Publishing my Documents... White Paper

... making sense of My Documents
... how to organise your files and find information
... how to make sense of documents
... how to publish documents professionally

12 May 2004, Chris Cant


I had been thinking of starting this paper by saying:
If you're like me, you don't know what information you've got on your computer.
However, I have been working with computers for 25 years (that long!) and so I am pretty organised - see below for what I do.

Yet a lot of people are not computer professionals and so need help to keep track of what they have got.  OK... there are various tools in Windows etc to help you find information, but it helps to organise your files in a methodical way in the first place.

This issue becomes particularly important if you have got to publish a set of documents, eg:

  • giving instruction manuals to a new employee
  • giving some marketing information to a potential customer.
    Ordinary office applications come with tools to publish information to the web, but what do you do when you have several files to publish - how do you provide a professional look to the finished documentation?
  • Terminology

    I hate to have to include a "Terminology" section but recently I came across a computer novice who thought that a computer "file" was the same as an ordinary office file: a paper pouch that could contain lots of bits of paper, ie several documents.  It's amazing that I hadn't even realised that the word in effect has different meanings.

    Computer users use the word "folder" or "directory" to describe such a document container.  (My youngest daughter calls them "cheeses" because the icon looks like a bit of cheese.)

    Anyway, in here I will use computer terminology, so a "folder" contains zero or more "files", where a file is an individual word-processor document, speadsheet, image, audio track, etc.  I might also use the word "document" - this means the same as "file", but I will try not to because some people might think that I am just refering to .doc Word documents.

    What most people do

    As a rough guess, most people:
  • Surf the net
  • Send and receive emails
  • Write documents, presentations, spreadsheets, etc

    Surfing the net does not usually involve saving information files on your computer.  However if you save files, they usually end up in My Documents.

    Send and receive emails is a crucial place for creating information (writing emails) and receiving information (reading emails).  This information is stored within the email program and not normally visible in My Documents.  However you can attach files to outgoing emails from My Documents, and any received attached files end up in My Documents.

    Writing documents, etc is the main reason many people have computers: their job requires them to write letters, write academic papers, make financial predictions, produce leaflets, write talks, etc.  In almost all cases the files produced will be in My Documents.

  • Organising Emails

    I'm not going to go into emails too much here...

    If there is important information in an email and you want to send it on, then the obvious thing to do is to send it!  However if you need to publish the important information then I recommend that you copy it into a file, eg a word-processor document.  You cannot easily put a single email on CD for example and expect it to appear in a recipient's email program.  However the CD user can view all the documents on the CD so copy important email information into a word-processor file or web page file.

    All email programs have search facilities which is the obvious way to find information.

    Assuming that you get and keep lots of emails, I strongly recommend organising your emails in folders.  Different email programs call folders different things - eg Eudora calls them "Mailboxes" which could be confusing because an email address is sometimes called a mailbox.  Anyway, create folders and transfer emails that you have sent and received into the appropriate folder.

    Don't forget to use sensible names for folders.  This will help one year on, when you are trying to find a half-remembered email.

    Using My Documents

    There are two common sense rules for using My Documents:
    • Give your files decent filenames
    • Organise your files in folders - and give the folders decent names

    Good filenames

    A good filename will tell you exactly what's in a file.  Here's some possible filenames, going from bad to good:
    • sales
    • Sales Report
    • Sales Report - January 2004
    • phdcc Sales Report - January 2004

    As a matter of fact, I'm probably bad at using decent filenames.  This partly because I am so ancient - back in the good old days filenames could have 8 characters maximum: all capitals and no spaces.  I still tend to use short filenames and to miss out spaces.

    Take this web page for example: It should have this filename: Publishing my Documents
    Back in the old days I would have called it: PUBMYDOC
    I have in fact called it: pubmydocs
    With its filename extension, it is: pubmydocs.htm
    There is some sense in this: some computers and software still do not like spaces in web filenames.

    Using folders

    Making folders is easy... you just have to keep thinking about what files you have.
    • Use good folder names

    • You can make folders when you save and open files.

    • Remember that folders can contain folders, so feel free to make as many sub-folders as you need: Divide and rule!

    • If you find that you are accumulating a lot of files in a folder, then consider how to categorise the files.  Then make sub-folders for each category.

