File library vs. file system

Tags for every situation

  1. Tagging for productivity
  2. File library vs. file system
  3. File system tagging
  4. Tagging files with file libraries

Although tagging for productivity can be fun, tagging any old file on their computer is one of the main things people want to be able to do (right up there with tagging photos). If you’re into tagging your files, then you’ve probably run across two different ways to do it: file system tagging and file libraries. I’ll get to specific software in the next article; for now, here’s the differences between the two.

Wether you use file system tagging or a file library depends mostly on personal preference. Both have their pros and cons, and both have a selection of different software available (although file system tagging still doesn’t have any standout fantastic options).

File system tagging

If you use file system tagging, you’ll attach tags to your files so that you can find those files in the Finder or using Spotlight. At the time of this writing, there is no good way to store keywords or tags via Spotlight, so most file system tagging options make use of Spotlight comments.

File system tagging complements folder-based organization, and is quite forgiving (and usually cheaper) because it makes use of features provided by the OS. File system tagging software complements the operating system rather than replacing its functionality. Using file system tagging, you can tag virtually anything in your computer using a single tagging system.

The downside is that there is no great software for file system tagging. Some of the software is quite good, but nothing has been released yet that makes file system tagging as enjoyable and easy as it should be. Some developers are hoping that OS 10.5 will introduce features to Spotlight and the Finder to make file system tagging easier to implement; currently being stuck with Spotlight comments is the main hurdle for file system tagging software, and the reason that it is so universally limited. Until that time, though, file system tagging will likely remain somewhat clumsy to implement.

File libraries

A file library collects and searches your files outside of the Finder and Spotlight (although most file libraries are integrated with Spotlight to some extent). In general, if you’re using a file library you’ll be storing your files in a program-specific database.

The best part about using a file library is that its searching and browsing will be much more efficient than using Spotlight or file system tagging software. Additionally, the tagging capabilities (and other organizational tools) are universally better than anything file system tagging has provided because the developers have complete control over how they attach information to files.

The downside is that file libraries are often harder to integrate with other software. Tagging a file in a Spotlight comment means that any program that accesses Spotlight comments can use the tag. Tagging a file in a file library usually means that the tag can only be accessed if you’re running the file library (or, to a limited extent, through Spotlight searches). If you start using a file library, you’re making a commitment to keep using that specific file library.

Which to use?

Currently, file libraries are far easier to use because they provide an easy workflow out of the box, such as it were. Once you’ve learned the tools and interface, a file library can make tagging files extremely simple. File system tagging is not quite so friendly because to get a really good workflow you have to put a fair amount of creative work into the process. If you are able to develop a good file system tagging workflow, of course, it can easily end up being more universally applicable to files than a file library. You just have to be willing to put in the time.

I’ll be covering specific options for file system tagging and file libraries in a forthcoming article, so stay tuned!