Understand Windows 8 Libraries To Master Storage Space

Managing a computer’s storage has always been a challenge. Microsoft’s addition of libraries to Windows has in some ways made organization easier, but this important feature isn’t self-explanatory, and using it to overcome some of Windows 8’s shortcomings requires specific knowledge. Here’s everything you must know to get the most out of libraries.

What Are Libraries?

Libraries, which were introduced in Windows 7, are virtual folders. They look like folders and act like folders, but the files in them don’t actually reside within the library itself. In a sense, then, a library is really just a collection of shortcuts to folders, all held in a single, easily accessed area.

The benefit of a library is the ability to organize files in a way that makes sense to you, rather than a way that makes sense to a computer. Let’s say you have some photos and movies from a recent vacation. By default, the programs you use to save or edit them would prefer to stock them in certain Photos and Videos folders. With a library you can save the files to these locations, but then also organize them into a My Vacation library, without going to the trouble of actually moving files.

Finding Libraries

Libraries were easily found in the left hand pane of Windows Explorer in Windows 7 and Windows 8. For some reason, however, Microsoft removed them from that pane in Windows 8.1. They still exist and can be found by opening File Explorer and then viewing the Desktop directory, though bizarrely they don’t actually appear on the desktop.

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You can add the libraries back to File Explorer, if desired, by hitting the View tab and then clicking Navigation pane.  In the drop-down box that opens hit “Show libraries” and you’re back in business. Alternatively, you can make only certain libraries visible by right-clicking on the library and opening Properties. Then check the “Shown in navigation pane” box near the bottom of the resulting window.

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Another way to make them more visible is by adding them to the taskbar or desktop. To add them to the taskbar simply right-click the library and then hit “Pin to start.” To instead create a desktop icon, right-click and then “Create shortcut.” Place the resulting shortcut on your desktop.

Managing Libraries

Every library consists of various locations, which are the folder or folders that the library groups together by default. Windows comes with four basic libraries; Documents, Music, Pictures and Video. As you might expect, the locations of each corresponds to the same folders under your user account. These libraries also connect to the corresponding folders in OneDrive, provided you log into Windows with your Microsoft account.

You can manage the folders automatically bundled into the library using the Add and Remove buttons, and they work as expected. Clicking Add opens a File Explorer pane so you can find the folder you want, while Remove immediately takes a folder out of the library.

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Less obvious are the “Set save location” and “Set public save location” buttons. These buttons dictate where files are saved when a user saves a file to a library. Remember, libraries are virtual folders – they don’t actually correspond to a single hard drive path. So “set save location” decides where on your hard drive a file saved to a library ends up. The public save location, meanwhile, decides where the file ends up if another user on your PC or home group saves a file to the library. You can assign different folders for the save location and public save location, but you can only assign one folder to each.

You also can pick the type of file a library is optimized for. This only impacts the options that appear when you sort files. If you pick videos, for example, you will be able to arrange by length, and if you pick documents you can arrange by author. There’s also a “general files” option for libraries that won’t target any specific file type.

Adding Files To A Library

You can add select folders to a library simply by right-clicking, hitting “Include in library” and then selecting whichever library you prefer. Adding a folder to a library adds all the files within. You cannot, unfortunately, add individual files to a library.

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Files can also be added with the Easy Access button in the Home tab of the File Explorer ribbon when viewing a folder. This will provide a context menu that includes the “Include in library option.” Hitting it will add the folder to the library of your choice.

Adding A Library

There’s not much to adding a new library, either. Just go to the Libraries, right-click and empty space, and hit New ->Library.  You can edit the library as you would any of the defaults, and you’ll have to, because no default folder is selected.

Alternatively, you can create a library directly from the “Include in library” context menu mentioned above.

Permanently Adding External Drives

Libraries are very flexible. They can be used to add not just folders on your hard drive, but also folders on connected external drives. This is arguably their most useful feature, as it means you can easily sort through files on an external drive along side other files on your internal hard drive, rather than visiting each individually.

