File management: what to keep

Welcome to the last post in this series of file management discussions (at least unless people have more questions! I plan to talk about tagging next, which is related, but different. And maybe my thoughts on using Wikipedia and other crowd-sourced tools sensibly. Suggestions and questions and such make me go “oooh” and put particular topics first, so feel free to suggest your favorites)

Anyway, the last topic on file management I really want to address is the question of what to keep. When I started using computers, hard drive space was precious and finite, and at some point, you generally had to look at deleting old material, or saving it to a long-term storage device that was more of a pain to access. These days, not only is storage cheaper, but I can use tools like my Time Capsule and Dropbox so that backing up files takes very little additional time and energy, and that deleting them often isn’t necessary.

(Have a good backup plan. And have a way to back up essential files that lives outside your house, in case of emergency/natural disaster/whatever. Some people swap USB drives with friends, or mail a DVD every few months to relatives out of state, both of which have some password protection options.)

On the other hand, large piles of files we’re never going to touch again, or that can be accessed in other ways make digital clutter that makes it hard to find the stuff we want to use.

So, what do we keep? Here’s what I keep.

Some stuff has legal implications:

Just as with paper records, there are some files it’s probably a good ideas to keep long-term. These include business records relating to pay, hiring, evaluations, and other things like that. Tax records – both the actual tax filing and any supplementary material, like medical expense receipts. Medical records like test results, tracking notes, medication lists, etc. Product manuals for various devices, insurance documents, etc.

These days, many of these documents come electronically, so it’s not just the paper versions we want to think about. The LifeOrganizers site has a nice summary of a starting place for which files to keep, and how long, but adjust for your circumstances. (Note that you’ll have additional considerations if you have a home business or hire an assistant/childcare/whatever. You may wish to consult an accountant.)

Some stuff has sentimental value:

You know this stuff when you see it. If you would feel lousy getting rid of it, keep it until either you don’t or you decide something better to do with it. (Archive it off your computer, delete it, etc.) It’s a good idea to review your sentimental archives every so often: you may find that romantic emails from an ex are no longer a thing you really want to keep on your computer, for example.


In general, I sort files by projects or type of material, and periodically put on a movie and go through and tidy things up. About every six months, I double check to see if older projects can be archived, if things need a new dated archive (for example, if it is February 2011, medical files and financial files from 2010 can go into their respective folders, and maybe I should start a 2011 folder if I haven’t already.)

How I organize these depends on content – for example, I keep community projects in a folder, with subfolders for each project, and then subfolders for each year/event/whatever within that. My job applications folder looks like this:

  • Job hunt
    • jobs to apply for (ads I’m working on responding to)
    • resume and references (various versions of both)
    • job hunting advice (ideas for cover letters, basic business letter format notes, etc.)
    • training (workshops, other materials I’ve done additional training about)
    • sample projects (writing samples, instructional design samples, resource lists, etc.)
    • recent.application.A
    • recent.application.B
    • recent.application.C (etc.etc.)
    • older applications
      • older.application.A
      • older.application.B [etc]

For the curious, each application folder includes the PDF of the job ad, the Pages file with my cover letter and other materials, and the PDF I actually send off or upload with the application, plus any other relevant files (notes on the interview, particular tidbits of research about the position, etc.)

My distinction between ‘recent’ and ‘older’ is that folders in the older archive have either said “Thanks, but no thanks” or they’ve been out there for a couple of months, and realistically are not likely to call me tomorrow and say “Hi, we’d like to interview you.” (Of course, libraries hire at different rates, so if they do, I still have all my materials, and just have to go one layer deeper in my folder structure.)

For medical and financial data, I like being able to browse through multiple years easily, so I use a folder structure that looks like this:

  • Medical information
    • General information (current notes) including the last couple of years of test results, etc. so I can refer to them quickly if anything changes notably. (These latter are usually aliases of the files in the specific year.)
    • Family history notes
    • Archived
      • 2010
      • 2009
      • 2008, etc.

I have similar structured for projects, organizations I volunteer with, and so on and so forth.

Email: (which gets its own category)

These days, here’s what I do: First, I have multiple email addresses, so I can separate personal correspondance from professional (and email lists from specific-t0-me stuff.)

Mailing lists: I subscribe to a bunch for both professional and personal reading. I keep everything on two planning lists (one for a community organization, one for a shared creative project). Everything else I read and delete unless it’s got specific information I want/need to save. (After all, those lists are archived online: if I desperately need something, I can go look at the archives. It does not need to take up space in my email.)

Personal mail: I delete notifications (“X commented on your Facebook status”) stuff as soon as I read it. Ditto on newsletters, once I’ve gotten the bits of info useful to me. (If they’re really useful, I usually save them as a PDF and delete them from my email – that way I can sort them into the relevant content-related folders.)

Shipping notices and other details: I’m trying to get better about copying the relevant information into my task management program (where I can link it with a specific date for follow up easily. “It’s Tuesday: has this order arrived?”). Once it arrives, I delete the message.

Ongoing projects: I currently save all of my job-hunt related emails into a single folder, so I can skim through quickly and find what I need. When I get hired for that new job, I’ll archive them and delete them from the mail program.

Emails from friends: These depend a lot on the content. A quick note figuring out how to get together? I don’t need to keep it past when we see each other. A note that makes me smile every time I read it? That might get dropped in my “Read when you need a lift” folder.

Archiving and managing email: I currently read email through Postbox, a Mac email client that has some additional functionality over Apple’s Mail program.

I normally read my email by filtering to ‘unread’. As new mail comes in, I read it, and either delete it (for stuff I don’t need to keep), archive it (for stuff I do) or keep it in my inbox (for things I’m waiting for a reply for/keeping an eye on/need to do something about – usually these also get an entry in my task management program.)

About once a week, I go through and delete unneeded stuff every week or so, archive the rest – it’s also a great way to make sure I don’t let an email that needs answering slip through the cracks accidentally for too long. (It’s rare, but it does happen.) And every so often, I go through and do a larger clearing out. (Currently, I’m working on clearing back some older Gmail accounts, where I was archiving everything, but have decided I really don’t need thousands of email list messages in most cases. So, I work through a couple of hundred messages every time I remember, just keeping the ones with specific important content.)

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2 comments to File management: what to keep

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 Research Librarian at the Perkins School for the Blind

More about my job and a day in the life

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