Step 1: Create your Working Library drive with a file system organization that’s based on objective metadata about each shoot. For your basic organizational structure, create folder names with key descriptors that are as objective as possible. For me, the important descriptors are when, who (and/or what), and where. Starting with when, the date is more or less completely objective. It’s a descriptor on which everyone can agree (spurious arguments over travel and international dateline issues aside), and it will never change, or it will be close enough a week or two from now. (If needed, the definitive date a photo was shot should be recorded by the camera and can be found in a photo’s IPTC metadata. It’s up to you to make sure the camera is recording the correct date, taking into account your location, each time you shoot.)
The remaining descriptors, “who,” “what” and “where,” can be thought of as subjective. But the more you can keep them definitive, the better. I’ve found that basic use of single names (either first or last for the primary subject, whichever is appropriate) for “who” and city names like Mendocino, San Francisco or New York for “place” work fine. And if I’m shooting a job, I’ll frequently fill in the “what” descriptor with a job or client name.
This simple convention gives me folder names that sort chronologically in the file system that contain two or three other pieces of information, allowing me to very quickly locate a specific shoot that I’m looking for years later. It’s true that I almost always use “who” or “where” descriptors first when searching for photos in my library, but generally, when scrolling my entire library, I want to see the shoots listed in chronological order. So I put the date first, starting with the year, then a two-digit month and a two-digit day.
Of course, I recognize that what I’m creating here are essentially keywords in my folder names to help me find my photos. The important thing is that these “keywords” are in the file system and will be (with luck) easily viewable by any person years from now who happens to plug in my hard drive to look at my photos. I do believe searchable keywords can be incredibly valuable, but I feel that keywords on any finer level of granularity (or subjectivity) probably belong in your working catalog or in XMP metadata, or both. The point is to keep my file system organization as simple and uniform as possible.
It probably doesn’t matter if you build your Working Library structure on an internal or external hard drive, but I prefer an external hard drive for various reasons. If your entire digital library won’t fit on a commonly available 1 TB or 2 TB external hard drive, then your Working Library will have to span two or more mechanisms, which isn’t a problem. Label the first one appropriately, such as “Working Library 1999–2004,” and try to leave some free space on it, say 10% or so, so that you can still push new catalogs, derivative files or other changes you make to it at a later date.
Step 2: Create a backup of your Working Library drive(s) on yet another mechanism. This becomes your Archive Library drive. Label it as such. This is more or less a duplicate of your Working Library drive at this point. Ideally, your Archive Library drive will be the same size and same manufacturer as that of your Working Library drive. But the point is to have at least two copies of your entire library on separate, reliable drives at any given time. Depending upon how often you use them, how large your library is and the quality of the hard drives that you purchase, three copies might be better. Smart photographers with valuable libraries also will want to keep one set updated and stored in a completely different location to guard against theft, fire or other natural disasters.