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You can add a library from an external source using the methods above. Once complete, the external folders will automatically appear or disappear from the library as the drive is connected or reconnected. And because the library is associated with the drive itself (or folders on it) rather than individual files, any new files added to the library folder will automatically appear the next time you reconnect the drive.

For example, let’s say you add a thumb drive with some Word files to your documents library. You take the drive with you to work, add some more Word files, then plug the drive back in at home. All of the new documents automatically appear in your library without any additional action.

Using Libraries To Get Around Metro

Removing Libraries from the default File Explorer pane is far from the only weird decision Microsoft has made with Windows 8 and 8.1. Another oddity is the fact that certain Metro apps (like the bundled Photos app, for example) can only access files in libraries. Yes – by default Windows 8.1 makes libraries less visible, but they’re also the only way to organize photos with Microsoft’s own Photos app!

This is annoying because it means any camera, thumb drive or SD card you plug in will not have its contents available by default in many Metro apps. Fortunately, as mentioned in the previous section, you can add an external drive to a library. This is a great way to get around the library-only limitation.

Conclusion

Now you know everything you need to become a file management wizard with Windows libraries. Do you use libraries, and if so, do you think they’re the best file management solution? Let us know in the comments!

Image Credit: Andreas Praefcake

9 Comments - Write a Comment

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Jorge B

Seems odd that MS decided to hide his own star feature. I don’t use libraries vey much, but they’re always helpful

Tim T

Never understood the advantage… just another confusing choice to make each time you want to access your files. Multiple locations for accessing the same files confuses me. Just like I wonder why I have to choose Pictures Folder, then My Pictures Folder… why the duplication?

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Tiesenhausen

Like Tim T, I don’t see the point. I have a normal folder called “Library,” going back to Windows ME I guess. When I bought my my Windows 7 computer and found the “libraries” feature, my first experiment was to put my “Library” folder, now with over 1200 subfolders for the authors, in the Documents Library.

So there it is. When I open the Documents Library, there are all the 1,231 subfolders of my own “Library” folder. How does that help me?

When I want a folder that brings together materials from various folders and the web, I just make shortcuts (links) into that folder. How is Windows Libraries better than that?

Question: does Libraries create any overhead in memory use even though I don’t use it (them)? If so, can I uninstall Libraries?

likefunbutnot

@Tiesenhausen,

There are a couple magical powers that come in to play along with Libraries. One is the ability to select an arbitrary folder for saving well-known special content (Pictures/Music/Video). If you’d rather not have 600GB of MP3s sitting in your c:userstiesenhausenmusic folder, you can pretty easily tell Windows not to put things there by default, while at the same time maintaining a single view that encompasses all of that content.

The second special power that comes from Libraries is being able to prevent most things that write to the parts of your user profile folder from writing them on your OS drive; most Windows apps these days will write to the default Library location now, rather than a hard-coded path. This is critically important if you’re space-constrained on your C: drive (i.e. You’re someone who has an SSD), since moving the whole C:Users folder structure is a huge undertaking on a Windows computer.

The third special power is being able to self-define folder structures that don’t seem to naturally fit the Documents/Pictures/Music/Video structure and tend to result in the creation of lots of separate folders; anyone who does Web Development or programming works probably knows something about this.

It’s sometimes also useful to define arbitrary groupings for content that nominally resides in multiple “normal” content folders. For example, you might create a new Library for Projects or Classes so that you can maintain the traditional grouping (Pictures in the Pictures folder) while also getting a view that mixes the associated content.

Shortcuts fall down in two basic ways: Windows tracks an absolute path, not a unique ID to the data the shortcut points to. It’s very easy to break shortcuts; second, shortcuts to Folders are just shortcuts. You can’t view the contents of many folders together all at once using them.

*nix people can accomplish the same thing with Symbolic links (which Windows now has as well, though very few people know how to use them), and OSX has the “Folder Colors” option in Finder for grouping things. It’s all the same basic idea.

