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Organize Your Computer With Help From an Archivist

Advice for corralling those digital files.

April 24, 2016

Heather VanMouwerik is a PhD candidate in Russian History at the University of California, Riverside and the Congressman George Brown Graduate Intern for the Special Collections at Rivera Library. Find her on her website or on Twitter.



I have the privilege to start us off, here at GradHacker, with Digital Workflow Week! In addition to getting organized, you have the chance to enter a very special giveaway. For more information on how to win, visit GradHacker on Twitter and Facebook!


Just like almost every graduate student I know, my computer was a mess!


In fact, I was so paralyzed by the sheer volume and diversity of material I needed to store on my one laptop—from dissertation research, grant applications, and Ph.D exam notes, to my recipes, vacation photos, and tax documents—that I did not organize anything at all. The unsurprising result: I could never find the document I needed and my desktop looked like a game of Where’s Waldo?.


In my attempt to gain control of my computer, I tried (and failed at) all of the most famous organizational methods. Minimalist strategies, like those proposed on Zen Habits and Life Hacker, lasted a couple of weeks. Habit books, like The Power of Habit and Hooked, helped me take charge of my morning, but had little effect on my computer. And even the old stand-by, David Allen’s Getting Things Done, was no match for my organizational paralysis.


Considering all of this it may come as a surprise that, in addition to being a Ph.D candidate and despite my messy computer, I am also an archivist. Yes, I am a professional organizer with years of experience and training in processing archival collections. Nevertheless, as my old boss liked to exclaim, “Archivists are the messiest people around!”


After a particularly annoying, long, and fruitless search for a specific image of Catherine the Great on my computer, I went to my other job as a processing archivist. On that day, I needed to determine the best way to label a set of folders. This involves a lot of moving folders from one pile to another and back again, putting folders in one order and changing your mind halfway through, and thinking through all of the possible combinations therein. Archivists always start with a plan, but, more often than not, this plan quickly gets thrown out the window when we understand the materials better.


After an hour of moving these folders around, not only did I have a clear set of criteria for the folder labels, but I also knew why all my attempts at organizing my computer had failed: I was approaching my documents totally backwards.


Any kindergartener will tell you that it is impossible to fit a square peg into a round hole, but that is exactly what all of my past attempts amounted to. Instead of creating an organizational system that would work best with the materials I had, I was trying to make my materials fit into my imagined, pristine organizational system. To push my metaphor to its breaking point: I needed to measure my square peg first, and then build a hole to accommodate it.


So I began approaching my computer as I would an unprocessed collection. Although it took nearly a month to complete, I have been able to keep all of my files, documents, and images organized for almost eight months, a period of time that far surpasses all of my other attempts.


The good news is you do not need to be an archivist to organize your computer like one. Before getting into the process, it is important to keep these three principles in mind. All organizational schemes should focus on:


1. Longevity: Because of how much work each collection requires and its uniqueness, archivists want their materials to last. Any processing plan includes provisions for things like caustic materials (like the disintegration of newspaper print), fires, floods, and theft. These plans range from digital redundancies to building maintenance. Before starting your own processing project, make sure you have a clear plan for how you intend to protect it. There are a lot of options out there to explore. I use a combination of Dropbox for active items and BackBlaze for older items, but whatever you decide will be fine.


2. Replication: Each archive usually includes many separate collections that exist independently of each other. Theoretically, the same principles should apply to each one, meaning a user could switch seamlessly between each collection and immediately know how to access the information they need. The same applies to a well-organized computer. Regardless of whether the file is personal or professional, a lesson plan for writing thesis statements or your beer journal, make sure that the same principles apply, so that you can move easily between your folders.


3. Flexibility: Times change, and archivists must anticipate the needs of a collection’s future users and the demands of future technologies. Ideally your computer’s organization should be flexible enough to incorporate the unforeseen. For example, you might switch from a PC to a Mac, so your system should be mutually understandable. Or, perhaps your current project is textual, but your future one is audio-based. Your system should be flexible enough to adapt to your new needs.


Armed with these guidelines, it is time to clean up your computer once and for all.


1. Create a Giant File Box: Most material comes into an archive in messy, unorganized, cardboard file boxes, which have often spent time in storage. Far from being frustrating, this state of disorganization liberates archivists to pursue the best structure for the collection. To replicate this for your computer, create a new folder on your desktop, name it something silly (I named mine “The Good Ship Organized”), and dump every document, file, image, or scrap thereof into it. And I mean everything. This is your opportunity to clean out your Google Drive and box of neglected thumb drives, to finally recycle those old computers, and to rid yourself of CD-ROMs and floppy disks.


2. MPLP Your Computer: Up until 2005, archival best practice required archivists to fully process individual collections before moving onto the next. By emphasising perfection and recording things down to the individual piece of paper, archives required a large, professional staff just to keep up with new collections. Concerned that across the United States more material was waiting to be processed than was actually available to researchers, Mark A. Greene and Dennis Meissner proposed a new system: MPLP (More Product, Less Process). They suggested archivists, rather than focusing on perfection, should focus on getting the materials to the users as quickly as possible. MPLP standards ask archivists to triage a collection, no more and no less. When applied to your computer, MPLP means you should focus not on a pristine, perfect system, but a usable and effective one. Once your Giant File Box is complete, create two subfolders. I, for example, began with “Personal” and “Professional.” Next, quickly sort each of your files into one of those two categories. Once that is done, do it again. For me, “Personal” became “Boring Stuff” and “Fun Stuff”; and “Fun Stuff” eventually became “Food,” “Sewing,” “Photos,” and “Reading.”  Keep sorting your files incrementally until you have found a spot for everything.


3. Change Your Mind, Frequently: I joke that most of my time in the archive is spent erasing folder titles. Today, for example, I renamed an entire subseries and covered my desk with eraser debris. When you start organizing your folders, you are going to have an ideal, Platonic version of your system in mind; however, this system will not work. When you come across a document that does not fit into any specific folder, ask yourself whether or not you should add a new folder or restructure old folders to include the new item. By constantly going back and reevaluating what you have already done, your end result will be more personalized, tailored to your particular needs.


4. Save the Folder Titles for Last: After an archivist places the last scrap of paper into the final folder in the final box, she or he starts all over again at the very beginning. It is natural for certain folder titles to make sense at the time, but, as a collection evolves, that title may not retain its meaning. Resist the urge to rename files until the very end. These nit-picky details can easily distract you from your objective and suck up all of your valuable time, so do not give in!


Yes, this more responsive approach to organizing your computer will take a while to achieve; however, because it is personalized to your data, your personality, and your workflow, you will only have to deal with it once--organize it and forget it.


Cleaning up your computer is just the first step in the process of building a sustainable and efficient organization system. Once you have a handle on your data, you can begin to build databases for your information, clean out your inbox, and take control of your digital life.


This week GradHacker is focusing on ideas for managing your information and workflow. If you are interested in learning more about organizing your digital life, then stay tuned as Anjali and Travis offer their advice later this week!


How have you organized your computer files? What schemes have worked for you? Let us know in the comments!

[Image is provided by the author.]


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