    • Periodically go through all your folders to see what files are there.  Reorganise as necessary.

    • Don't forget to do backups of all your important information... this probably means backing up all My Documents onto CD.

    Multi-user My Documents

    This one's quite easy...

    If several people share your computer, make sure that they have their own log in username.  Each username has its own separate My Documents so your files will not get mixed up with your colleague's.

    However, if you share a log in username with someone else, make sure that they put all their files in their own folder.

    Finding information

    There are two strategies for finding information on your computer in your files:
    1. Rummage
    2. Search

    Rummaging for information

    Rummaging means starting at the top and drilling down.  This is when it pays to have good folder names and good filenames:
  • Open My Documents
  • find the folder you want
  • open it up
  • look for sub-folders
  • or look for a file with an appropriate name
  • open file

    Windows helps this process by showing previews of some document types, eg photos and web pages.  The icon by a file also tells you what type it is.

  • Searching for information

    Windows has a good search facility - it helps you find by filename and by the contents of a document.

    If you are looking for a sales report for January 2004, then you could start by looking for the word "sales" in the filenames.  If this yields no results, then try looking for the word "sales" within each document - this will take longer but should get results.

    Is this good enough?

    Why not have a better navigation system - like Conference-CD described below?

    Publishing information

    "Publishing" can mean a little or a lot:

    Professional publishing for amateurs

    Everyone can print their own documents.  And we leave the big jobs to professionals.  But what about in between?

    Most office applications have "Publish to the Web" capabilities... for a single document.
    And most people can use CD burning software to dump a lot of files to CD.

    Windows XP has made things easier with the new Windows Explorer options:

  • File and Folder Tasks ... Publish this folder/file to the Web
  • Picture Tasks ... Copy all items to CD

    However the "Publish to Web" option will probably not work with your organisation's web site.  And "Copy to CD" only makes a copy of information, without providing any navigation structure.

  • Enter Conference-CD...

    Amateurs can publish documents professionally using the phdcc Conference-CD software.  Don't be put off by the name if you are not running a conference - it really is quite general purpose.

    Conference-CD takes a bunch of files and presents them professionally.

    In a nut-shell, Conference-CD does this very easily and quickly... (* not available yet.)

    As you can see from this list, most of these features are very general purpose and can be used in any publishing situation.  For example, you could use Conference-CD if you want to put together a training CD made up of word-processor documents, PDF manuals, seminar presentations, etc, along with a link to an online test.

    Only one of the above features could be said to be specific to conferences - converting PowerPoint presentations to web page format.  This makes the presentations easier to view and find using the search tool.

    Conference organisers will like the fact that Conference-CD can produce a CD image very quickly, so they can burn CDs immediately to give to attendees; this will be appreciated by all other types of user.  Various options within Conference-CD let you tune the output to your needs with only a few keystrokes.  However to produce a really professional output, you should check the contents listings for each folder and consider whether you want to have your own custom template.

    What is My Documents?

    Now that I've got the promo for our software out of the way, let's backtrack to some technical issues...

    My Documents is just a folder on your computer's hard disk.  If you a restricted user then this may be the only folder that you can access.

    Your computer's hard disk drive is probably called C: though it may have been given a more understandable name as well - I have called drive C: on this computer after my daughter "Jenny".

    Your drive C: is a folder that has many sub-folders.  These will include all the Windows files (usually in the "WINDOWS" folder) and the installed programs (usually in "Program Files").  Buried down amonst some other folders you will eventually find your My Documents.  First you will have to open "Documents and Settings".  Then you will have to open the folder with your name, eg "Chris Cant" for me on this computer.  Finally open the folder called "My Documents".

    Each person that uses a computer will have their own folder in "Documents and Settings".  This explains how each person can have a different My Documents.

    So what other folders are there?

    When you open a file or use Windows Explorer, if you keep going "Up one level" you will eventually find yourself at your "Desktop".  As well as showing the folders on your screen desktop, it shows My Documents.  It also lists My Computer and My Network Places.  Clicking on My Computer shows a list of all your hard disk drives (eg C:, D:, etc), the floppy drive (A:) and any network connections that have been given drive letters.

