File (dis)-organization

A friend asked me other day what I used to organize my files. There is irony in this question, if you saw what my hard drive looked like! I am completely file inept. I seem to be incapable of sticking to single file system.  I forget where I filed things previously, or decide I want them to organize them by a different category. I’ve pretty much come to the conclusion that I am hopeless at managing my own files – so I need a solution that does this for me.

Like many of you, I am sure, I am prone to searching for articles and downloading them onto my computer. It is almost an addiction, and gives me a sense of accomplishment; however, the simple act of finding and downloading does not necessarily lead to reading – rather it leads to a cluttering of PDFs on my computer!

My husband, trying to be helpful, provided a suggestion: “Give the unread PDF filenames that involve tags, and then placing them all in a single folder called unread”. That way, I would be able to find all my unprocessed PDFs easily enough. Unfortunately, that just doesn’t work for me. Not only do I suck at tagging (just as bad as filing as I can’t agree on a specific key words from one sitting to the next), I also seem to have an aversion to having too many unread PDFs in one place. I want them to be separated into small stacks (folders) so that no one stack is overwhelming. I think maybe if they were all in one folder, shear volume of files would paralyze me, and I would never make progress! So alas, I have given myself permission to be completely unorganized w.r.t my unread PDFs. This permission has actually provided a large sense of relief (deep sigh).

Now, once I have read and annotated a PDF that is a different story.  An annotated PDF represents work that I’ve done, so it needs to be organized. When I started out my PhD, I searched for software, knowing that this is an age old problem and someone must have solved it by now (actually, the problem isn’t that old, but certainly it existed back when I did my Masters more than 5 years ago – so there has been ample time for someone to come up with a solution).

I tried out Zotero briefly, but found it was too buggy for me and didn’t seem to do what I wanted. I tried Bookends for almost a year, and really liked it, except that it only works on a Mac – so I found myself worried. I didn’t want to commit to only using my Mac for my thesis (Microsoft Word on the PC has features that Word on the Mac doesn’t and I find Word on the Mac to be limiting).  Finally, I was led to Mendeley. It isn’t as elegant as Bookends, but in many ways it is better.

By default Mendeley manages your references – it keeps track of them and allows you to keeps notes associated with references and it places them nicely in the correct format in your papers. It, however, also has a feature for organizing your PDF files – but it isn’t enabled by default. To enable it, you need to open Mendeley Preferences > File Organizer. With this turned on, whenever a drag a PDF file onto the Mendeley desktop application, it not only adds it to my references (trying to automatically populate the reference information), it also puts a copy of the file into my Mendeley References folder (renaming it based upon the naming conventions that I specified in the Preferences > File Organizer. To make sure that I don’t have two copies of the same PDF, I delete the original after entering it into Mendeley (so only the copy in the Mendeley folder is kept) – multiple copies of the same annotated PDF is a disaster, as then I would never know which is the one with my most up-to-date annotations.

When added to my Workflow for annotating PDFs, this means that everything I have read and all my associated notes are stored in Mendeley. Mendeley then allows me to create multiple folders and drag various articles to the folders. A single article can be contained in multiple Mendeley folders. Because these folders are virtual collections, and not actual file folders, I don’t end up with multiple copies of anything. I just end up with a mess of folders – but I can change how I organize them on a whim without loosing any information. In addition, Mendeley desktop is completely searchable (and it searches within the PDFs it stores), so when I wonder to myself “Where was that quote about design research and deconstruction”, I can search for those words, and if I filed it, Mendeley will tell me where to find it!

So with the combination of giving myself permission to not worry about where unread PDFs are (although eventually I’ll need to go through my hard drive and clean them up just to clear the space), and using Mendeley to store all my read articles and notes, I’ve found a way to adequately keep track of my reading and references – at least until something better comes along!

1 Comment

  1. I know what you mean! (and I will probably write my own blog post about this).  I too am guilty of downloading a ton of articles (with file names like "0923785034") and just dumping them in a "to process" folder…which rarely gets processed!  I was briefly toying with the idea of using Papers for Mac. Then, like you I didn't want to get stuck in a Mac-only workflow (but since I am a Mac person, I don't know why I am worrying about it 😉  )
    I think my main problem isn't the organization – it's mostly that I want more time to read what I download, and I just don't have that time lol

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