The Digital Packrat

Obsolete Computer MuseumWoe to my poor wife, for she has married a packrat. You know my type: the person who keeps one --or multiple-- "junk drawers" or "junk boxes" filled with discarded wires, ticket stubs, twisted metal bits, leather scraps, ancient gadgets, cheap giveaway items with long-bankrupt businesses' names inscribed, old candies, and unknown thingamabobs that just might belong to something important, so they can't be thrown away without incurring stress. To be fair, I'm getting much better, and have learned a certain "threshold" of actually discarding or giving away unused things. "Chuck it!" is my new mantra if in doubt. (I'm glad to say that the lab at left is not my own, although I've come close.)

But being a packrat who is also an I.T. professional, it also means I have many thousands of freeform digital bits drifting loose about my many machines as well. Lately we've been getting ready to move house, and part of this means the consolidation of information from my various Mac, Linux and Windows boxes that will soon be put into storage. Looking over the vast array of data scraps, I realised how very important it was to do something about it. And I didn't want to waste all my valuable time doing it, so I resisted the geek-driven urge to create a wiki, database or online application, and instead turned to a user-friendly solution I've used to good effect in the recent past.

Now, I realise that one of the chief tenets of this site is "paper," but let's face it: we live in a digital world, and the more time you spend in it, the more digital information you build up that needs to be stored. Sure, you can print it all up and store it in your filing system, but unless there's a great importance to that particular bit of data, you'd probably just be filling up a full sheet of paper for an address or snippet that often resists being categorised consistently. Sometimes, we really don't need to make sure we have paper copies of everything. This site is also about productivity, and that means being organised and putting into place an efficient and trusted system where each item goes in its proper place. Sure, I still use paper for organising my schedules, brainstorming ideas, and writing and artwork, but the hundreds of bits of digital information I need to keep track of each day for my work would be overwhelming outside of my computer.

Looking over the bits and bobs from eight different machines, I realised what I faced. There were many directories with similar names, or slight semantic differences -- for example, "education" and "academics", or "jobsearch" and "employment/jobhunt"). There were thousands of text files -- I'm a UNIX guy at heart, and I love being able to quickly grep through files looking for words, or using Emacs or vim or Eclipse. There were also scattered Word files, Excel files, files, sound bites, Illustrator files, graphics, video clips, PDF files, HTML files, browser bookmarks, and so on. A real mix. It would seem that consolidating this mess wouldn't be easy.

But it was, and it was accomplished in just a few hours. And it felt really satisfying to get it done. Empowering, even.

Now, you can take your Google Desktop, your Beagle or your Apple Spotlight, and if it works for you, great! There's no reason why you couldn't create a series of nested folders in your file manager and start dragging and dropping each of your snippets into the right place. But that's what got me into this mess in the first place. I didn't do it consistently, and not everything could be easily searched. Also, I'd like to see the contents of the snippet or graphic or PDF instantly, and not have to load up a new application for each one. That's where a personal content management system comes in.

Because of all my multimedia files, and the fact that I use Macs most of the time, DEVONthink Pro is my preferred application for dealing with managing my digital packrat tendancies; see my review of an earlier version for why. If I had less multimedia, I'd probably be using Eastgate's high-powered Tinderbox, although I foresee making heavy use of that for other purposes soon anyway. Windows users also have a number of choices: I've had both Zoot and MyBase highly recommended to me, but I haven't personally used either of them yet. Linux users will find that the uber-filemanagers like KDE's Konqueror are starting to fulfill somewhat the same information management niches, although in a slightly different way. Regardless of what you choose, an integrated application to handle multiple forms of data is the key.

Althought the applications vary, the basic procedure is much the same:

  1. In the application, create a series of nested folders, each one being a category or subcategory. For example, I have one called Household, and inside of that are Finances, Rental Information, Things to Buy, Renovations, and so on. These are further broken down; for example, the Finances subcategory includes Taxes, Loans, and so on. Don't worry about creating hundreds and hundreds of categories for now. The beauty of this system is that you can create more as you need them.
  2. With the application window open, drag and drop each of the files from your file manager into the appropriate category. This ususally imports the item and indexes it for later searching. Often, it also allows you to view the item right in the application, especially if it's regular text or graphics.
  3. All done. Wasn't that easy?
  4. Keep your application open while working, or surfing, or doing anything else on the computer where you'd be likely to encounter information you'd like to keep. When you find something, drag or paste it directly into your application in the right place. (Mac OS X users can often use the Services menu to "send" material to it, as well.) You'll probably find that you can even drag and drop URLs (website addresses) directly into the application too, and clicking on it will load the page "inline", without calling up a new browser or window.

