Computer directories are dying. Yes, the complicated, tree structures of hierarchal files and folders that we've long relied upon to manage our information and media are on life support. Well, truth be told, I'm resorting to hyperbole in order to make an important point. Directories still exist (and will exist) for the internal functions of our computers. And they'll be available for people who insist on using them. However, they are becoming increasingly irrelevant and inflexible in a world of virtual information structures.
Files and folders are static means of data organization. They are rigid structures, modeled after physical filing systems which are centuries old. While they provide us with stable and somewhat predictable repositories of information, they simply cannot provide us with instantaneous access to the myriad facets of information management that we've become accustomed to in today's world. While directories provide us with a known place for files to reside, they are limited and often confusing—and they are on the way out as our primary means of computer organization and management.
This is profoundly important to Digital Asset Management (DAM) and our organizational methodologies. But, it is also liberating. If we relegate files and folders to very simple functions and use other, more flexible methods of organization for complex relationships, our image files will live and breath in more useful and meaningful ways.
Using folders to organize images according to topics like photo shoot, subject, or trip is fraught with needless decision-making and errors. For example, one might have folders for the following subjects: family, vacations, vegetables, markets, and Venice. But what folder do you put a photo that is the following: a group, family shot in front of a vegetable stand in the Rialto Market in Venice made during your summer vacation? If you choose one particular folder, you lose the ability to catalog the photo in any other way.
It's far better to treat your folders as simple holding containers and use keywords to catalog and organize your images. That way you can tag the above-described photo with all of the desired topics. You might then create independent, smart collections of family, vacations, markets, and Venice in which all would reside our sample photo. Furthermore, the smart collections would update automatically as we tag other images or, perhaps, change the search criteria for the collections. This provides us with endless combinations and opportunities with which to view our images.
This is not to say that we completely neglect our folder system. But we must use folders to effectively hold our images, much like we might buy big, plastic bins to store our stuff in the attic. We want to be able to store and protect belongings, and find them when we need them. But we cannot expect to quickly gain access to Christmas ornaments, knit sweaters, and summer snorkels instantaneously. However, if we have digital photographs of those items and those photos are tagged with keywords of the items, then we could find all pictures of the ornaments, sweaters and snorkels in a heartbeat. That's the difference between using traditional folders and keywords (and other attributes) to organize our media. Folders are stable ways of storing and protecting but not very good at providing nimble and virtual access to anything. And that is why managing your metadata (keywords, ratings, copyright info and other attributes) is more critical than being clever with your folders.
We'll see computer operating systems take the lead on this and not only with image and other media files. Search capabilities are becoming more and more powerful and we'll see the traditional directory structure being pushed more and more into the background of our computer's (and our) consciousness. So, be prepared. Get used to adding and maintaining metadata to all your files, not just your photos. The benefits will far outweigh the time and effort spent.
I would be remiss if I didn't acknowledge Peter Krogh and all groundbreaking work he has done in establishing standards and practices for Digital Asset Management for photographers. Pretty much everything important I've learned about asset management I learned from Peter and I recommend that you buy and read his book, The DAM Book; Digital Asset Management for Photographers. You can find more information about it here.