That Is Not A Bookmark

Loranne's Adventures in Librarying

Folders & Tags: Reflections on Vannevar Bush

“When data of any sort are placed in storage, they are filed alphabetically or numerically, and information is found (when it is) by tracing it down from subclass to subclass…The human mind does not work that way. It operates by association. With one item in its grasp, it snaps instantly to the next that is suggested by the association of thoughts, in accordance with some intricate web of trails carried by the cells of the brain. It has other characteristics, of course; trails that are not frequently followed are prone to fade, items are not fully permanent, memory is transitory. Yet the speed of action, the intricacy of trails, the detail of mental pictures, is awe-inspiring beyond all else in nature.” – Vannevar Bush, As We May Think, 1945, p. 43

What jumps instantly to my mind upon reading this quote is first, agreement–that my brain navigates subjects by association–and second, the fact that the machine through which I access or search for a large percentage of the information I seek–my computer–doesn’t work that way.

You wouldn't know it, but there are thousands and thousands of images scattered throughout these folders.

You wouldn’t know it, but there are thousands and thousands of images scattered throughout these folders.

My desktop runs Windows 7, which organizes files (and allows me to choose how to organize them) into folders. Folders can be nested within each other. For those of you who are unfamiliar with this operating system, here’s a screenshot of what my Pictures folder looks like:

I can move or change these folders any which-way I like. I can delete them, change their names or put them in a different folder entirely. If I have a file that falls under more than one of my folder categories, I can copy that file and put a copy in each location.

The funny thing I’m noticing as I write this, is that it’s hard for me to describe what a folder system is really like without referring to the word “folder” as a unit very frequently. I realize that to us, it probably sounds like a ridiculous hypothetical to ask how someone with no knowledge of how this organizational system works would navigate and find the information they’re looking for on a computer, but I watch my older family members go through this painful process on a regular basis. I once actually did a physical demonstration of files/folders–using our filing cabinets at home–to illustrate the hierarchical nature of how information is organized within Windows.

All images are screen captures made by me.

All images are screen captures made by me.

Tagging, on the other hand, operates using a similar function to the human brain, using associations designed by the user. For instance, I use Evernote to take notes for many of my classes, meetings, etc. While I can give each new “note” a title and organize sets of notes into “notebooks,” the tagging feature is what I actually use to organize my different notes by subject. I create each individual tag as I need it. I have a different tag for each class, for my job, and for certain meetings. Tags lack the hierarchical structure of the folder system, but it saves the user disc space as well as time in trying to remember where they categorized a particular note/file, and one item can have multiple tags. So, if I have one note tagged as both “613″ and “616,” and I click on either of those tags in the left-hand menu, that note will appear in both lists. It has a similar effect to copying a file into two separate folders, but, as previously mentioned, saves disc space, and is much easier to navigate.

Ladies and gentlemen, the hashtag.

Ladies and gentlemen, the hashtag.

Twitter is another prime example of how tags are useful. Without the ubiquitous hashtag, the sheer volume of individual tweets would be impossible to navigate. Twitter users tend to use hashtags in which they’re interested to find new people to follow, and I imagine the entire community would be much more disjointed were it not for the hashtag drawing users together. The one thing tags don’t really lend themselves to is browsing. They are great for locating specific items, but if a user simply wants to poke around and see what’s there, tags might limit search results unnecessarily.

I’d be curious to hear other opinions on this topic. Are tags actually more useful/”better” than the folder system? Are they just a better idea in terms of user interface? I’ve heard a few people describe tags as how we’ll navigate computer folders in “The Future,” and having grown up using Windows, I shudder to think what a chaotic mess my folders would be if I traded that for tagging each file.


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This entry was posted on April 11, 2012 by in Uncategorized and tagged .
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