We’ve always needed methods to help us optimally store and retrieve information.
Anciently, perhaps it was learning songs to help recall life-saving knowledge and important historical events. We progressed to ink and paper of some form, but since access was limited, it wasn’t too hard to organize or locate it later.
More recently, we moved to copy machines, scanners, and file cabinets.
Today, many offices still rely on paper files for storage, but most people have a huge amount of information stored digitally that could use a system for easily organizing and retrieving.
In addition to work-related items, we also have digital photos, journal entries, daily lists and tasks, side-endeavors, blogs, research papers, the list could be endless. The things we need to organize are as varied as the people who need to organize them.
We know there are different ways to store things for optimal organization and retrieval—so what are they, and which is best?
This brings us to our current topic: tags and folders.
If you look into the subject of tags and folders online, you’ll notice a theme. No one can agree on which method is “best”, and everyone has their own opinion. It’s a classic online debate. (Who knew we techies could be so controversial?)
But there is something we can all agree on. In order to build an optimized system, we need to define the terms. To begin, let’s define what tags and folders are so we can see how they’re the same, how they’re different, and which works best in certain applications.
From there, I’ll show you what works best for me, and then leave it to you to devise your own method for using these versatile tools.
A folder is a directory on your computer, or device, to store files of different types. It’s represented visually by an icon of a manilla folder. This model is simple and familiar to most people.
It’s amazing how well the idea of a physical file folder translated to a digital folder. If you can think of a manilla folder, what to use it for and how to label it, you can apply those same ideas to a virtual folder. This is one reason people find it easy to use folders as their main digital storage method. Folders keep your information organized and separate. You label a folder and then direct all files, photos, and programs to the correct folder for storage. They can be used as a standalone folder for one topic, or built into hierarchies with folders inside folders containing pertinent info or sub-topics relevant to the main theme.
For collaborative filing in a large group or company, folders should use a naming convention to make proper storage and retrieval of documents easier and more efficient.
- Many options for organizing files: location, date, subject, project, type, etc.
- Familiar and easy to use
- Because files are located in separate folders, it’s possible to have different files with the same name (this could also be considered a CON by some)
- If you need to share a lot of info with someone, you can put it all in one folder and copy and share the folder rather than sharing one document at a time
- Folders hide your docs so your workspace is less cluttered
- Limited way to organize. One folder, one label
- Multiple copies of one file can exist in different folders leading to outdated copies that have been forgotten
- Harder to locate what you’re looking for later
- Only allows a one-to-many form of filing, e.g., one folder to many files
A tag is a keyword or label you attach to a file to identify or categorize it.
Tags are chosen informally, meaning the user, creator, or curator of the information decides which keywords best suit the information. How they describe, categorize, or think of the information would be different than another user, thus the tags are more personal in nature.
There are unlimited ways to tag a piece of information. The key is giving the document enough tags that it can be found easily by searching the keyword, but not so many tags that the method becomes inefficient.
Tagging is a very flexible way to organize your information. With tagging, the information being tagged isn’t moved anywhere. It’s given a tag but can live anywhere on your device. The tags act like little beacons that make searching for retrieval possible.
Files can get lost in folders, but when you tag files and then search keywords, all related keywords across your files show up, giving you a fresh look at files with the same topic as what you’re searching for. This is a great way to get supporting information from among your files for the topic you’re searching for.
For collaborative tagging, users can establish predetermined tags for labeling and create a master list of those tags for easier classification and retrieval.
- Multiple options in how you arrange a tagging system (this could also be considered a CON by some)
- Keywords can be easier to remember for searching than scrolling through folders
- Search function helps find files faster
- Allows a many-to-many association, e.g., keywords can link many files together
- Can feel a little too disorganized for some
- Can take longer to label files since several keywords are needed
- Risk of assigning a keyword that isn’t remembered later
A group of academics realized that they had seen discussions about the merits of tags and folders, but there wasn’t much data showing people’s experiences using tags and folders to organize the same kinds of info and then comparing the two. So they set out to do just that.
Andrea Civan, William Jones, Predrag Klasnja, and Harry Bruce, all of the University of Washington, asked 10 participants, with some experience using both folders and tags, to organize emails received in two different email programs—one that used folders as the method of organization, and one that used tagging.
After 5 days, the researchers analyzed interview transcripts, daily screenshots, participant diaries and sketches, and measures of speed and accuracy on retrieval tasks.
