A New, Simpler, Cheaper Filing System

Most of the electronic filing that I’ve done up to now has been for business documents, but now I’m starting to focus more on personal documents. The electronic system I’ve been using can cater for all kinds of documents, but I’ve decided to have a separate system for my personal material. This is mainly because the business documents may have research and historical uses and may be taken elsewhere, while the personal documents are for the use of myself and my family.

In setting up a filing system for personal documents I could re-use the one I’ve used for business documents since 1981. However, even though it uses relatively small scale software products, I have found it relatively costly and complex to maintain over the years as new versions have had to be obtained and installed to keep pace with new operating systems and other developments. Most upgrades to new versions have been disruptive and time consuming. Furthermore, the need to perform such upgrades to ensure continuity of operation imposes additional uncomfortable pressure. I want to minimise these problems in my personal filing system.

The solution I’m going to try out will have an index in Excel, and the base material will be stored in the Windows filing system. At present, Windows and Excel are ubiquitous and are integral parts of the basic computer system that I maintain for my own use. Hence the system will not incur additional cost, and there will be no special software functionality to make things more complicated. However, this simplicity is only achieved by sacrificing some flexibility in index searching. With the Filemaker index that I use for my business documents, multiple search terms and options (all, one or the other, not present etc.) will deliver a list of all records that match the criteria. This will not be possible to replicate in as the Excel FIND command simply steps through matching entries – though the filter facility in conjunction with a ‘Facet’ field will go some way towards it. I’m prepared to forego this functionality to achieve the substantial long term benefits of simplicity.

I will use the same index fields as for my business document with a few additions to cope with the limitations of Excel. The full list of fields will be as follows:

Reference number: mandatory for each entry and having four parts: an Owner identifier (PAW for Paul Wilson), a Set identifier (PERS), a Serial number (e.g. 1817) and a Sub-Serial number (e.g. 01). So, a typical Reference No looks like this: PAW-PERS-1817-01). The purpose of the Serial number is to enable new documents to be given the next number on the list, i.e. the number signifies nothing other than the physical location of the document in the file. The purpose of the sub-serial number is to enable two or more documents to be kept physically together in a file even if the later one is logged after the subsequent serial number has been allocated. The Reference No will be written/attached to the relevant physical documents/artefacts, and will be included at the beginning of the equivalent electronic file(s). Note that, for my business documents, the separator in the Reference No is a slash (PAW/PERS/1817/01), however a slash is not a valid character in Windows file names so it has been replaced with a dash (PAW-PERS-1817-01).

Title: mandatory for each entry, unlimited in length (subject to the size limitation of  an Excel cell) and the contents to be at the owner’s discretion (i.e. it could be different to the actual title on a document). Note that up to the first 100 characters will be copied and pasted after the Ref No in the file names of associated electronic files; therefore Titles should be constructed to make this first 100 characters as informative as possible. The Title may also include Keywords or Phrases as described below.

Keywords or phrases: optional for each entry and unlimited in number, specified entirely at the owner’s discretion, separated by commas and added to the end of the Title after three dots.

Facet: optional for each entry and consisting of a single word or phrase which can be used as a broad search term by being selected from the Excel Filter list.

Physical Location: optional for each entry and used to indicate if there is a physical item associated with this entry and, if so, where it is located.

Electronic version: optional for each entry and used to indicate if there is an electronic item associated with this entry.

Publication Date: optional for each  entry and used to specify the exact date (ddmmmyyyy) which the material concerned came into being.

Year: mandatory for each entry in full form (yyyy) and used to indicate the year in which the material concerned first came into being (this is needed in addition to the Publication Date because it is not possible to specify an exact date for some items and an Excel field can only have a single date format).

Creation Date: mandatory for each entry and used to specify when the Index entry was created.

It is the scanning of various documents for a photobook of my work experiences that has prompted me to do this right now. So I shall start using this new system for those items immediately. After it has accumulated a substantial amount of material I will report again on how effective it is.

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