Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

The MetaData Way to Paper Absolution

Free yourself from the thralls of the paper dragon. Too many genealogists are fixated on the idea that their online programs and files must somehow mirror their inadequate paper file systems. I have been urged repeatedly to have a virtual file system made up of folders corresponding to someone's idea of a paper file. I am supposed to physically "file" my online documents into folders corresponding to the surname of the ancestor when there is no practically reality in doing so.

Enough hyperbole, computers recognize folders and files because programmers want to make the environment of the computer "user friendly." Apple and then Microsoft emulated a "virtual desktop" a place where you could "put your files in recognizable folders, just like in your real office." Bunk. Until you get about 10 or 20 thousand documents on your computer you cannot realize how inappropriate this whole virtual desktop thing really is. The computer has no concept of anything. It is a machine that reads ones and zeros. It has no imagination. No feelings of inadequacy. No frustration with piles of paper. Fine names and to some extent folder names are entirely arbitrary and have no meaning to the computer whatsoever. As an inanimate machine, it could care less about the content. So what can a computer do? It can search really fast. It can find one string (series of characters) in milliseconds in a pile of documents a mile high. Why not let the computer do what it does well and forget the rest?

The solution to this problem is very simple but often overlooked. The answer is metadata. Every file created on a computer, whether it be created by a word processing document, scanner, camera or whatever has a name. The file can also have associated unseen and usually unknown data about the file called metadata. That is data about data. File names can only be so long before they become unworkable. Cryptic codes for file names are more than useless, they are pernicious. It is time to take back your "virtual desk" and trade it in for a program to add metadata to your files.

Take photographs for instance. If you download a bunch of photos from your camera they come with such strikingly helpful names as HPMI000765 or some such nonsense. If you a critically obsessive, you might get around to naming the files something barely useful like "Trip to Salt Lake." But with a program like Adobe Lightroom, Adobe Bridge, Adobe Camera Raw or even some Apple and Microsoft Windows utilities.  On the Apple computers, you can add metadata directly to a file from the Get Info screen on any of the computers under the Spotlight Comments. On Windows machines you can use Libraries in Windows 7 to organize your files across different computers.

The process is basically simple. Computer operating systems have the capability of adding "hidden" comments and descriptions to files that can then be used to find the file later. Once the metadata is added the information stays with the file, like a copyright notice, even if the file is copied to another computer or online. Another example, you can use the file Properties in Microsoft Word to add a great deal of metadata to a word document.

Now, let's suppose that you used descriptive names for your files and in addition added metadata about all the people or places shown in your photo collection. Do you think you need to put the files in some kind of other organization. No, as I said before, just let the computer do what it does well, find things. Optimally, your files would be all in one big folder, but realistically that doesn't happen. But with metadata every single file is just a click away from being found the computer's search mechanism. As an editorial aside, Apple's Spotlight is much more efficient at finding files than any of the Microsoft systems. To see what is available, do a Google search for Metadata Annotation Software. From the PC standpoint, the free Irfanview program is also great for viewing images. Google's Picasa also has a limited ability to add metadata. Look around make your life a little easier. I am sure there will be comments about other programs found to be useful.


  1. I am exhausted just thinking about the work I should do...but, I only have about 250 people so far.

  2. Brilliant!

    Right now I am moving all my photos to Lightroom and doing the tagging and captions etc. I will also be doing this with my family history images and scanned documents.

    I have been told many times that I need to set up a paper file and there are a few ways that have been suggested to me. By using a computer program this will be so much easier. This is how the computer can shine against a paper file if used correctly.

    Thanks so much!