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  • Computer Genealogist: Power Tools — The Power is in You, Not the Tool, Organizing Your Desktop

    Patricia Law Hatcher

    Genealogists never seem to have enough time. One way to “find” a little more time is to improve efficiency. Previously we talked about the Windows Clipboard and ways to use it to be more efficient. There are several other features in Windows of which we can take advantage. Mac users may be able to apply several of the concepts in this article, although the techniques would be different.

    A basic Windows concept is drag-and-drop — if something is selected, you can point the mouse cursor at it, hold down the left mouse button, drag it somewhere else, and drop it there when you release the mouse button. A variation of this practice is that if you hold down the Ctrl (control) key at the same time, it makes a copy and moves the copy instead. What most people don’t realize is the wide variety of things that can be drag-and-dropped — or how to use those possibilities to advantage.

    Cleaning up desktop clutter

    Many genealogists suffer from desktop clutter. Our desks are piled with papers, folders, and notes to ourselves. We waste time looking for what we want and are easily distracted by other items. The same is true of our computer desktops.

    How many icons clutter your computer desktop? How often do you use them? How many are left over from programs you installed but decided you didn’t like, or from documents you’ve long since exhausted? How is your desktop organized? You may be able to find what you want much more quickly if you clean up your desktop.

    Let’s begin with the simple organization possibilities. Move the cursor over an unoccupied section of the desktop — I’m assuming the clutter isn’t so bad that you can’t find one!— and press the right mouse button. A floating menu appears. When you move the cursor to the item Arrange Icons and press the right-arrow key, a submenu appears. If Auto Arrange doesn’t have a check mark next to it, select it. All icons on the desktop will snap into neat rows and columns if they weren’t already that way. Now repeat the process and uncheck Auto Arrange so we can explore various options and do some organizing. (You’ll probably want to turn it back on when we’re done.)

    Click the right mouse button on the desktop and this time select Arrange Icons>by Type. The icons will be reordered from left to right, top to bottom, in the sequence: system stuff, folders, programs, documents, and then shortcuts to programs (icons with a curved arrow on them).

    Organizing CD-ROMs

    I have over time accumulated quite a few CD-ROMs with genealogical data. From NEHGS, for example, I have Torrey, Thwing, and the Register. From the LDS church I have the 1880 census, the index to the Pedigree Resource File, and two versions of the Family History Library Catalog (FHLC). From Search & ReSearch I have Massachusetts Vital Records. From Ancestry I have several versions of PERSI, census indexes, the reference library, and so on. I have a large collection of Brøderbund/Family Tree Maker CDs. Each one of these dropped an icon on my desktop when I installed it, as did the road atlas and other nongenealogical CDs. I counted seventeen in all — major clutter.

    My computer only has one CD drive, so I can’t possibly use more than one CD at a time. CD icons were thus a good place for me to begin my own desktop clean-up; the same may be true for you. The idea is to keep the ease of launching the program by double-clicking on the icon, while reducing clutter.

    Right-click on the desktop again and select New>Folder. A manila file-folder icon appears on the desktop with the label highlighted. Type “CDs.”

    Double-click on the folder to open it as a window. Now start dragging and dropping all of the CD-related icons into the window. You’ll want to drag on the lower right-hand corner of the window to make it bigger and drag the whole window by the title bar at the top to reach icons hiding underneath the window. Don’t worry about neatness, but do be careful to drop in a clear space, because if you drop an icon on top of another icon, the computer will attempt to launch that program. If you use the music CD-player — or, in my case, the FHLC — daily, you might want to leave that icon on the desktop or copy-and-drop the icon into the folder. It’s okay to have copies of an icon in different places.

    When you finish moving the icons into the file, you can organize them. Personally, I find it easiest to locate things alphabetically. Right-click on a blank space inside the window and select Arrange Icons>by Name. Also select Arrange Icons>Auto Arrange. Drag the lower right-hand corner to make the window the size and shape you want, and position the window where you would like it to appear the next time you open it. Click the X in the upper right-hand corner to close the window.

    From now on, when you need to switch CD programs, just double-click on the CDs folder and then double-click on the correct icon.

    More desktop folders

    The easiest way to get started cleaning up the remaining clutter is to ask yourself “Which of these icons do I use regularly or currently?” For each of those, drag it to the right side of the desktop (I’m assuming, again, that there is space on the right side of your desktop). Again, don’t worry about being neat.

    This step probably leaves a combination of never-used icons, rarely-used icons, old documents, new documents, and I-don’t-have-a-clue-what-this-is icons. You may have had Windows pop up a message informing you that you have unused icons on the desktop and asking if you want them cleaned up. I don’t know about you, but I figure Windows doesn’t have a clue whether or not I might want to use something in the future, so I always say “no,” even though there are some things I don’t want.

    You can delete anything you want from the desktop by clicking on it and pressing the delete key. I’m usually a coward, though. For peace of mind, I can create new folders like I did for the CDs to organize those icons out of sight. Be aware that you cannot move those icons for system stuff (the ones at the left side of the desktop) into folders.

    Neatness helps

    As the final step, arrange the remaining desktop icons in the sequence that seems most natural to you. It may be by type; it may be alphabetically. I place my most-frequently used icons on the right, arranged alphabetically.

    I have never liked those long names that appear under software icons with the company name, program name, and software version (and they lead to illogical alphabetical arrangements). You can click once on a shortcut icon and edit the name if you want.

    Desktop keyboard shortcut

    How did you go to your Windows desktop to see if it needed reorganizing? One way is to find the little icon on the desktop toolbar (I think it’s supposed to be a pencil writing on a pad of paper, but for several years I thought it was a flashlight). Or, from the keyboard, you can press Alt-spacebar, then N to minimize each open program in turn. There’s a simpler way. Press the key with the Windows symbol (the thing that looks like a flying flag) and then quickly press D. Voila! You’re at the desktop.

    Toolbars, etc.

    Where is the Windows toolbar on your desktop? Usually it is at the bottom of the screen. Did you know it could go anywhere — top, bottom, left, or right? Just drag and drop it where you want it. Most of us prefer it at the bottom, but did you know that toolbars can be moved around, too? Most programs allow you to position the toolbar anywhere you want (even floating as a palette).

    On the Windows toolbar, the area at the left (if the toolbar is at the bottom) has one-click icons for programs. You can customize these, too. If there are some you never use, you can either right-click on the icon and select delete or you can drag-and-drop it onto the desktop if there isn’t already an icon there for it. The reverse process works to add one-click icons to the toolbar. You can drag-and-drop or copy-and-drop from the desktop.

    You will probably need to grab and slide the vertical bar to the right of these icons to adjust the space so that all are visible.

    Creating icons

    We’ve been discussing getting rid of icons, but what if you wish you had an icon for a particular program on the desktop? Some programs created folders when you installed them, into which they put all of their icons. You can drag-and-drop or copy-and-drop the icon you want from that folder onto the desktop.

    But what if you can’t find the icon anywhere? With the desktop visible, use the Start menu to get to the program name you want, but don’t start the program. Press and hold Ctrl (for Copy, so you won’t lose it from the Start menu) and drag-and-drop it onto a vacant space on the desktop.

    Make it work for you

    Personalizing your desktop may help decrease your frustration in finding things while increasing your efficiency, but each person must find arrangements that are comfortable for him or her.

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