As far as I can tell, there’s no overhead associated with Libraries, though it’s relatively easy to hide them in Windows/File Explorer.

Matt K.

I’m not sure how that ends up happening. Libraries are there basically as a shortcut directly to a folder. You have to add folders to be libraries.

As for their usefulness I have my digital comic folder, cryptocurrency folder, and a few other folders that are burried in my filesystem set as their own libraries to access them quickly the way I would my music or video folders. They’re neat and tidy on the left of my file explorer where I can access them without cluttering my desktop with shortcut icons.

likefunbutnot

A further suggestion for making use of folders is to make a few non-standard ones of your own.

In particular, I like to create one for Downloads that I re-locate outside my user profile. I leave the normal one as part of the Library grouping, but I change the shortcut under Favorites to point to my self-defined one. I also change the default download location in Firefox, Chrome, IE, my torrent client and anything else that typically puts things in the Downloads folder, on the off chance that I didn’t manually choose “Save As” when I downloaded something. I do this in part because I don’t like to bury gigabytes or terabytes of data in five layers of subfolders, but also because all my computers have SSDs and that’s not really where .ISOs and .MKVs need to live.

I like to add all my Cloud Storage folders locations to appropriate libraries. I have 1TB of Google Drive, 265GB of OneDrive and ~70somethingGB on Dropbox. Each of those has its own Documents and Pictures folders at the very least, so they can be added to the default Libraries for those things.

I like to make a new Library for each Class or Major Project I work on (Classroom instruction is part of my job). These Libraries are meant to be temporary, but let me easily collect appropriate content together for fast access while maintaining normal data organization during the time that I’m most actively working on them.

I also maintain Separate Libraries for different sorts of Pictures, both to distinguish the content and to prevent Windows 8’s Pictures Live Tile feature (which I’ll carefully note that I do like) from using certain images. In my case, I use the default “Pictures” library for personal photos, “Internet” for wallpapers and funny pictures and another for the sorts of photos that a single gentleman might collect from lady friends.

I also keep a Library called bin for installer-less or command line applications, scripts, code snippets and shortcuts (in my case the main folder for this one lives in OneDrive, so it passively follows me from Windows machine to Windows machine) because I do IT work and want something like that. A more widely usable version could very well provide a home to Application installers or Device Drivers.

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likefunbutnot

WinLibraryTool is utterly essential to make full use of Libraries on Windows, since it addresses several of the biggest problems with the basic implementation:
* Libraries cannot include network locations unless the destination is another computer running a relatively new version of Windows. Most people don’t have NAS devices or Servers that run Windows in their house, so this is a serious drawback. The article above already discusses a fix for dealing with Removable drives. WinLibraryTool offers another fix for those as well.
* Lots of things Windows Libraries to their defaults (both the Windows 8.1 and 8.1 Update 1 upgrades, for example) , removing any customizations such as non-default directories or even non-default Libraries. WinLibraryTool can back up and restore Library Configurations.
* The UI for adding and controlling Libraries that exists in Windows 7 and 8 kinda sucks. WinLibraryTool’s won’t win any awards, but at least it clearly shows all the folder groupings for all your Libraries on one screen.

Put together, these things thing make Libraries much more powerful and useful, and I’m surprised the author did not mention them.

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Damon Osborne

Libraries seem to create themselves. I have never created a library or wanted to. In explorer if I type a ‘r’ it takes to folders beginning ‘r’ but in the wrong library. What would be helpfull is if you could tell me how to get rid of libraries and also the whole feature. I have tried and failed.
Libraries are not a usefull feature, they are the key reason I hate W7.

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Douglas McClure

Libraries are great! At first, I thought they were something I didn’t want to know about — a “for dummies” feature that would have no real value for someone like me who already understood the file system.
But one day I got curious and spent an hour investigating them, and once I had figured out how they worked, I fell in love with them. I created about a dozen libraries and use them all the time. They are a really powerful tool.

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