Survey Findings

I’m glad to be able to write my final entry on this subject as I’ve found it a rather tortuous and boring exercise. In fact, to keep pushing me along, I’ve had to keep reminding myself that I embarked on this survey because Household files are such an integral part of the domestic information landscape. The results do, indeed, reflect that. I discovered over 9,800 documents residing in 113 files placed in 15 separate locations – and bear in mind that these were purely household related files and did not include personal correspondence or specialist professional-type material. True, 71% of these were in email folders – but that simply reflects the importance of email in today’s information landscape. Even when emails were excluded, 31% of the remainder were still in electronic format.

The 15 locations were many and varied – a wooden chest, 3 study drawers, a study bookcase, a study window ledge, 2 email accounts, 2 laptop computers, 1 iPhone, a kitchen drawer, a utility room cupboard, a garage drawer and a shed drawer. There was also a great deal of variety in the type of containers that the files were held in: cardboard folders, poly folders, plastic folders, plastic pockets, plastic button wallets, a plastic zip-up wallet, 10-pocket plastic pages, presentation folders, email folders, electronic folders, an iPhone app, ring binders, a plastic bag, a manila envelope and a box.

Four fifths of the documents addressed nine main topics – Local Community activities (17%); Sport-Related Clubs, Associations & Activities (16%); Orders & Receipts (11%); Non-Sport-Related Clubs, Associations & Activities (10%); House Sale and Purchase and Renovation Work (7%); Banks & Credit Cards & Money Saving Advice (6%); Loyalty Accounts (Shops) (6%); Loyalty Accounts (Airlines & Hotels) (5%); Service contracts & Bills (Gas, Electricity, TV, Phone, Broadband, TV, etc) (3%). The remaining fifth deal with Holidays, Year Files (mementos and sundry docs for possible future ref), Pensions, Tax & Benefits, Healthcare, Legal Documents, Recipes, Instructions/Guides/Guarantees, Cars, Insurances, Budgeting, Local Community Information, Garden, Investments, Mortgage, Service Leaflets/Business Cards/Vouchers, Retirement, Key info about relatives,  Death related documents, and Inventory of items in the loft.

In the course of the exercise, I threw out about 1,980 documents and this just confirms what is common knowledge – people don’t prune their files very often. In the case of hardcopy files, it is often only the shortage of available space that prompts the pruning activity. However, for email files there may be no such prompt – in this survey large amounts of free storage were available in the email system. Two other reasons were also identified for not pruning the email files – first, the fact that the large amounts of material arriving via the email system are too great to be able to easily undertake additional filing work on them; and, second, the email archive can be searched at will to find email addresses or specific content.

Overall, the survey clearly shows that digitisation has had an impact in four distinct ways on these particular household files:

  • much information is coming in by email and the email system itself is being used as a primary storage repository for household files;
  • some household files are being generated on the home computer;
  • some household information which arrives in hardcopy format is being immediately scanned and stored only in digital form;
  • some old hardcopy household files are being scanned and archived in digital form.

However, the survey also highlighted the fact that hardcopy may be a more appropriate format for material which needs to be used by both partners when a shared electronic filing system is not available.

Of course, because this survey has looked at only one household, it cannot be used to reach general conclusions. As with most of the other investigations recorded in these OFC pages, it shows only what can be done, NOT what everybody is doing. As such its findings and conclusions must only be used only as a starting point for further thinking and investigation.

Sorting Electronic Files is tedious….

This week we’ve been travelling away from home so I havn’t been able to complete work on the physical household files. Instead, I’ve been using my periods of free time to go through the household files on my laptop. And what a tedious business it is. At least with paper files you can use your hands and arms to pick up papers and move them around; you can turn your neck to look at papers here and over there; and you can completely change your position to get comfy. But with a screen you’re locked-in with eyes fixed, head in one place, and body stationary staring at an unending stream of similar looking files. Anyway, I‘ve nearly finished now, and it’s clear that, just as with paper files, it’s easy for electronic files to just pile up over the years. The difference being that with paper files you can see individual folders expanding and no longer fitting into the physical space they are in; whereas with electronic files, its only when you start to run out of space on the entire hard disk that you realise you have too much material to cope with.

First observations

After getting through the first 11 folders, I’ve eventually settled on collecting the following information for this exercise: Ref #, Location, Container Type, Container Name, Document Descriptions, # of Docs, # of Docs scanned, # of Hardcopy kept, # of hardcopy thrown away (calculation = #Docs – #HardcopyKept), New Electronic Folder created for Scan Y or N, Location of Scan in Laptop, Rationale for Action and Notes.

I’ve also noticed a couple of characteristics that have already emerged from this small subset of material. First, for several of the files, only a proportion of the documents originally filed were deemed to be worthwhile keeping for the long term. For example, car insurance policy documents usually include the full small print pages and handbook; however only the pages showing the details of the policy and its cost were considered worth scanning and retaining (in electronic form only).

The second characteristic concerns the naming of the files of scanned  documents. I’ve taken to including key information in the file names such that a list of the files in a folder in Windows Explorer becomes a very visible database. For example, in the case of scans of the documents related to cars I have owned, I’ve recorded the period of years I owned the car, its registration number, and the make and model, in the file name, so, when looking at the list of file names, one can see a full record of car ownership over the years.

Of course, both these points have emerged from observing an environment in which hard copy files built up over the years are being digitised; they may no longer apply when documents originate in electronic form (such as those arriving by email) or are digitised immediately they arrive. I will reflect on all this as I work through this exercise.

What and Where?

I have one final set of files that I haven’t looked into yet and that comprise an important part of an individual’s ability to maintain Order in the face of Chaos.That is all the documents associated with the ongoing management of one’s house and activities.

By their very nature, the types of household files and the way they are dealt with and stored will vary from household to household. However, it is probably true to say that the emergence of office technology, the internet and email have had a significant impact on what documents come into every household and on everybody’s perception of what it is necessary to keep. In this respect our own household files have undoubtedly changed and slimmed down over the last 20 years or so – though in a somewhat piecemeal manner. This exercise will take a more focused approach to trying to identify ways in which digitisation can help to keep our household files in order.

The files currently reside in either a big old chest, in my or my wife’s desk drawers, in a kitchen cupboard (that’s the recipes), in email folders, or in file folders on my laptop; and I believe that the material falls broadly into the  following categories: finance; legal; products and services; organisations; and practical information. I shall tackle the chest first.