You are about to inherit the best digital file archive in the world!
August 11, 2017 5:24 AM   Subscribe

Tell me everything you love or hate about digital filing methods you've encountered in corporate settings. I need this information so I can not be that sucky person who leaves an unholy mess of files for the next person ...

I am leaving my freelance consultancy position and have 10+ years of digital files to hand off (mandatory).

Files are currently organized accordingly to my own labyrinthine method, which worked great for me. But its definitely going be impossible to navigate for anyone else.

I can't in good conscience send them like this.

I want to be able to send a tidy package that has an intuitive structure, easy to grasp without documentation or explanation.

What are your tips and best practices that you know work well?
What systems have you had to contend with that make you crazy?

-Folder naming techniques that stand the test of time?
-Hierarchical structures that intuitively make sense?
-Smart, proven, even delightful tips?
-would especially love to know why some things work or don't (neuroscientific nerdy stuff!)

-there is no paper involved here, whatsoever.
-on a Mac but they are on Windows so has to be OS agnostic
-planning to recruit Hazel to help sort and restructure (open to others?!)
posted by OlivesAndTurkishCoffee to Work & Money (14 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Are these files related to certain projects?
If so, a folder structure of Project > Stage > Deliverable

If it's all task based (daily operations logs, processes that are completed daily/weekly)
Year > Month > Daily Task X (With folders for Y Z and Q daily tasks as well)

If it's a mix of those, use both! If it's not, a better description of what you're sorting may help to figure out what you're after.
posted by deezil at 5:36 AM on August 11, 2017 [1 favorite]

Whoops. Thanks Deezil!
Yes. I left it vague to cast the net wide but probably easier this way!

Mostly a mish-mash of...
-creative working files
-administrative analysis & reports
-reference files
posted by OlivesAndTurkishCoffee at 5:41 AM on August 11, 2017

Then I'm seeing 4 main folders:
Creative Files

In each of those
Projects: Like I described above ( Project > Stage > Deliverable )
Creative Files: Client > Campaign (if it's something that was/is separate campaigns)
Reports: If it's more by client, do it like I just described creative files. If it's more general, like I said above with the task based stuff (Year>Month)
Reference Files: If there's not a ton of this, just throw them all in, if there is, organize by Client or by type of reference.
posted by deezil at 6:28 AM on August 11, 2017

A very small point, but if you use dates in your file names (especially for version control) it's much easier to use a YYMMDD (or YYYYMMDD) format, so that a document you created today would be entitled "Report 170811" or "Report 20170811," or with whatever combinations of dashes/hyphens you'd like.

This makes the files sorted alphabetically also sorted correctly by date, which is really nice.
posted by andrewesque at 7:20 AM on August 11, 2017 [8 favorites]

I want to be able to send a tidy package that has an intuitive structure, easy to grasp without documentation or explanation.

That would indeed be a lovely thing to be able to hand over. Unfortunately, no such thing exists.

Your successor will undoubtedly implement their own labyrinthine method which works great for them. Best favour you can do them is force them to encounter everything they're now responsible for in the process of reverse engineering yours.
posted by flabdablet at 7:26 AM on August 11, 2017

Also, if you've been at this for ten years there's a fairly good chance that your labyrinthine method is as it is because it's actually fit for purpose.
posted by flabdablet at 7:35 AM on August 11, 2017

Not a digital archivist, but one trick I can suggest is to download a good batch file renamer tool. Manually renaming more than four or five files at a time is a sucker's game and no one has time for that.

I've been using Flash Renamer at work, but important caveat, we downloaded it approximately 1000 years ago so I'm not sure if the site is still safe. I trust there are safe tools out there though!
posted by prewar lemonade at 7:56 AM on August 11, 2017

to prewar lemonade's point, i use "bulk rename utility" and it is awesome.
posted by misanthropicsarah at 8:12 AM on August 11, 2017

As a person who recently inherited someone else's files, the most important thing to me is that each group of files has a parallel structure. So instead of one main folder for a periodic accounting report containing folders like Annual Plan, Bad Debts, Carrying Charges, Environmental Program, Deferred Taxes, Old Files, Materials and Supplies, Property, and Summary, I would like it if the main folder had contained these folders and subfolders:

Report Procedures
- Annual Plan
- Old Files
- Summary
Report Components
- Bad Debts
- Environmental Program
- - Carrying Charges*
- Materials and Supplies
- Property
- - Deferred Taxes**

* these modify the Environmental Program balance
** these modify the Property balance

So everything at the same drill-down level is the same category of thing.
posted by lakeroon at 10:53 AM on August 11, 2017

Note that there are two common approaches to retrieval of information contained in documents - organization of the files under a folder and/or naming protocol, and text searching. The best system will accommodate both.

