If you are serious about using today’s technology to streamline your research workflow and reduce your digital housekeeping, then you need to become a tagger. Tags are the new folders. Instead of physically moving an item into a folder – or making copies so you can file it in more than one folder – now you just add tags.
Tags are keywords embedded into a digital file to describe the contents of that file. They are part of the file’s metadata. Tags aren’t always called tags. Gmail and Blogger call them labels. Microsoft Office, iPhoto and other apps just stick with keywords. Whatever they are called, they all do the same thing – make it easier to organize your archives so you can find stuff quickly.
The key to using tags is consistency. To a computer, Florida, Fla. and FL are three different places. Most family historians are already familiar with this concept thanks to our genealogy software. When including surnames as tags, I preface the family name with “surname:” (example: surname:Barker). Since my research includes family names like “Link”, I’ve found this little trick keeps my search results down to a much more manageable number.
Search is one big reason why I’ve traded in folders for tags. All I need to do is hit the Spotlight icon at the top of my Mac’s screen and type in a tag – or two – or three – and almost before I finish typing it presents me with a list of everything on my computer (including external drives) matching that criteria. No amount of folder organization and management is going to do that for me.
Generally, you can add as many tags as you want to a file’s metadata. Is this file associated with more than one family? No problem! Just add tags for each surname. You don’t have to duplicate a file to associate it with other people or places – just add more tags.
In addition to making your life easier, tags have another very useful purpose. Because they are part of a file’s metadata, they become a permanent part of the file. Metadata stays with that file when you share a copy with others, back it up to an online service or include it on a blog post. It’s the digital equivalent of the pencil notes on the back of an old photo.
You are looking at a document management app I use to manage both research and personal documents. Notice the details on the selected document that appears in the right sidebar. There’s a large collection of tags assigned to this document. Over in the left sidebar is a list of tags associated with the document collection currently displayed. All I need to do is click on any one of those tags to filter the displayed document list to just those tagged with that keyword. This app also works with my scanner to automatically send each new scanned document to this app for tagging and other indexing chores before it is added to my document library.
I’ll be talking about document management and document libraries in more detail in upcoming articles, but I wanted to show you an example of the power of tags. I’m not saying you need to drop everything you’ve done to this point and start over from scratch – far from it! Start by including tags when you add new documents to your archives or as you update existing documents. Regardless of the document management/filing system you use, tags will add value to your system by adding details and provenance to each tagged file.