The better applications, like DEVONthink Pro, will also index everything, even PDFs and Word files, so that you can find material no matter what its form. Graphics can be commented with descriptions, labels or keywords, as can videos and sound files. Some will also provide enhanced functions like displaying related documents, auto-classifying things, viewing newsfeeds from sites, sucking down entire webpages or sites, translating languages, and exporting documents in multiple forms. DTPro has all these things, plus many, many scripts to help you accomplish and streamline things with a minimum of effort.

Look through the various applications available for your platform and find one that meets your needs: it shouldn't be difficult as long as you do a little research beforehand. (Don't be afraid to ask folks for advice here.) You might find yourself indulging your packrat tendencies, and yet becoming far more efficient in the process. What a wonderful concept!

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Great article! And timely too

I'm planning to buy a new computer during January, and I'm trying to make myself face up to the task of getting all the cra-, er, valuable info on this one organized first.

Also -- I suspect this will be the last computer I'll bother getting a floppy drive for. But I have zillions of diskettes full of ...something. Very few of them were written on this computer, mind, so I ought to be able to just think "outdated" and trash the lot, but I just know that somewhere among those files is what would turn out to be the Great American Novel, if I only dug it out and finished it.

Actually, my situation is even worse than that. A whole bunch of the floppies contain files that were copies over from five inch floppies. And some of THOSE had files brought along from 8 inch flopppies....

IOW, a horrible mishmash of programs that ran under CPM, CPM+, DOS, Win3.1, Win95, WinME and maybe others. None of those matter, but I have data files created under the old programs that might still be accessible. Might be.

Anyway, two questions for anyone who might feel up to it:

1) Which Info Organizers for WinXP are preferred?

2) Is there a *sensible* way of going about the conversion task? Right now I'm thinking of just creating a folder called 'floppies' with a bunch of subfolders named Disk1, Disk2, etc. Read everything into the hard drive first, IOW, and then start the triage/sorting.

Of course, the obvious downside is I won't do the organizing. Time will get short and I'll dump that directory to CDs. And then in three years I'll move the CDs to DVDs and on to Memory Crystals and BionicCellMemories and ....

Stash it all - someday google will work it out

I've got a similar issue and I think there are 2 things to keep in mind.

1. Maybe some of it you won't ever need (value of content is less than value of finding/reusing it). This is certainly true for most of my college programs :-)

2. Stash it as disks and let google at it. Yea, it ain't perfect, but if you keep hopping the data from hard drive to hard drive, it keeps getting cheeper to keep (even 100 1.44MB disks on a 250GB hard drive doesn't matter much, and in 5 years, it will be a 1TB drive...) and eventually the search engines will get good enough to process it.

And be sure to make some kind of redundant storage. I've got a 2-drive solution now, and use removeable media for occasional offsite backups of my more important personal data.

- Mike

NYT Article

One last little comment before I turn off the machines for the move: there's a timely new article out in the New York Times: Mac Programs That Come With Thinking Caps On that covers DTPro, Tinderbox, NoteTaker and other applications. (Free registration probably required, or you can use BugMeNot.)

all my best,


Analog Packrat

I hadn't realised before that you could differentiate between being an analog or a digital packrat, but I like it. Somehow saying, 'I'm an Analog Packrat,' doesn't sound as bad as I'm a hopeless slob. Besides Analog Packrat would make a great name for a band:P

Steve Sharam

Dear God!

I was so shocked and horrified by the photo, I couldn't even read the article. BTW, you're not that guy I used to work with who had a mullet and a functioning Tandy, are you?!?

I think he might be my

I think he might be my brother. I swear his back bedroom looks exactly like that. And his collection goes back to an Altair!

Mind Software


I never need the things I keep, only the things I've gotten rid of