For the name and folder organization protocol, any number of systems can make sense. Some of the available systems include the use of document management software, and some involve the use of external tags.

For text searching, there are two things that you can do to maximize accessibility:
OCR of the contents that are images of text (often in PDF files) and ensuring that the files are in a known and accessible format. If you have thousands of pages that were created in WordStar, WordPerfect, AmiPro or Microsoft Works, those pages have more limited usability now and that limitation will only increase in the future.

Batch OCR of PDFs is relatively simple to do. Batch conversion of large numbers of text files in an esoteric format to a “common denominator” format can be more challenging.
posted by yclipse at 10:56 AM on August 11, 2017

A thing I like to do when re-organizing somebody else's idea of How It Should All Be Laid Out is to leave their existing file tree exactly as-is, and make my own new tree full of shortcuts (or hardlinks, if I have the luxury of having that capability available) to their files (or to folders, if those contain files whose grouping I agree is reasonable).

That way, I'm imposing my own preferred ordering while also not screwing up anybody else who has spent the last ten years getting used to the way things were done before I moved in.

Because if there's one thing I've learned from dealing with a lot of file trees over a lot of years, it's that the person nominally in charge of any given file tree is vanishingly unlikely to be the only one who ever touches it.
posted by flabdablet at 11:06 AM on August 11, 2017

Allocate some serious time to adjust the folder structure and rename things as needed. If you have the resources, this is a two-monitor, several-folders-open task where there's a lot of moving pieces around, changing your mind, and moving them back.

Feel free to put in a "Misc Probably Useful" folder and a "Misc Archives" folder and use them liberally - it's better for a new person to have a stack of documents of unknown purpose than for those to be in the wrong spot.

After they're sorted, get a complete list of all the documents (Windows will get you a text list, annoyingly formatted; there are some better tools out there; I assume Mac has some of this function as well). At least provide the basic text list at the top of the folder structure. If you have time, convert it to a spreadsheet so you can add metadata with dates, project name, contact info, etc., and notes; even if you only fill in the data on some files, that'll help the next person understand the structure and find things before they've gotten fully settled.

There is no such thing as an intuitive folder structure. Any documentation is better than none, even if it's "I sorted first by project - those are the folders labeled things like PROJECT Amuds Case, PROJECT Beshiva Case, etc. - and then put in folders by year" and so on.

I swear to Hypatia, there are going to be managers who look at your folders and throw everything they want to add into whichever one is on top, or whichever one is closest to their own name. And there may be several of them before there is a semi-permanent person assigned to deal with the folders. Give some description of how they're supposed to work, in case they get mangled before they're actually someone else's job.
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 11:17 AM on August 11, 2017 [1 favorite]

There is no such thing as an intuitive folder structure.

I think there actually is. Trouble is, it will only ever be intuitive to people who have spent the last several hundred hours combing through the thing to see what's in there. At which point, it's the several hundred hours that matter way more than the shape of the original hierarchy, provided only that that's at least half way defensible.

Also completely not a fan of documenting this stuff in any real detail. Inside two years, most of those documents will have departed from reality to an extent that makes them literally worse than useless; meanwhile, about one in five of the people who have to use the tree will have pissed away copious amounts of time on the Sisyphean task of trying to keep the documentation up to date in the face of an onslaught of don't-give-a-shit from everybody else.

Cutover pain is inevitable. A desire on the part of those leaving to minimize it is of course completely laudable, but when it comes right down to it, attempts to do so can easily end up just causing more.
posted by flabdablet at 12:10 PM on August 11, 2017

Agree with flabdablet. I think your successor will just rearrange it however they need it to be so don't sweat it too much.

But I would highly recommend compiling a starter for ten document with links to the things they will need to use in their first week, month and six months.
posted by BAKERSFIELD! at 10:51 AM on August 12, 2017 [1 favorite]

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