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Understanding Filing systems and folder hierarchy

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For just about everything you will do on your computer, the filing system is absolutely vital. Some of it will have been created for you already, but you can adapt this, creating systems yourself which suit your particular needs and preferences. In IT, knowing and understanding your filing system is as fundamental to health and happiness as knowing which side of the road to drive on. 

Whatever else your computer is or does, it is first and foremost a storage system,  an extremely large virtual cupboard.  Using a computer without deliberately organizing what is kept on it is like throwing everything in your house into one room and not washing up after dinner.  Worse still, if you don’t tell your computer where to file something, it will file it for you – like getting someone to clean your house and then leave without telling you where they put everything.

Fortunately,  computers allow you to change the way you have stored files so you can manage your information retrospectively. Ideally, though,  you should develop a filing system on your computer as soon as you unpack it from its box and turn it on,  and from time to time (once a week) ensure that it is clean and tidy.


What you mean by files & folders
Imagine a typical filing cabinet with hanging files, and tags on like "tax", "company pension scheme", "Quality Assurance" etc.  Within these hanging files, you may additionally have flimsy manila folders which help to organize documents under the general heading of "tax", for example, into  further subheadings such as "corporation tax", "PAYE", "Inland revenue reminders" and so on.

Now imagine that you are designing a virtual filing cabinet for the first time.  You might be tempted to build a hierarchy reflecting this system, which consists of a cabinet (storage, high level), files (storage, medium level), folders (storage, low level) and documents (lowest level).  Unfortunately, you did not design the system, and folders are higher than files in computer filing hierarchy - indeed, they are fundamentally different: 

Folders are for storing files 
Files are documents (objects) 

What your computer means by files and folders
In computer terminologya file is the 'thing' that you work on - an object, rather than an object holder.  Depending on the program and medium you are dealing with, this might be a text document, a picture, the track of a CD, a few seconds of sound, a video, a web page or many other things.  What sort of 'thing' the file is can usually be inferred from the file extension.

Filenames are addresses (and are sometimes called addresses). Where the file is stored on your filing system is called the file location. Consider an English address (not all countries adopt this procedure):

Samantha Turner
The Willows
Broughty Lane
West Harnsford
United Kingdom

This hierarchy of location is depicted from lowest to highest - i.e. although the United Kingdom is actually bigger than the Willow in Broughty Lane, it is shown at the bottom of the 'address hierarchy'.

On a computer, the highest member of the hierarchy is the drive, a mechanism that reads and writes a storage medium such as a floppy disk, a hard disc or  a CD, for example. Computers call these things by letters: A and B are always floppy discs, C: is usually the hard disc of your computer.  If you have have a CD-ROM drive, it is probably D or E.   Let us say the "drive" in this case is the country - the United Kingdom - a computer would write this address as follows:

UK:\Derbyshire\West Harnsford\Broughty Lane\The Willows\Samantha Turner.per

The .per at the end of Samantha is a fictitious 'extension' to show that Samantha is a person, not a place.  You can see that the computer views addresses the other way round - biggest location first, objects (people) last. Reading the address backwards, the slash sign could be said to mean "found in". 

At any level in the hierarchy, you can have siblings, that is to say, you can have a parent folder and many child folders all on the same level.  You might like to think of this as a street having many houses, all of which contain people. Folders are indeed like houses, in that you can't see what's in them until you open them.  For this reason, some people store lots of documents at high hierarchical levels in one folder - like leaving all the residents of Broughty Lane out in the street, so you can see them all. 

Storing something at the highest hierarchical level, the hard drive, (the equivalent of opening a large room and throwing a piece of paper on the floor, or writing "Samantha Turner, UK" in the front of your address book)  - is known as storing something in the root directory.  Storing a document like a letter to your landlord about the rent increase he brought in in 1995 should be filed somewhere sensible like c:\my documents\flat\correspondence\1995 not allowed to float around in the root directory.  It won't harm your computer if it does, but you will spend precious moments of your life looking for it.  Also, if you use folders systematically, you can give files identical names which are however defined by their context i.e. you could have different folders marked Brian, Bill, Tina, Lesley, etc., each with a file called CV.doc in it, rather than having one big folder called "CVs" and lots of files called "briancv.doc" "billcv.doc" and so on. 

To see folder hierarchy in action, right-click the mouse on the Start Menu button in the bottom left hand corner of the screen (or press Windows Key +E),  you should get a screen something like this.  The plus signs in boxes indicate expandable directories.

You can expand the directory by clicking on it. This will show you what other subfolders are present. The contents of a selected folder show up in the right hand screen.

When you save a file on a computer, you are usually faced with the dialog box below.  The word dialogue  is important.  Boxes can't speak, of course, but in its own way, this box is ‘asking’ you no less than 14 questions,  the answer to any of which may bring up more questions and options.  If you press “save”,  the program will make a number of assumptions on your behalf, based partly on its own default settings, and partly on what you did last time.

Save As dialog box

Below is an organization chart which shows the structure of a typical computer filing system (with only a few folders and files - you may have hundreds of folders, many hierarchical levels and thousands of files).
In this diagram: 

Drives are yellow
Folders are green
Programs are red
Files are white

Take time to study the diagram.  Note that in the Microsoft Word 97 folder, there are two dissimilar items at the same level - a program file, and another folder


It is typical, but it is by no means ideal. A very common problem is depicted: the owner of this computer has a folder designated for documents, and has sensibly created subfolders for home and work.  Meanwhile, another folder for documents exists on the other side of the diagram, as a subfolder of the Word folder. 

In a hurry to send off her tax return, our computer user opens the letter to the tax office, which she locates easily in - it's in c:\documents\home\taxofficelet.doc. She quickly changes the date, and then closes Word.  The well-known dialog box comes up: do you want to save changes to taxofficelet.doc?. A taxi is waiting outside, so she just presses the RETURN key twice, saying yes to save, and yes to whatever  Word offers her.

Without looking carefully at the dialog box (perhaps she had not read these course notes) she does not notice that the computer is about to save taxofficelet.doc in c:\programs\word\documents\taxofficelet.doc.  Next time she searches for her file, she cannot find the changes she made.  There are now two versions of the file in two completely unrelated areas of the computer. 

The moral of the story is: create your own filing system, don't let the computer do it for you.  Always check that the dialog box is going to save the file where you want it to be.

Developing a working vocabulary of information technology is an important component of IT skills.

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Updated Sunday November 11, 2001 4:29 PM


© Jonathan Still 2001 You may quote from these pages, but if your selection includes a reference I have made to someone else's work, please make sure that the attribution is clear. By not doing so, you may implicate me in plagiarism.