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A Folksonomy for Physical (Paper) Files January 19, 2007

Posted by caveblogem in filing, folksonomies, how to, information management, lifehack, Other, tagging.
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This site get considerable traffic sometimes from people interested in folksonomies and different methods of filing documents, partially because of my posts about LibraryThing.  Recently a number of people have been referred here by this site, whose author was apparently searching for a system of tagging paper documents.  This post does not do quite what she wanted, tagging individual pages of descrete documents, which I think you’d have to accomplish with sticky-notes, marginalia, and some method of storing these notes on a public spreadsheet or something.  Probably easier to scan the document into something and use OCR to turn it into text.  Nevertheless, I keep meaning to post something about the system I use to tag individual documents, because there seem to be a lot of people out there with similar filing issues.  What sort of issues? 

Well, I write grant proposals for projects and gifts at a University.  My job entails keeping records on who does what at the University, as well as who funds what all over the country.  I also to opinion poll research, data mining and marketing analyses for the fundraising operations, as well as institutional research at the University, and have been involved in an endless (thankfully, so far) stream of writing projects that aren’t connected to any of those things.  In short, I work with paper copies of things only when I can’t avoid it, which is to say I work with paper copies all day long.   When I want to file a paper copy of something, should it go in a departmental file, under the faculty member’s name, under the name of the research center or lab, under the name of the party to whom the proposal was written, under the type of proposal, or endless other options?  My indecision usually meant more than one copy, or it meant a growing “to file” heap on my desk.  A clue to a possible answer came last year, when I saw a reference to the Noguchi system of filing.

I first noticed the Noguchi Filing System on BoingBoing, and I tried to track it down through the article’s author (not Noguchi himself, since his works had not been translated at that time), but he had taken it down already.  I tried it out, but have since dumped the Noguchi system because if its aversion to large archives of information.  The ability to find anything I need immediately and easily means that I can keep a large archive, which means I don’t have to spend time deciding what to throw out.  And, again, it is the nature of my job, I often (a few times a week) find myself using documents that I haven’t even seen in years.  I retained the look of the Noguchi system, but combined it almost beyond recognition with a robust archiving system.

This method is essentially user-specified tagging.  But it can be extended and adapted to multiple users quite easily.

Here’s how it works:

Step 1: Put document in a 9×12 envelope which has had its top cut off.  Write some keywords about the document, the date (of filing), and a number on the side of the envelope, like this (click images to see full-sized ones):

envelope.jpg

Step 2: Write a filing entry in an excel spreadsheet including as many distinct keywords as you can remember about the document, like this:

files-folk.jpg

Step 3: Filed the envelope in reverse numeric order (adding new files on the left), standing up on a bookshelf.  Mine looks like this:

shelf34.jpg

Step 4: When you need the document, open the spreadsheet and hit control+F (or go to the “find” feature of your spreadsheet program).  type in a keyword and hit the return button.  The spreadsheet will go to a cell where the keyword appears.  If it isn’t the file you are looking for, hit return.  It will find another.   I have more than 300 documents filed this way and they almost always come up on the first or second try. 

If it is the file you were looking for, get the entry’s archive number (in the column to the right) and pull the document off the shelf.  Put it back there when you are done with it. 

To expand this into a multiple-user folksonomy, the spreadsheet may be stored on a public folder (or using google’s new filesharing capabilities, or a wiki, or whatever) so that it becomes a true user-specified classification system.  To do this, each user adds more keywords into the string, keywords that define how the document was used, so that they come up later in a search. 

This system may have been invented elsewhere, I suppose, because it is awfully simple and easy to use.  But I have never seen a reference to it anywhere.  I’d be happy to link to anyone who has a suitable exposition of this.  And it doesn’t have a name, as yet, either, so feel free to suggest one.

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