One of the brilliant design elements of the original Unix systems of the 1970’s was the concept of user names with passwords and of a dedicated “home directory” for each user. This created a default place for a given account to place all of “its” documents and allowed for relatively easy transfer of users between systems and machines. This idea came to the Macintosh in earnest with the advent of Mac OS X, and the “home folder” which appears to the logged-in user as a picture of a little house whose name matches their short user name. Prior to this, it had been the Macintosh custom to let users put things and name things pretty much whatever they wanted, and for programs to do the same.
Understanding the home folder and its uses is key to understanding and getting the most out of your Mac.
The Home Folder is Your Personal Space
Your home folder is your personal space under Mac OS X. If you understand OS X and do not intentionally (or accidentally) move your things outside of your home folder, the home folder protects your documents from other users on the same computer and also against yourself. By encouraging you to keep all of your things within one folder (and logical sub-folders), Mac OS X decreases the number of places where a thing may be, makes it easier to find that thing and (ultimately) can aid your work flow. It can also greatly simplify removing old users from work computers and help you move smoothly between computers or access your files from other computers on your local network.
You can add as many folders and sub-folders to your home directory as you wish, but OS X will initially populate your home folder with eight specific folders which I call “the sacred eight.” These eight folders have uses and purposes designated to programmers by Apple, and appreciating them will make your Macintosh computer life simpler. As importantly, ignoring them can confuse many programs and make your life harder.
The sacred eight are distinguished from normal folders visually, making them easy to spot. While an ordinary folder will be plain blue, Mac OS X automatically places special icons on some important folders. If you double-click on your Mac’s hard drive from the Finder, for example, you will notice that at least four foulders have special icons: System, Applications, Users and Library. These are key folders for OS X and deleting or renaming any of these can cause problems. Within your home folder there are also eight folders with special icons: Desktop, Documents, Library, Movies, Music, Pictures, Photos, Public and Sites.
Understanding the “Sacred Eight”
Each of these folders has a special purpose and, for the most part, moving or renaming these folders is a bad idea. When OS X first came out, for example, many Mac users would see these “extra” folders and decide that they would discard them. Having never used the Documents folder under OS 7.6 or 9 and thinking they had no use for something called “Library” or “Desktop” they threw those away, and then were astonished that they lost all of their bookmarks, passwords, addresses or email. Not liking the name of their home folder, they changed it, then wondered where all their things went after a restart. As a general rule one should NEVER rename the four special icons at the root level of your hard drive, a user’s home folder or any of the sacred eight.
Each of these eight folders in your home directory has a particular purpose and place to play in your Mac’s smooth operation. Which folders are most important will vary from user to user, but for most users all are important at one time or another.
The Home Folder “Desktop” Folder
Normally when you start up your computer or log in to your user account on OS X you will see your computer’s desktop with a single menu bar across the top, perhaps with a hard drive icon in the upper-right corner, and the OS X dock along the bottom edge. If you are connected to some external servers or have another volume (such as a CD or external hard drive) those may appear, and then there are other things scattered across your desktop. All of these things that are not external volumes (such as CD’s, network shares or drives) are actually in your home folder’s “Desktop” folder.
The Finder very much wants every OS X user to have a Desktop folder, so if you rename yours or throw it away, the Finder will helpfully create another one, completely empty. I know of one user who used this trick as a filing system, dating their desktop folder and then rebooting to begin anew every month or so. This is NOT recommended.
The Desktop folder is a sort of kitchen counter for many users: a default place to put things when they first come into the house, or a place to put things they are working on at the moment. Some people like a clean desktop and some tend to let things evolve organically. If you are the sort of person who maintains a “creative,” crowded or fertile desktop, one huge advantage of the Desktop folder is that you can double-click it from your home folder and view it as a standard window, selecting a different column header in “list view” to view items alphabetically, by date modified and so on. Many people find this less distracting, and much simpler than looking for things on a busy desktop background.
The Home Folder “Documents” Folder
“Document” is a generic term for data files created by programs and is sometimes used to distinguish those files from folders or other items such as programs. For the purposes of your home folder a document is pretty much any file created by a program that has not been told where else to go. Many applications will automatically create their own sub-folder within Documents such as “AppleWorks User Data,” “Eudora Folder” or “Microsoft User Data” so if you use those programs, don’t automatically throw those away. If you do, the program will merely create another the next time it launches, without your data.
Many people find it very useful to create sub-folders within their Documents folder, organized by project or chronologically or otherwise. Perhaps there is one folder for “personal” and one for “work.” I even had one client who organized their client files by astrological sign with a color code. I personally like to create a folder called “Client-Specific” where I have subfolders for clients with special files. The main thing is that you understand what the Documents folder is for and that you use it in a way that makes sense for you.
If you have created something and cannot find it on your computer, many programs will save it to the Documents folder by default, so it may be useful to start looking there.
