Two trends are turning computers into digital warehouses for home entertainment, documents and memorabilia: the plummeting cost of storage space and the emergence of affordable tools to convert pictures, sounds and video into digital files.
But the gigabytes of photos and songs you pile onto your computer can quickly become as hopelessly disorganized as snapshots in a shoe box. That's because your PC or Mac won't automatically add the information needed to search effectively through your collection.
It's important to add key bits of information to your files as you store them. Otherwise, you'll end up with a pile of digital goods that can't be searched and that have no index. Windows and Mac computers offer two basic tools for organizing and finding files: the ability to group files into folders and the ability to search through the folders for files matching certain criteria.
To create folders, just pull down the File menu and select New and Folder on a Windows PC, or New Folder on a Mac. The trick comes in making sure the file you download, export or copy to your computer goes into the right folder.
The simplest approach is to open your hard drive's main window and set up separate folders there for music, pictures, videos and documents. Similar folders may already be scattered around your PC--some on the C: drive, some in the My Documents folder. Make sure you have only one of each kind, and put them all in the same place. Starting each folder's name with "My" or your moniker will ensure they're all grouped together in Windows' alphabetized display.
Later, when you use software that transfers files onto your computer, make sure it looks for the folders you've created for your archives. Otherwise, it might bury them in a default folder somewhere deep in the Program Files section of your C: drive. The storage setting typically is found under Preferences or Options in the Tools menu.
Most music-recording software automatically creates sub-folders for the songs you "rip" off of CDs, grouping them by artist and CD title. Some photo-editing programs also will create sub-folders for each set of digital images on a photo CD or memory card. Again, it's important to make sure the sub-folders are created within your preferred folders.
The Windows and Mac operating systems both offer search tools to help you create indexes. They're blunt instruments, however, capable of searching through image and sound files only by file name, type, date and size.
That's not much of an issue for song files because all of the free music players provide their own search and organizing tools. For digital photos, though, you should write detailed file names that include all the elements you might want to search for later.
Without detailed file names, you still can create an index of all the photos in your collection by specifying the file type (the standard is .JPG). A shortcut is to search for all files named *.jpg. You can narrow the list by specifying a range of dates. But if you don't specify which folder to search through, you may end up with an overwhelmingly long list of every image file on your computer.
You can launch the search tool in Windows from the Start menu by selecting Find and then Files or Folders. From the Finder window on a Mac, select Find from the File menu.
Recent versions of the Windows and Mac operating systems also provide visual clues to the contents of your photo collection by providing thumbnail-size "previews" for each file. To display them in Windows, pull down the View menu and select "as Web Page."
Times staff writer Jon Healey covers the convergence of technology and entertainment.