    Sometimes the way folders are arranged causes come confusion.  This might be because you can get to your My Documents in several ways.  Starting at "Desktop" I can get there using these routes:

  • Desktop + My Documents
  • Desktop + My Computer + Chris Cant's Documents
  • Desktop + My Computer + Jenny (C:) + Documents and Settings + Chris Cant + My Documents

    Networked My Documents

    On computers on an enterprise network, things may work differently.  My Documents is not actually on your computer's hard disk drive.  Instead it lives on a file server computer elsewhere.

    This can be quite helpful.  If you log on with your username on a different computer, then the same My Documents is shown, so you can access your files from anywhere.

    In this case, the real "My Documents" folder is not on a hard disk drive in your computer; instead it is on a network drive, probably somewhere in My Network Places.

  • Document meta-data

    Search professionals like me would love you to supply meta-data for all your files.  Meta-data describes a document, for example to say what it contains and what standard keywords can be used to describe its contents.

    However most of you do not routinely give your documents meta-data, so meta-data is not much use, however much I might bleat on about it.

    You probably are familiar with meta-data.  Word-processor programs usually do let you open up the document properties and enter a "title", "subject", keywords" etc - these are all meta-data.  Quite a few types of file let you specify meta-data.  Web pages usually have titles and often have META descriptions so that they can be categorised more easily by search engines.  You can also add titles etc to some types of photograph.

    You can set meta-data within a file when you create it, eg in a word-processor program.  Windows Explorer also lets you set the meta-data for some file types: right-click on a file, select Properties then the Summary tab.

    Index and search programs will make use of meta-data if you provide it.  For example, Conference-CD uses the meta-data title for a file in the contents list that it generates.  However sometimes this is not a good option: the file may have a good filename, eg "phdcc Sales Report - January 2004" but the title has never changed since the document was first created, eg "sales" or even worse "Sales - October 1998".

    Information professionals and librarians have set up many categorisation schemes and standards for keywords etc.  If you can force all your minions to use these then your information will be easier to find.  However general search engines will not make special use of this information.

    What I do

    As a computer nerd, I probably have a slightly unusual computer set up.

    I have my own office that contains several computers for my personal use - OK they get used a little bit by others.  For the most part I work on my latest computer, and the other computers are a historical record of the computers that I have used.  I keep the other computers to test software on.  Each computer usually has a different version of Windows or a different collection of software.  These other computers also in effect have a backup of my software sources.

    Anyway, I have a network boringly called "phdcc".  Each computer has a short network name - usually named after one of the local hills, eg "harter".

    Somewhat unusually, some of my computers can run more than one version of Windows: this is called dual-booting or multi-booting.  I change the "My Computer" desktop icon to give details of the computer and the version of Windows, eg "P3-650 Bidean XP".

    I usually often have split up my hard disks into more than one drive, so one phsical disk contains disk drives C:, D:, etc.  I usually call C: "Jenny" and D: "Viv".  On my latest computer, I arrange that drives C: and D: contain all my working data and Windows and installed programs are found on other drives.

    My latest computer is multi-boot, so I can swap between different instances of XP and W2000.  The way I have set them up, it means that My Documents is different for each instance of Windows.  So it does not make sense for me to store all my crucial information in My Documents.

    Being an old "power user" of computers, I am used to organising my computer folders carefully.  I have folders that live directly in the C: drive.  For example I have a "Business" folder and a "Photos" folder.  The "Business" has various sub-folders, including one called "Invoices"; within there I create a further sub-folders, one for each business year, eg "Inv0102", "Inv0203", etc.

    I do make a very small use of My Documents.  I use it for storing temporary files that I do not really care about.

    As I said earlier on, I am not very good with filenames.  I tend to use short filenames with no spaces, although they tend to have good words in.


    Clive, USA, Sat, 04 Jun 2005 21:39:52 (GMT)
    Windows' "My Documents" confuses me no end!
    I tried disabling it but I can't. I try working around it but it's always there in my way. Maybe I should just give up and try using it!
    Thanks for some clarification.

    I think that you can remove the My Documents icon from your desktop but you cannot remove it from your system - most software (including Windows) assumes that it is there so it cannot be removed.
    All I can suggest is to navigate to the folder of your choice whenever a My Documents file box appears.

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