. If you had 10,000 photos and put them all, unlabeled into a single folder, imaging how hard it would be to pinpoint a specific one. By putting some organization into your files structures, you make it easier to find what you are looking for.

What is your digital organization system?

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The long and short of it – what data to keep and what to delete

My parents are in the process of downsizing their house to a smaller one. Part of the process is going through years of papers and memorabilia to determine what to keep and what to throw out. That seemingly important file from 20 years ago doesn’t look so critical when you look at it now. The collection of National Geographic Magazines might seem valuable but do you (a) need it and (b) do you have anywhere to put it. With digital data, there are many of the same issues and it’s important to be able to determine what is important for long term vs short term.

An important distinction to be made between physical and digital data is the amount of space it takes to store both. Having to find place for 500 magazines is not quite the same as having a big enough hard drive to store 500 digital copies of the same magazines. Hard drives continue to drop in price so it’s feasible to keep buying larger hard drives as your quantity of data increases. And it’s also like that your current hard drive purchase will be cheaper and higher capacity than the previous one.

This is not an exhaustive list, but it should help you think about what you should and shouldn’t keep.

This view of the Cabot trail in Nova Scotia is definitely a keeper

Photos and Videos

This summer we went on vacation in Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island. We took lots of great pictures of the scenery. When we returned from the trip, I went through the hundreds of photos that we took and DELETED many of them. If there are 10 pictures of a statue then only the best one needs to be kept. The key thing here is to do your purging of pictures as soon as possible. If you wait until the end of the year then there’s a good chance you’ll never delete anything. The same goes for videos. Check your videos after you record them and if they’re no good, then get rid of them!

Financial Documents

These include all your digital bills and statements, receipts for products purchased and everything to do with taxes. I’m not one to give financial advice but I have been told to keep all tax related documents for 7 years. I have also heard that when there’s a tax problem, the tax department might go back even further. The reality if you save copies of documents then the files are not too big, at least compared to photos and videos. If you don’t do much else in digital filing, at least have a folder with files for years. Put everything in each year’s folder. Take it further by having folders for bills, statements, receipts, taxes, etc. This way if you decide to get rid of certain years, you know that the files are broken up by years. And it has the added bonus of making it much easier to find what you’re looking for.

Documents created in word processors and spreadsheets

Some of these documents are related to taxes or finances and should be filed along with the statements. Others are quick letters or notes that you might take that are never needed again. These too should be kept in folders by year so that you can quickly check through them at the end of the year to see what you actually need. Many of these are also small files that over time do not take up that much space on our ever increasing sized hard drives.

What to do with files that are kept?

The key take away here is to have an effective filing system so that you can better locate what you want to keep and what to get rid of. In future posts, we will talk about various methods for long and short term archiving. You should be able to actually find what you choose to keep!Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

My Method for Organizing Digital Photos and Videos

As you keep filling up your phone with pictures and videos and then occasionally copy them to your computer, you must be thinking, I must organize my pictures. This method is also very effective for backup purposes as it leads to an easier way of getting all pictures and videos backed up. More about that in a future post.

Folders on My Hard Drive

My main computer is a laptop with a relatively small hard drive. There isn’t enough room to store all of my pictures and videos going back many years. I purchased an external hard drive, similar to this one. Within the hard drive, I set up a folder structure:

You’re probably wondering how I have folders going back to the 1920s – there were surely no digital cameras then! I use these folders not only to store pictures taken now but also scanned pictures. This simple year method allows me to keep all pictures, regardless of where they originated.

Within each year folder, there are subfolders for each month. For example, in 2017 the structure is as follows:

Then, within every month, there is a series of folders and pictures. If there is a specific event, such as a birthday party or and outing where I took a lot of pictures, I would create a folder there. If I have just a couple of pictures that were taken while out, they are put in the folder for the month. This short amount of time spent figuring out how to organize your pictures is well worth it in the long term when you want to find them!

For example, this is the folder for July 2005. There were several event where I took pictures such as a wedding, or in the cases of folders labelled like ‘weekend 15-17, it’s pictures from that weekend. The remaining pictures are others that were taken that month that didn’t warrant specific categorization.

You will also notice that the pictures are named a certain way. The method I generally use is to name the file based on who is in the picture and/or where they are. Also, when I say picture, a short video taken with my phone would also be included in the same folder where pictures are stored.

Scanned Photos

As for scanned photos, the storage method is identical. If I have a collection of pictures from August of 1962, I will scan them and create the appropriate folder structure. In some cases where I don’t know the exact year, I have created folders such as ‘1960s’ and then keep the pictures there.

Other Categories of Photos

If you look at my year photo structure from earlier, there are 2 additional folders listed:

  • Family pictures
  • scan

In any way of storing pictures and videos, there are always exceptions. In my case, as part of my genealogy research, I also have collections of old photos that I don’t want to store in the year/month/event method. For these, I keep the ‘Family Pictures’ folder where I can store pictures based on other categories.

The ‘scan’ folder is where I keep scanned photos that haven’t yet been categorized and placed in folders.

As you develop your own storage system, you will find a system that works for you. The key recommendation is to keep all photos in a common folder structure as it makes backup and copying much easier.

Next time we will talk about making backup copies of your pictures and videos.Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail