Understanding Files and Directories in Windows

Yosef Mendelsohn


An understanding of files and directories is a necessity if you regularly use computers today.  You must become familiar with the techniques of creating, removing, and copying files and directories for your preferred operating system.  This brief tutorial will cover the Windows 95/NT family of operating systems. 


This primer is also intended for those switching to the Windows OS from another OS.  If this is the case, you can skip the first few paragraphs and jump here.



What is a File?

Every document that you have saved on your hard drive is called a file.  Whenever you write a paper in a word processor and save it, you have just created a file.  Similarly, every Excel spreadsheet is a file.  So is every Access database.  So is every JPEG or GIF image.  So is every MP3 music song.  If you create a web page and call it ‘my_resume.html’, then you have just created a new file which must be stored on your hard drive, a floppy disk, or some other storage device on your computer. 


What is a Folder?

Think of your disk drives as large filing cabinets. However, think of them as large filing cabinets that have no drawers and none of those manila folders inside.  Instead, whenever you have a paper or document you wish to file away, you just toss it directly into your large cabinet.  After a few hundred documents have been tossed haphhazardly inside the this cabinet, you would of course discover that finding any one document inside that large pile of papers is time-consuming and difficult.  Instead, what most of us do is to label a series of manila folders and then place them inside our file cabinet.  You might keep a folder dedicated to academic transcripts, another for tax papers, another for old poetry you’ve written, and another to hold the warranties that came with your new PC.


The same thing applies to your hard drive.  In Windows, a folder (also called a directory) is analogous to the yellow folders people use in filing cabinets.  You might create a folder on your drive called “school_essays”, and another called “scanned_photos”, and perhaps another called “215_homework”.   Over time you will come to accumulate a number of different folders, but you will be glad you did since finding and organizing your documents will be significantly easier. 


In fact, you will notice that there are already a large number of directories that have been created for you.  When a new program is installed on your machine, it will usually create one or more new folders in which to store the relevant files. 


Windows Explorer

So let’s begin by examining the ways in which we can directly access files and directories in Windows. The two most common way for doing so is via ‘My Computer’, represented by a or similar icon.  However, I highly recommend using Windows’ Explorer.  Explorer gives you much more efficient control over your files and directories.  In fact, I’d recommend placing a shortcut directly on your desktop.  (It is possible that one is already there). 

Create a shortcut for Explorer on the desktop

  1. Right-click on an empty part of the desktop.  (Right-click = click the right mouse button).
  2. Choose “New”, then “Shortcut”
  3. Type “explorer.exe”
  4. Windows will prompt you for a “friendly” name.  Type “Windows Explorer” or something similar. 


Now when you double-click (click twice rapidly) on the Explorer icon, you will see something similar (but not identical) to the following:




Now as if often the case, much confusion arises from the plethora of options available.  With Explorer, there are several different views you can choose.  If your Explorer looks significantly different from mine, do the following:

Change views in Explorer

  1. With Explorer open, click on “Tools”, then “Folder Options”
  2. Look for the option that says something to the effect of “Use Windows Classic Folders” and check it. 


Later on you may choose to use on of the other views, but in my opinion, the standard (“classic”) view is the most efficient one. 



What are all those + signs next to the folders?

It is common to have folders inside of folders.  By clicking on the + sign, you can see the folders contained within the current folder.  For example, you may create a folder called ‘School Papers’.  Inside that folder you may have a few other folders containing documents pertaining to each course.  (For example, ‘Chemistry’, ‘English’, ‘Biology’).  Notice the + next to the ‘English’ folder.  This tells you that that folder contains other folders. 


Clicking on the + next to the ‘English’ folder reveals the sub-folders of: ‘Essays’, ‘Poetry’, and ‘Prose’.  Notice that when you click on the +, it turns to a – sign. 


Create a folder

The terms “folder” and “directory” mean the same thing and are often interchanged.


As discussed earlier, creating folders for yourself is extremely helpful for organizing all of your files.  Let’s create a directory (“directory” is another word for “folder”) on our hard drive (C:\) that we will call “temp”.  Whenever I am working with a computer, I always create a “temp” directory for myself where I store files for the short term.  (I.e. Files that I don’t want to keep for any length of time).  Periodically, I go through and just delete all of those junk files out of my ‘temp’ folder.  If you don’t want to have a temp folder, that’s fine, you can just delete it afterwards.  (See the procedure following this one). 

  1. On the left side of Explorer, select the C:\ drive by clicking on it. (It may already be selected).  You will then notice that the right side of Explorer reflects all of the files and folders stored within the C:\ directory.
  2. Click on File, New, and choose “Folder”.  Windows will then prompt you for a name for your folder.  Type “temp” and press return.  (If a folder with that name already exists, Windows will require you to choose a different name).


Notice that on the right-side, a new folder has been created with the name “temp”.  Also notice that the folder appears on the left side as well.  If you click on the left-side folder, you will notice that the right screen comes up empty.  This is because you have not yet put any folders or directories inside that “temp” folder. 


Deleting a folder

To delete a folder, simply right-click it and then choose ‘Delete’. 


If there are files currently inside that folder, Windows will warn you before allowing you to delete the folder.  (Sometimes, Windows will first force you to delete all of the files inside before deleting the folder itself. 


Renaming a folder

Right-click the folder and choose ‘Rename’.



Disk Drive

A disk drive can be the hard drive on your computer (usually notated as “C:\”), your floppy disk drive (“A:\”), a Zip drive, CD-Rom, or Tape drive.  There are several other kinds of storage media as well. 



What you see when there are no programs (windows) currently open on your screen.  Here is a partial view of my desktop: