File management: naming

Time for the next installment on “How I manage files”, this one on naming. As with the other parts of this series of posts, there’s stuff that works for me that may not work for you, and vice versa (feel free to share in comments!)

Now, my file naming habits – like my file organizing habits – were formed at a time when there were some significant technical limits on names. (The Apple II had a 8 letter name maximum. And for quite a while after that, I was working with multiple systems that had different preferences on things like spaces and characters and lengths.) And even though much longer names are technically possible these days, that doesn’t mean they’re easy to read – in some computer views, you’ll only see the very beginning and end of a long name, which I don’t find very helpful!

Things I think about:

Sorting within a folder: Since I tend to keep my folders relatively small (because I hate huge long lists), it’s relatively easy to scan for a particular file name. However, there are times when I know I want to sort everything in a particular way.

Right now, for example, in my “Jobs to apply for” folder, I save a PDF version of the job ad so that I can refer to it easily (and know exactly where I saw it).I want to be able to scan that list quickly, both to see what I need to work on, and to remind myself of what I need to think about.

My file names there have three parts: the date, the location, and the position. I name every file beginning with the date the application is due, so that I can see at a glance what I need to focus on first if I’m tight on time.  The date is first so that the files will sort in date order. Then I add one or two words for a location (just as a reminder). Finally, I add a brief (1-2 words) version of the job title. So, for example, I usually leave out the word ‘librarian’ because that’s likely obvious, but instead will say “Reader Services” or “US” (for Upper School), or whatever.

So, for an application with a deadline today, it might say 2.16.11 – Arkham MA – Reference . (As should be obvious, this is a fake example. I do not want to work at H.P. Lovecraft’s Miskatonic University, really.)

Version control:

Another time I get specific with names is if I care about version control. For example, I have a manuscript sitting on my harddrive that has been through three major revisions (and some minor ones). I keep the older ones, because that’s sensible, but I want it to be instantly clear what the newest one is. Numbering them is a classic way to do this.

Sometimes, I do this by saying “Current Book” for the newest one, and relabelling the previous files (Book version 1″, “Book version 2″, “Book version 3″). That works fine with major files, but it’s a pain when you’re trading a file back and forth for collaboration or editing.

So, for example, if I were to create a file for the community event I’m helping plan in late March (where I want to include some notes on local restaurants in our program), I might name the file [event name] food options 2.16.11 . That way, it’s pretty instantly clear what version is the newest one, as long as I remember to save-as instead of save when working with the file. And it’s also instantly clear what the file is for, and where it might fit in the overall planning.

A v.2 or v.5 or whatever would work too – but I prefer the date when possible, as it’s much faster to see when something is no longer current, or at least needs to be checked. v.5 could be from yesterday or a year ago – 2.10.10 makes that obvious.

Sharing files with other people:

I’ve already touched on this one, but if you are sharing files with other people, either one-on-one (sending attachments) or in a shared server space, it is probably a good move to have a quick conversation about common naming conventions and/or structure.

This can run from the fairly obvious to the more complicated. On the simpler side, my resumes and cover letters go out as a PDF file called jarnott.pdf which is fairly self-explanatory, though I could also go for jennifer.arnott.pdf, which might be a little more clear. resume.pdf, however, is not nearly so helpful when someone has more than one they’re looking at.

On the other hand, if you’re working with others, do you call your statistics file for each quarter 2011 Q1 Stats Reference (easier to sort by date), or do you call them Reference Stats 2011 Q1 (easier to sort by type – reference vs. circulation, for example)? This would depend on if you also had files called things like Circulation Stats 2011 Q1 mixed in.

Picking one consistent model (or having someone willing to go and do some renames once a week or so) can help everything be easier to find. Or, alternately, having a folder called Stats with subfolders called Reference and Circulation and then you’d just have to give the date range for each file (2011 Q1, 2001 Q2, and so on) might be easier – it really depends on the preferences of the people working with the files.

Finally, sharing files on the web:

Filetype starts mattering more here – not everyone is going to have Microsoft Office on their home computer, for example. (I don’t: I’m comfortable using it, including the latest versions, but at home I use Open Office when I need to work with .doc or .docx files, but for home use generally prefer iWork’s Pages and Numbers.) So, if formatting matters, you might want to provide an option or two.

When I’ve provided files on websites, I generally begin by providing a PDF (formatting is the way I like it, I don’t need to worry about what fonts the other person has, and there are various accessibility tools that make reading and resizing relatively simple, even on iPads and other smaller-screen devices.) If people will need to fill something in, I generally also include a .doc version (not everyone has the latest Office versions) or a RTF version as well.

I also simplify the name down as much as possible, while keeping it clear. (2-3 words, ideally, not 12.) Something like organization/event (one or two words) plus one or two words for what it is and maybe a year or date. EventName Registration Form 2011 for example.

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2 comments to File management: naming

  • I follow your conventions a lot when I’m sending files off to people for comment. They’ll be [Last Name – Name of Document – Date]. So, my last one I send to my adviser was Smith – Chap2 – Jan10 or something similar. When she sends them back they come as JONESCOMMENTS – Smith – Chap2 – Jan10.

    I’m really finding these incredibly useful.

  • Jen

    I’m glad they’re helpful! They’re definitely one of those tech things that no one seems to talk about much, but where a little “Ok, here’s how I’m going to do this” up front can make things so much simpler and smoother.

    That example of your files for comment is a great one, too.

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Hi, I’m Jen

Librarian, infovore, and general geek, likely to write comments about books, link collections, and other thoughts related to how we find, use, and take joy in information.

I'm the Information Technology Librarian at the University of Maine at Farmington, the small liberal arts college model campus in the University of Maine system.

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