Getting Things Filed
August 13, 2010 12:57 PM   Subscribe

Professors, researchers, teachers: How do you organize your files on hard disks and with physical folders?

I'd like to have a sustainable file structure on my computer(s) for research, teaching, admin, etc. material. While I could make up my own taxonomy, I'd like to learn what has been useful to others and whether there are folder hierarchies (or file naming conventions for better piling and search) out there that I could tweak.

There have been several questions on how to organize research articles and I'm aware of Zotero, Mekentosj Papers, and the like. This question is about all the other files.
posted by meijusa to Work & Money (13 answers total) 39 users marked this as a favorite
First, I wouldn't save this stuff on your hard drive. Keep it in Dropbox or some other "safe" place that won't possibly crash.

Second, with today's easy peasy search functions on a computer (or on Dropbox), having super organized folders isn't as much of an issue.

Third, I keep folders for each project and just keep all the files in there. Maybe I have subfolders "data" "lit review" etc., but again, with good search, it isn't as much of an issue.

More important, IMHO, is the version control for the Word docs. I TRY to save things as democracyv1june162010.docx with date changes throughout the day and then the next MAJOR revision as democracyv2july232010.docx.
posted by k8t at 1:14 PM on August 13, 2010

For teaching, I go by terms and then subfolders. Then when I teach something again, I copy that entire folder with a new name Fall 2010/Comm 101 for new/updated versions of files.
posted by k8t at 1:15 PM on August 13, 2010

I'm a bit oldskool. This is the basics:
-Each course has a physical binder (sometimes 2 if there's extra materials).
-Physical files for photocopied readings (ie for on reserve), by course number; research topics;
-Electronic files divided into:
1. Courses: 1 folder per course, and in that are all the general files for that course, and then folders for each specific year it's taught (for course outlines, handouts etc.).
2. Files: Admin (refs, annual reports, etc.), Committees, Research (divided on projects)
3. Grades: with folders by year with the Excel spreadsheets for each semester (or any other files eg grade appeals).
4. Personal
I always name my files with the course number first, and the year at the end eg: 222 Social Issues Course Outline 2010.
Not filing exactly, but I have 1 desk for each course that I'm currently teaching to spread my stuff out that I'm working with.
posted by kch at 1:17 PM on August 13, 2010

I'm in windows-land.

At home I keep c:\courses\ , c:\data\ , and c:\projects\ . Then subdirectories for each project, dataset, or course.

I don't put (much) data in the \projects\ subdirectories. You can use a dataset for more than one project, and it's easier to find (say) the 1998 NES if it's in c:\data\nes\1998\ instead of shoved into a \data\ subdirectory off of a project. I guess you could do that with search functions, but I've never seen the sense in relying on search when an organized filespace is trivial to create and maintain.

When projects get published, their folders get moved from \projects\ to \archive\. I leave the data in \data\subdirectory\ unless it's data I'm confident I'll never use again. Projects that look like they aren't going anywhere go to \projects\backburner\ or \projects\dead\.

I keep the same directory structure at work, and I use a thumbdrive to sync between them. Unless the drive at work dies the same day as the drive at home dies, which is also the same day that the thumbdrive dies, the most I can lose is a day's work.

Course subdirectories are like \101 fall 2010\ . When I get too many subdirectories, I drag the older courses to c:\courses\old\ .
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 1:48 PM on August 13, 2010

Seconding Dropbox. It is great for a few of reasons.
1) Online backup.
2) It syncs the files on multiple computers. Great if you split time between home and campus.
3) Eliminates the need for a USB thumb drive to bring Powerpoints, etc. to class if your classroom has a computer with internet access. You can access all of your files through your web browser.

Electronically, I have main folders for Articles, Classes, Miscellaneous Stuff (committees, non-class presentations, other duties), Personal Docs, and Research.

I currently do not have a great system for organizing Articles. Most are organized in folders by major topics relevant in my field.

