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File Cabinet or Laundry Basket?

October 5, 2021

An article came through my inbox last week that got me thinking about the major shifts between how our students conceptualize information and its organization and the way that people in their 30’s and older usually comprehend it.

I’ve encountered “information paradigm shifts” with students before, of course. I’ve had to give up explaining authorized subject headings as index terms like the ones you find in the back of a book. I switched years ago to calling them the “official hashtags” of a database collection. I’ve also learned that the whole volume/issue/article structure of periodicals — and even the very concept of a periodical itself — is foreign in a world where newspapers and magazines have always been an amorphous collection of blog posts under a unifying letterhead.

But the idea of most students not understanding what a computer “file” is, or that it has a location on the computer, or that it is perhaps to your advantage to organize these digital files and folders, is a bit new. I’ve run into the issue before, but mostly with our adult-learner populations who struggle with other computer tasks, such as turning the machine on or off or navigating to their email. Our traditional-aged students grasped at least the basics of this “the file is somewhere” concept.

Image by Ulrike Mai from Pixabay

But according to ​“FILE NOT FOUND: A generation that grew up with Google is forcing professors to rethink their lesson plans” by Monica Chin, this is no longer the case.

Millennials and the generations before them think of computer organization in terms of hard drives, files, and nested folders. To our current students, Chin says, that’s a foreign paradigm. They’ve been keyword searching the cloud for documents throughout their educations. How do we explain that a digital file has a digital location, just as a physical book has a physical spot on a shelf? Or does the “one massive bucket with a really good search and retrieval system” idea make more sense in the long run?

As a librarian (albeit one who wept my way through Cataloging & Classification in grad school), I think there is significant value in file organization. Are we moving into a future where all that matters is well-applied descriptor terms and an algorithm that can crawl them at lightning speeds? Can a computer user even know what they have in their digital possession under this model? Will we lose the benefit of serendipity?

​I’ve stumbled across long-forgotten documents that ended up being very helpful to a current project, thanks to my practice of hoarding documents and organizing them in nested folders. I’m very reluctant to relinquish that. But is it worth trying to convince our students of the value of such a system? I still think yes, but my gut feeling is that it’s going to go the other way in the long run.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Kayla Van Osten permalink
    October 5, 2021 12:49 pm

    Wow, this is so interesting. I’m cringing internally that students don’t organize their files! Thanks for sharing!

  2. October 6, 2021 1:48 pm

    great article! a concept well underestimated in this era of virtual storage indeed

  3. October 7, 2021 11:55 pm

    I, too, wept through my Cataloging and Classification course in graduate school! LOL

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