The Home Folder “Library” Folder
The Library folder is where many programs store their data, and for the most part you do not want to look or go in here. Programs such as web browsers, email address books and so on, they may have hundreds or even thousands of small documents that they are constantly changing and working with. To manage these by hand would be very complicated, so OS X provides the Library as a place where programs can store data that you would not normally interact with directly. While many people will create a simple letter with a word processing program, for example, they do not want to manually edit the file which tells the word processor what font they usually like to start new letters with. Although we may interact with a single Address Book card or Safari bookmark, we normally view these things and items such as email messages from within one specific program. The Library folder is where the program stores and organizes data so that you don’t have to.
As a general rule, you cannot help things by mucking about in the Library folder, and if you throw it away you will lose data, often a LOT of data. If your Mac is working well you should never need to worry about the Library folder, just don’t throw it away or rename it.
The Home Folder “Movies” Folder
Movies are the first of the three media folders. Each of these is used by iLife programs and it may be useful to use them in your own ways. If you use iMovie, for example, it will store its data files inside your Movies folder. Some people who download movies or copy them from DVD’s also find it useful to put all of their movies into this folder. One of the huge advantages of the three media folders is that they make it easy to back up and discard older media. If you never use video programs such as iMovie, this folder may very well be empty, but it does not hurt anything to have it, and may confuse programs later if it is gone.
The Home Folder “Music” Folder
Programs such as iTunes and GarageBand automatically store songs you download or create in the Music folder, as do some other programs such as Sibelius, used to compose sheet music. By default GarageBand and iTunes will create sub-folders within here, and the iTunes folder may contain various sub-folders. Within the “iTunes Music” folder, for example, there will be a sub-folder for each artist and one for compilations, with sub-sub-folders for each album and then song files inside of those.
One huge advantage of keeping all your music in this one folder is that it makes backups much easier, allowing you to offload music you are no longer listening to or create data disks directly from these folders and files. Usually if someone is running out of space on their hard drive, it is because they are really into music, pictures or video, and this folder provides a good place to start their backup strategy or to free more space on their “boot drive.”
The Home Folder “Pictures” Folder
Just as iTunes puts your music in the Music folder, iPhoto creates an “iPhoto Library” folder within Pictures. DO NOT OPEN YOUR IPHOTO LIBRARY. Unlike the “iTunes music” folder which is pretty much just a file hierarchy, programs such as iPhoto and Aperture create complex databases that only the programs should access and change. If working with iPhoto, work within iPhoto and do not go mucking about inside here.
If you work with pictures in other ways, this folder provides a great place to organize files in folders for genealogy, home inspections, product portfolios and so on. Many of my clients have extremely organized photo collections, stored in various folders and sub-folders that make sense to them and allow them to readily find and use just the photo they want more quickly than would be possible with iPhoto.
The Home Folder “Public” Folder with “Drop Box”
If you have ever gone to your “System Preferences” and opened up “Sharing” you may have noticed an option to enable “Personal File Sharing.” If and only if you have enabled this option, the Public folder is the directory that is shared on the local network. Anything you place in this folder will be visible to others on your local network or (if you machine has a dedicated IP address to the outside world) the Internet. The default behavior is for personal sharing to make all of these files available for download or copying with one major exception, so in small workgroups this is a great place to post files that others may need such as vacation request forms, status reports and so on.
The “Drop Box” folder within your Public folder is one major exception to this rule. If you think of the Public folder as an office door or bulletin board where you can post things for people to copy, the Drop Box is like a mail slot. Others on the network can put things INTO your Drop Box but cannot view them afterwards, making this a great place for people to put files only you should see.
If you do not turn on personal file sharing, the Public folder just sits there, awaiting the day you do.
The Home Folder “Sites” Folder
People who copy entire web sites or design web sites for themselves or others sometimes use the Sites folder as a place to store offline copies of those sites. One can download a copy of the CIA World Factbook, for example, and store it locally, or use a “page sucker” program such as Web Devil to download offline copies of entire web sites. It can also be used to host a web site on your local network or intranet.
Another option within the system preference pane for “Sharing” is personal web sharing, which turns on Apache, an industrial-strength Unix program for publishing web sites. If you enable this, the contens of your Sites folder will be available on your local network, making this another way for folks in workgroups to share information on the local intranet. By default there is a sample page preloaded in this folder, and sophisticated users may wish to use services such as dynamic DNS to serve web pages to the world from their personal laptops. OS X gives ordinary people the power of Unix and Apache, which is a very cool and powerful thing.
Going with the Flow and Steering Your Own Course
Once you understand the basic ways that Mac OS X thinks and the purpose of your home folder, you can choose to work with it and ways that help you or modify it to match your own preferences. For personal consultation on your work flow and how to increase your pleasure and productivity on the Mac, please consider phoning Mac Rory for an appointment: (360) 695-6929.