In Classes, I have folders for my current term's classes and another folder for past classes. Within each class's folder, I have Lectures, Syllabus, Quizzes and Tests, Readings, and Assignments. Sometimes more folders within those folders. Yes. It is a damn lot of clicking. But I prefer the lack of visual clutter when I open each folder.

Research has subfolders by project.
posted by puritycontrol at 2:12 PM on August 13, 2010

Depends on the content.
+ /Artist, The
  + /year - Album Name
    + track #. Track Name with Proper Capitalization.flac
    + […]
  + […]
+ […]
+ /unsorted

+ /year-month-day - Place
  + originalfilename.dwg
  + […]
+ […]
+ /unsorted

+ Full Name of Film, The (year).avi
+ Full Name of Film, The (year).sub
+ […]
+ /unsorted

+ /Name of Series, The
  + /season #
    + episode #. Name of Episode.avi
    + […]
  + […]
+ […]
+ /unsorted
And to those wondering if you could possibly maintain this kind of discipline as it gets larger, that's several terabytes of data using this structure. Yes, I am ruthless.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 2:13 PM on August 13, 2010 [3 favorites]

Easy. One of the best advices from GTD.

My harddrive has a folder "data"
This data folder has directories named a,b,c,d....z
If I am looking for tax files from 2009 it would be

Or Chemistry files
posted by yoyo_nyc at 2:18 PM on August 13, 2010

Echoing others:
Dropbox/research/topica, topicb, topicc, ... folders for various research problems, containing related articles and my writings on that topic.
Dropbox/research/ofinterest is a folder into which I dump interesting papers to be sorted later.
Dropbox/research/talks/talka, talkb, etc.
Dropbox/teaching/coursename/semestername. I find this works better than using a heirarchy based on semester since I have all my, say, Calc I courses right there in the same place.

There is a lot of redundency but Dropbox is big. Heck, my dissertation PDF is about 1 megabyte, which actually makes me cry a little whenever I mention it.

I also have a lot of other things in Dropbox. Maybe it's a holdover from the old DOS days, but I'm a big fan of folder heirarchies.
posted by monkeymadness at 2:38 PM on August 13, 2010

3) Eliminates the need for a USB thumb drive to bring Powerpoints, etc. to class if your classroom has a computer with internet access. You can access all of your files through your web browser.

This also means that, strictly speaking, you shouldn't use it for student-identifiable information.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 3:12 PM on August 13, 2010

It's quite simple actually. Dropbox or not (which is another issue altogether), keep everything under one main folder called Work. Doing so allows for easy access and most importantly easy backup.

I have the following structure:

Active Projects - One sub folder for each active one. Each project can contain additional subfolders as necessary. Since I do a lot of data modeling, each effort has it's own sub folder under analysis.

Archived Projects (completed projects. I zip up large data files if I don't plan to access them in the near future). Each archived folder also has a manuscripts subfolder which contains all raw figures, raw text, reviewer comments and full reprint if available.

- one subfolder for each class I've taught. Folders are named Year Class Name/Code Fall/Spring/Winter.

Talks - A folder for each seminar talk I have given. Again Year - Meeting/University - City.

Proposals - A folder for each proposal I've worked on. Named as Year, month, Grant agency.

Applications - I keep a folder for each job and fellowship I have applied for. Each contains the version of cv I used for that specific job. I also keep a folder called CV. Inside that I maintain every version of my cv. It contains a subfolder called Archives where I toss the old ones.

and finally

- PDF books (I get a ton of books from authors who happen to be my friends. I stick it all in here).
- Future Lectures (Interesting stuff I find that I want to use someday).
- How-tos, advice and suggestions
- R code reference (technical documents).

