Libraries let you consolidate files and folders in multiple locations and even on multiple computers on a network.

Windows 7 contains plenty of new features, but there’s only one truly new concept you’ll need to wrap your head around: libraries.

Libraries provide a new way of managing, viewing and finding your files, toppling the old (My) Documents folder from its central position.

A library looks and behaves pretty much like a super-folder, but it isn’t, in fact, a folder. A library doesn’t store items within itself; instead, it monitors folders which contain items and presents a consolidated view of the contents of those folders. When you look at the “contents” of a library, you may find folders from a variety of locations on your hard drive, from folders on multiple hard drives, and even from folders located on different computers on your network.

In this way, a library is quite separate from the “physical” folder structure we’re used to dealing with, where one folder contains another folder that may contain further sub-folders. Libraries completely liberate you from the old tree-structured folder hierarchy.

Creating a library

To create a new library, open Windows Explorer, click the New Library button on the Organize toolbar and give your library a name. Double-click the newly created library and click the Include a Folder button to add locations to the library.

Libraries in practice

In practical terms, this means you’re free to put your data wherever you choose and Windows will make it easy for you to locate it. For example, say you’re building a house and you have all sorts of documents relating to its construction: a PDF of the contract you signed with the builder; Excel spreadsheets tracking the budget and payments; Word documents containing lists of things to buy; photos and videos of the building progress. Your partner, Doreen, also has some photos of the construction stored on her computer plus her own to-do list for the contractor.

In days gone by, in order to keep track of all this information you’d probably create a sub-folder within Documents called Construction, and within that folder you’d place other sub-folders something like this:

Construction\Contracts

Construction\Budget

Construction\Photos\Building Site

Construction\Photos\Inside\Month 1

Construction\Photos\Inside\Month 2

Construction\Videos\Site clearing

Construction\Videos\Framing

You’d need to copy files via a flash drive or over your network to ensure you kept tabs on the info stored on Doreen’s computer, too.

The problem with this approach is that this folder structure may not reflect how you normally work with Windows. After all, it’s far more common to stick all your photos in the Pictures folder and your videos in the Videos folder. Doing so certainly makes it easier for photo management software to keep track of your media automatically.

Using libraries, there’s no need to centralize all this information in a special Construction folder. Instead, you can store the photos in a Pictures\Construction folder, the videos in the Videos\Construction folder, and other relevant documents in your \Documents\Construction folder. You then create a Construction library that monitors each of those folders. Across the network you also add \\Doreen\Pictures\Construction and \\Doreen\Documents\Construction.

This may sound like a minor change, but in practice it makes working with Windows 7 dramatically different.

Three ingredients make libraries a huge success: shell integration, default save locations, and library-savvy indexing.

To view the physical location of a file or folder on disk—instead of its library location—right-click the item and choose 'Open file location' or 'Open folder location' from the pop-up menu.

Shell integration

Microsoft has threaded the library concept throughout Windows. When you open Windows Explorer, you no longer see the Documents folder; you see the Libraries folder with its four standard libraries (Documents, Music, Pictures and Videos) plus any libraries you have created. Each of the default libraries contains two “locations”. For example, Documents contains \Users\username\Documents and \Users \Public\Public Documents; the Music library contains \Users\username\Music and \Users\Public\Public Music; and so on.

You’ll also see your libraries when you use the Open and Save dialog boxes, so there’s no need to go searching through the folder hierarchy to locate a document. When you click File -> Open from a graphics program, for example, you’ll see the entire Pictures Library, not just the Pictures folder.

This can be a little disconcerting at first, as instead of seeing a list of sub-folders followed by a list of the “loose” files contained in a folder, you’ll see a list of sub-folders in the first library location, followed by a list of loose files in that location; then a list of sub-folders in the next library location, plus a list of loose files; and so on. It’s a subtle change, but it can easily trip you up if you don’t accustom yourself to the library concept.

Setting the default save location for a library makes saving files to a library a snap.

Default save location

For each library, you nominate one folder where files are saved automatically, known as the default save location. In most cases this obviates the need to dig through folders to find the right place to store a file.

If you don’t select a default save folder, Windows will use the first folder added to the library.

To set the default save location for a library:

  1. Click the library’s name in the Library folder.
  2. At the top of the library window, you’ll see ‘Includes n locations’ (where ‘n’ is the number of locations in the library). Click that link to display the Library Locations dialog box.
  3. Right-click any of the locations listed, choose ‘Set as default save location’ from the context menu and click OK.

Library-savvy indexing

Any folder added to a library must be indexed. Whether it’s a folder on your computer, a folder on a network computer, or a folder on a server, it must be indexed. The result is that file searching in Windows 7 works and works beautifully.

No longer will you have to mess around with the intricate and obscure indexing options found in Vista; nor will you have to put up with Windows XP’s poor stab at providing file search. On Windows 7, the compulsory indexing of all folders contained in libraries makes tracking down a document a no-brainer.

Refresh the library view

You may notice that when you rename, move or copy an item or create a new folder within a library, the change is not reflected in the open library window. You’ll need to press F5 to refresh the view in order to see the changes. This can be particularly confusing if you copy a file from one location to another and then delete one of the copies. You can end up with ‘phantom’ files appearing or real files failing to appear in the library.

This happens because libraries are not folders, but monitored views of the contents of multiple folders. You need to refresh the view to see the current contents.