Media Management w iPhoto and iTunes

Most people have more things than they use each day, and many more than they use each year. For whatever reason we want to save things such as a high-school jacket or a book read long ago, but not necessarily carry them with us. Computer files are similar, especially in the age of podcasts, digital photos and portable computers. Fortunately, both iTunes and iPhoto have solutions to this problem already built in.

Where Did All My Storage Go?

If you read the the earlier piece on home folders you know that most programs store your files in particular places unless told otherwise. A long-term task that most people have, though, is deciding how to organize and store more files than they have an immediate need for. This is where a better understanding of programs and file management comes in.

If one travels a lot, takes photos, enjoys podcasts or is into music, it is relatively easy to accumulate several gigabytes worth of pictures and music. Depending on what one’s long-term goals are, it may be simplest to just upgrade the internal hard drive in your Mac to accommodate them, but it might also make more sense to move them to external hard drives for backup or archival purposes. The simplest way to do this, if everything one cares about is on a single machine, is simply to copy the entire home directory, “Music” or “Picture” folders to the other drive. It is also possible to copy them onto optical media such as DVD’s for backup. A third option is to adjust programs so that they store key folders on another drive, depending on one’s budget and preferences.

Distinguishing Backups from Archives

Programs such as Time Machine (which is part of OS 10.5) are designed for disaster-recovery backup, and should be distinguished from long-term storage in archives. Most businesses and serious data collectors should have both a backup and one or more archives, including at least one archive off-site. While a back-up may restore work from a week or two ago, archives are used to organize data from years ago, and preserve it indefinitely.

My general recommendation and rule of thumb for backups is to have a backup drive twice as large as the main drive it backs up. If your MacBook has a 250GB drive, for example, back it up to a 500GB external drive or Time Capsule, using Time Machine. If one can afford it, it is also a good idea to switch backup drives weekly or monthly, so that one is “off site” in another building or at a friend’s house (to protect against theft or fire).

For archives, I am a huge fan of purchasing external hard drives and clearly labeling them, with files immediately accessible from the Finder, not compressed or formatted with proprietary backup software. Archived files should be in common interchange formats or file formats that current machines can read, and if discontinued programs or hardware were used, these must also be kept. For most businesses I suggest making a full copy of cumulative archives (for the present year and all previous) at least annually. Physically label these drives and store them someplace that is recorded in an operations manual. So that there is less risk of obsolescence or media failure, I suggest that all data be completely recopied to new media every two years. It is a bad feeling to realize that the only copy one has of a key document is on a Syquest cartridge in MacWrite Pro format. For music and pictures, the interchange formats I prefer are MP3, AIFF, JPG or TIFF, for a variety of reasons.

Exporting Raw Files from iTunes or iPhoto

The simplest way to backup media files from iTunes is to select them from the iTunes library and then “Show in Finder” from the iTunes File menu. By default, iTunes puts all of its files into the OS X home folder “Music” folder, with one folder for each artist, then subfolders for each album and a file for each track. These can simply be copied to a CD, DVD or external drive. Another option is to select files and then create a “playlist” in iTunes which is then burned to CD. Other options such as the “Library > Back up to Disc” are okay for the short-term, but I avoid them for a variety of reasons. To get as many tracks as possible onto a given disc, use the “data disc” format. In older versions of iTunes this was a preference setting, but is made at the time of burning in iTunes 8 or later. Audio discs will play in most CD players, and MP3 discs will play in some newer portable or car stereos. Data discs will only work on a computer, but if burned from iTunes will show all iTunes information later.

iPhoto also has the option to burn a CD or DVD with photos, and will preserve iPhoto features such as picture titles, comments and ratings. For most people, burning albums to DVD’s is a good way to go. If one wishes to export photos so that comments can be shared with a PC user, one will probably want to use the File menu to “Export…” them as a web page, which is then burned to disc. To export only the basic photos, export them as files from the same menu. Exporting as files or as a web page loses most iPhoto information.

Storing Libraries on External Drives

Preferences within iTunes allow one to change where iTunes music is stored and whether new songs are copied into that folder. For serious music lovers or podcast addicts, it might make more sense to have a separate drive where the files themselves are kept, periodically “consolidating” the music library to that folder. The problem with this is that iTunes will default to the home “music” folder if this volume is not available, which can create problems. If this is the case, it may make sense to add them manually to that external drive and then incorporate them by reference (without copying). Preferences within iTunes allow either behavior.

Earlier versions of iPhoto were not so forgiving, however, and by default would only look for its library within the “pictures” folder of the current home directory. To designate a library other than this one, I suggest a wonderful piece of donation-ware called iPhoto Buddy. iPhoto Buddy allows one to designate a folder pretty much anywhere as the iPhoto library. iPhoto will then open using that folder the next time it launches. If you use iPhoto Buddy, please be sure to make a donation so that Rick Neil can keep it current. My general rule of thumb is to suggest that people use iPhoto Buddy to try and keep their iPhoto libraries under one thousand photos if possible. If one keeps different types of photos or photos across many years, organizing libraries by year or project with iPhoto Buddy is often the simplest strategy.

Option-Start to Choose Libraries in iLife ’09

Current versions of iPhoto and iTunes which came with iLife ’09 contain a new feature which allows one to hold down the “option” key while clicking the icon which launches then. This invokes a “library chooser” which allows one to select among multiple libraries (even libraries on remote volumes). A first for both programs, this can be quite useful and the program will “remember” its last library. When an external volume or library is not available, the program defaults to its standard within the home folder’s “pictures” or “music” folders, respectively.

For professional photographers or those who need to manage more than 10,000 photos, I suggest more robust programs such as Apple’s Aperture.

Have a Plan to Manage Your Photos and Music

The best time to begin thinking about how to logically organize and categorize media is before you start to collect it, but the second best time is now. Whether you organize it by year, work and personal files, by individual clients or projects, having some strategy is better than having none, and your strategy will improve over time. If using iPhoto and iTunes, taking the time to properly label your files and include descriptions and keywords over time is also very useful. Take some time to explore what sort of information each program keeps for your files, and make sure that basic things such as dates and musical genre are correct. The half-dozen names that you take the time to put into a file now, while the memory is fresh, may be the ones that make your life simpler years from now.

Our Mac tools are amazing, if we have the skills and foresight to use them.

Download a copy of iPhoto Buddy from

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