That's it. I'm on a mac so I use Yep which allows me to tag all documents. So a proposal I submit to NSF in July will get tagged proposal, july, 2010, pending, collaborator name etc. I can quickly track down any document inside of the Work folder using Yep. Even otherwise, I can easily tell where anything should reside.
posted by special-k at 5:35 PM on August 13, 2010

In addition to the excellent directory structure and file naming taxonomies mentioned above, you might also want to add an independent indexing system. On the Mac, there's really nothing more powerful than DevonThink. DevonThink's userbase has a fairly high percentage of researchers and academics. The forums on the company's website are quite active, very informative, and the company actively participates in them as well. There's very little snark and flame. DevonThink allows your files to remain wherever you want them stored but at the same time will completely index them (tags optional) and apply very powerful AI searching from within the program. All without changing the file format or the underlying application for each individual filetype.

Finally, if you do incorporate a date into your file-naming convention, I suggest something formatted such as "YYYYMMDD" ("20100813") or shortened to "YYMMDD" ("100813") as this format is easily searched on and sorted because it does not include any non-numeric symbols (no dashes, periods, etc..) or alphabetical characters.
posted by webhund at 8:30 PM on August 13, 2010

Yeah, my full folder hierarchy is a bit more advanced then I mentioned but media is such an obvious place to start off as it's the stuff you tend to most need quick access to. You can always go the "managed" way with database-backed systems like iTunes but frankly nothing is faster than a folder hierarchy and nothing easier to instantly grok without any fuss.

The bigger picture…
+ /documents
  + /books
    + /fiction
      + /Last, First
        + /Name of the Book
          + book.pdf
          + […]
    + /non-fiction
      + /Last, First
        + /Name of the Book
          + book.pdf
          + […]
    + /programming
      + /topic
      + /Name of the Book
        + book.pdf
        + […]
  + /articles
    + /where published
      + date - article title.pdf
      + […]
  + /manuals
    + /device
      + documentation.pdf
      + […]
+ /development
  + /source
    + /can of worms
    + […]
+ /media
  + (above)
+ /official
  + /taxes
    + /year
      + documents.etc
      + […]
    + […]
  + /finances
    + /can of worms
    + […]
  + […]
+ /projects
  + […]
Not saying this is perfect, but it's worked for a bit over a decade. I'm constantly tweaking things; I don't suppose there's any reason why documents couldn't be under media, for instance. But the nice thing about simple folder structures is that they're dead-simple to refactor. It's the upkeep that's the bitch, but that's just discipline, like brushing your teeth.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 4:32 PM on August 14, 2010 [3 favorites]

addressing the off-line problem if you are on Windows:

a few years ago I looked ata few years ago I looked at a software called "The Paper Tiger", which looked quite nice. I finally decided that I could probably do the same thing with spreadsheets or an access database, but of course didn't get around to doing it. It seems as though they have moved to a subscription model which disappoints me, but on the other hand at least that minimizes the investment. At the time I was convinced that this would be the best one for off-line management.

Excel alternative
alternatively you could just put together spreadsheets that have document numbers in sequential order in the first column, project or topic in the second column, a date in the third column, and keywords in the fourth. Each paper document is labeled with the number and the relevant information entered. alternatively you could add in a context column, which would indicate when you first or last thread the paper e.g. Chicago or your favorite lounge chair

[there is a way to export a list of unique values from an Excel document, but it's been so long since I've done it to remember. If you did this you could have an alphabetized list of keywords or tags to help jog your memory.]

it would probably take about 15 seconds per entry for an able-bodied person, and the documents wouldn't have to be sorted otherwise. You could just keep things in your favorite text editor and separate the columns with delimiters like it "," and then imported into Excel once a week so you don't have to keep the Excel document open.

the advantage to this kind of system is that you don't have to force things into physical folders if the documents could possibly fit into one category, you have tagging, and you get to maintain a chronological record. Of course nothing would stop you from putting it into a dedicated folder if you really wanted to. some people recall by time, other people I context, it still other people recall by keywords or name. if you do it this way you have all of the above. I never tried out the paper tiger, but from the previews it looks a lot like this is what it was doing essentially.
I hope this helps.
pardon my voice recognition errors.
posted by chinabound at 9:43 AM on August 17, 2010 [4 favorites]

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