One of my friends got a new netbook computer and I was helping install software and such. She handed me a about eight or nine flashdrives. Each one had a different set of data files. We went through all of them looking for Personal Ancestral File (PAF) files to copy onto her netbook. I realized that I was seeing a repetition of what used to happen with floppy drives, only now there is much more information to duplicate. Unfortunately, she had no idea of which was the latest copy of the file and whether or not the files contained all of the names she was hoping to preserve. Over the years I have faced this problem over and over. Which of all my files is the most recent? Do I really need all of these copies of all of these files? Why doesn't the file I am looking for seem to be on any of the storage devices I am searching?
Genealogy files on the computer are, after all, just files. Almost every program that generates a file, from word processing to spreadsheets, can create the same set of challenges. So what do we do to get some measure of control over all these files and copies of files?
First and foremost, you need to have a consistent naming convention. That means, name you files the same way all the time. Second use names that mean something. Five files named "genealogy" doesn't help a lot with remembering which file you used the last time you worked on it. Both Windows and Macintosh operating systems will support extended file names. From a practical standpoint 128 characters should be a maximum, but it you use the same name for more than one file, you are asking for trouble. If you are making backups or copies of a file, you should also find a way to incorporated a date into your file name, usually the date the file was created. It is true that the operating system will show you the date the file was created, but in Windows, for example, the date will change to reflect the last time the file was opened or changed. That may help or it may not depending on circumstances.
With my friend's files, knowing the date the file was created didn't help her at all. Most of the files were so old that the time of creation was meaningless. The only way to get out of that situation was to open each file and compare the contents. There are technical tools for comparing certain types of documents, especially for programming purposes, and these programs also exist for comparing two genealogy files. But in the case of my friend, we didn't have the program available and since there were only a relatively few files, we weren't going to buy the program for that limited one time purpose.
It is comforting to know that there are programs to compare two unrelated files. One program is GenMatcher 1.08. There is a free demo program and the full program is $19.95.
What else can you do to avoid the problems of multiple files on multiple storage devices? How about keeping a master working file and making periodic backups, but always using just the master file to add information. Some programs, like RootsMagic To Go, facilitate keeping a master program of your family file by providing a way to synchronize a portable version of the file with the master file on your main computer. I try to keep all of my data files, from genealogy to word processing in only one file folder on my hard drive. That way, I don't have to look around for the latest version of my master file, it is always in the same file folder with the same name on my maid hard drive. If I make a copy of the file, in any way, I put a date on the file copy. I now know that any file with a date is a copy of an original file in my main document folder.
I know there are a lot of practical and some elaborate file naming and organizing schemes out there. I like to let the computer do its job and let me do my job. What good is it to have the tremendous organizational and search capabilities of the computer if you do all the work organizing the files or essentially duplicating a paper system on the computer. However, file names and dates are crucial to identifying the files so they can be found by the computer.