Here are a few of their findings:
Participants liked the sense of control they felt by “putting” a file away in a folder and having the visual of that file being hidden. It made them feel they had accomplished something. At the same time, some participants worried having their files hidden would cause them to forget the doc existed.
Most participants felt that tags gave them more control through the flexibility of being able to reference and re-find their files in multiple ways, but some felt that having files just “floating” around caused visual confusion and distraction.
Harder to organize
Tags seem to take people longer due to the thought they put into “what” to tag or label their items with. Since each item being stored can, and should, have more than one tag, it took longer to think of how to assign labels that could easily be recalled later.
Harder to find later
Folders seemed to be harder for people to locate later because the document is inside a folder with a general description. After the folder is open the person has to scan through the names of the files to locate what they’re searching for. The title of the document might not always line up with the piece of information in the document they’re looking for.
Tags give you multiple paths back to what you’re looking for because you can search for several options. Folders only give you one path back because the doc is located in one folder with one label on it.
In conclusion: Folders seem to have a slight advantage over tags on the organizing end, and tags have an advantage over folders on the search end.
These were just a few of their findings. But the question still remains, which method is best? And the answer is…it depends.
The researchers could see that personal preference played a role in the type of system preferred, and concluded that rather than one or the other, the results suggested a need for a little of each.
Which leads us nicely to the method I prefer.
The best of both worlds
Now, as you can clearly see, there are as many ways to use folders and tags as there are things you can file. Everyone uses their digital storage differently. Even things like our jobs require different methods of storage and retrieval than would our personal reference materials. So, I am going to share the method I feel is best for organization in regards to projects or personal work. You can scale up or down to match the size and complexity of the things you need to store and access later.
Whether you want to structure your information in virtual manilla folders, go free-form with tags alone, or use a combination of both, finding a system you can consistently use on a daily basis that works for you is the key to mastering your storage and retrieval systems with tags and folders.
The method I find works best for my needs is to use tags and folders to organize different types of files. I like to organize project files in folders, and reference files with tags. Let me explain.
Organize project files in folders
For the type of work I do at the Paperless Movement, I have active projects, and I also do a lot of research. I need a way to organize, store, and retrieve all of my information, but projects and reference materials are very different from one another.
If I used the same method of organization for both, the system would get muddled. Now, that doesn’t mean using one method for both applications wouldn’t work. It would—just not as well.
Since folders can be arranged in a hierarchical fashion, I can structure the information I am using in a project and access it all in one place. It’s very natural to think of an ebook I am writing, and go to the ebook folder to find all the subfolders with my rough draft and research information, personal thoughts, and so on, all neatly nested inside the main ebook folder. In this way, I don’t actually need to use keywords to do a search because everything I need for that project is filed away together.
Having everything in one file means I can easily find what I need for the project, easily add to the information, and quickly share with my team.
Reference materials play a large and important role in my life. I curate thousands of articles, images, ideas, videos, etc., for future projects and inspiration. I don’t access these files every day, so it makes sense that putting them into folders could lead to “out of sight out of mind”. Also, when I’m storing large amounts of information without immediately knowing how I’ll use it, there isn’t always a natural place to file the info, since I could use it in any number of ways.
This is where tagging fits in perfectly. Adding keyword tags to reference material makes it versatile and easy to search. I can tag a piece with several thematic keywords, and maybe even a reference as to where I think I might use it in the future. It then becomes easily searchable, and I have the double pleasure of pulling up other pieces of information with the same keywords later.
As you’ve likely read from me before, I like to use mind maps to gather reference information to build and develop ideas. With tagging, I can search a keyword and bring relevant files with similar information right to my mind map. These mind maps become living documents that grow as my ideas grow. (You can read more about how I use mind maps in Creative Research: Connecting the Dots using Mind Maps
, if you’re interested.)
One last thing. Just because you have a file stored away in a folder doesn’t mean you can’t add a tag to it for future reference if it applies to more than one area in your work. That’s where having the best of both worlds comes in. You can keep your main working system with folders and tags consistent while taking advantage of the natural flexibility in the system when you need it.
Now it’s your turn. Go and give these methods a try. It doesn’t have to be overwhelming. You don’t need to go and reorganize everything on your hard drive. Just choose a method, and start using it from here forward. Over time, all your files will naturally end up filed away in folders or tagged.
If you’ve found a system that works well for you, don’t hold back! Share what you’ve learned in the comments below, or start a conversation in the Inner Circle Facebook Group