How do we cope with our growing digital lives?  How do we manage the ever increasing amounts of digital stuff we create and use?  This is the challenge of Personal Information Management.   



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The Revenge of the File System

Once upon a time—back in the days of Windows 95—a young reference librarian organized his electronic files in folders on the file system. Well labelled, well organized folders. Then one day, full-text desktop search tools came along and made this unncecessary. With a simple keyword search, he could find his files, regardless of where they were located. He was, after all, a search professional. Then better search became available with e-mail. First with Outlook and then with GMail, where Google encouraged him to use search, not folders, to find that e-mail he was looking for.  And so it was that he stopped putting his files in neat little folders.  And the files accumulated, year after year, job after job, and computer after computer.   

Fast forward to 2011. Multiple moves, including a change of operating system (hello Macintosh!) have left me with a disorganized mess of duplicate files and scattered folders. My files have become so numerous and some of them so big (work files) that keyword searches have started failing me.  One consequence of ignoring my file system is that I had forgotten about old files and their contents.

This became clear to me when I started to tackle my file duplication problem.  As I waded through old directories to remove duplicates and restore some semblance of order, I noticed files I had long forgotten about: letters and plans, reports and articles, funny stuff and packing lists from old trips. In the process of creating new folders and collapsing old ones I got reacquainted with my digital archives, what I have and how it is (and should be) organized.  While some of this stuff will never serve me again, some of it will and my awareness of what I can put to use has greatly improved.  

At the same time, I have become aware of how my photos and music files have been absorbed wholesale by the iPhoto and iTunes applications on my Macintosh, both of which encourage me to forget about the file system and manage everything from within the applications. The problem with this is that all of the organization and labelling and captioning work that I lavish on these files lives solely within these applications and will be lost if I decide to stop using these tools. Or, in the best case, extractable at great effort.

Thus, I have concluded I must pay more attention to how my files and file folders are organized.  This organization scheme, while primitive, is durable and lives independently of any software application that makes use of the files within. This makes it portable. I can switch computers or operating systems or tools without ever losing it. And the very time that I spend managing my folder scheme makes me better aware of the information that lies within. This ensures that I am more likely to use information I might otherwise ignore. 

 This is part of a series of posts summarizing my PIM activities in 2011.

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