The file system of a computer operating system is one of the most difficult things for many people to understand. Genealogists are no different than others in their lack of understanding. Files, folders, partitions and drive designations are a huge mystery. When you add in using an external device, like a flash drive, then things seem to get even more complicated. The graphical user interface (GUI) was developed to be an intuitive method for managing files and documents on a computer. But current operating systems and file structures are extremely complex both in the PC world and on Macintosh computers. This is especially true if you happen to be running both operating systems on the same computer. Add in the fact that there are now dozens of different versions of each of the operating systems going back only a few years, and you have a recipe for disaster.
I frequently find genealogists who have multiple data files all over their computers and have no idea which of them is the most current file. Other users are so concerned about having a "clean" desktop that they file away documents, or even throw them in the trash, and can never find the information again. All of this happens even though the operating systems will tell you, almost always, exactly where on your computer any given file is stored.
As a side note, if I were to choose one feature, above all others, that works better on the Macintosh operating systems than on Microsoft based Windows systems, I would choose the Finder. On my Mac, I can click on the desktop and hit Command-F and in seconds I can find almost any file on my computer. Not only is the Windows find function slow, it seldom finds what you are looking for, even when you know the exact name of the file.
So how do you keep from losing files and how can you make sure you are using the most current version of your genealogical data file? Don't worry, all this is leading up to using a flash drive.
First, you need to be careful in the way you name files. If you are going to use a file on both your computer and carry it around on a flash drive to use on other computers in a remote location, then the name of the file must have some identifying information. Use a name that makes sense. Routinely, naming a file "my genealogy" may seem to make sense to you, but what happens when you have five files with the same name? At the same time, don't use overly long file names so that the name will be cut off in a file listing. I suggest names that tell the subject matter of the file, such as Tanner genealogy, and then include the date the file was created, such as "Tanner genealogy 041411."
Next, store the file in an obvious location, like right out on the desktop. Almost all genealogy programs have a way to designate where the data files will be stored. For example, in the old Personal Ancestral File (PAF) program, there is a "Tools" menu item that has a pull-down menu with a Preferences selection. One of the Preferences is "Folders." This selection lets you choose where your files are stored. You can designate a folder or where ever you choose. Allowing the programs to make this choice without intervention, will result in data files all over the computer's operating system. Every program will use a different location. In PAF, the buttons on the Folders selection page take you to the operating systems file selections and you can designate where a file will be stored. For the record, Ancestral Quest, Legacy Family Tree, Family Tree Maker and RootsMagic all allow you to designate the location for your data files.
There are, however, some programs that are a problem in this regard. They require that their data files be stored in a particular location and attempts to store them elsewhere will result in lost files or error messages from the program. If this is the case, you either have to get more sophisticated about using your programs and learning where the files are stored, or you need a new program.
If you don't like to have your files naked out there on the desktop and feel compelled to hide them away, create one folder on the desktop for all your data files. I usually have one file, easily identified, where all of the data files from all of my programs, are stored. I mean all of my programs, not just the genealogy programs. Having all of my data files in one folder simplifies making a backup, I just have one folder to backup. But I will get to that in another post.
Once you have control of naming and locating your files, using a flash drive becomes much less intimidating. In my next installment, I will talk about some relatively simple procedures for using the flash drive, not only to backup files, but to work with them at a remote location.
By the way, if you want to read more of my posts, please check out FamilyTech.FamilySearch.org.