What are Libraries in Windows 7 and 8?

You cannot ignore Windows Libraries if you wish to use File History

“File Explorer” is the file manager application in Windows that lets you see what files and folders you have on your computer and where they are. You can then move, copy, delete, open programs, open data files, and so on from within a File Explorer window. Note that this is the same function that was previously called “Windows Explorer”.

With the advent of Windows 7 a new concept was introduced into File Explorer. This was the concept of “Libraries”. They appear in the navigation pane at the lefthand side of a File Explorer window. I confess that I’ve often avoided defining “libraries” when introducing my computer support clients to File Explorer as they can be very confusing until you realise what they are. I would probably still be avoiding the issue except that the concept of Libraries is central to how Windows 8’s backup feature works (as mentioned in my blog on Windows 8 File History).

So, what are Microsoft’s Libraries?
Maybe my mind is a bit too literal (pedantic even?), but when I think of a “library” I think of a physical collection of “things” such as books, magazines, CDs etc. The main point about a library (to this pedant, anyway) is that all of these things comprising the library are all to be found in one place. A library is a physical thing that actually includes its contents!

Windows Libraries
These are the default libraries in Windows 7 and 8
Not so with Microsoft’s Libraries. In fact, it’s just the very opposite. A library in Windows 8 is not a “place” or a “thing” at all. It would be more accurately described as a “list” containing items that probably have something in common (eg all of a family’s photos, all documents relating to clients, all items to be backed up). The whole point of the Microsoft Library concept is that the constituent parts are NOT in the same place. They could be scattered all around the computer or, indeed, all around the local network, and a library can even include items that are in The Cloud.

So, for instance, you could have a library that contains all of your folders that relate to your clients. You might have spreadsheets relating to clients and word processing documents relating to clients but these could easily be in different parts of your drive (if you tend to keep all your spreadsheets together and all your word processing documents together). It would be quite simple and sensible to create a “Clients” library and to include client spreadsheets and client word processing documents in that library.

A proper library - this is the new one in Clapham
A proper library – this is the new one in Clapham
The whole point of Microsoft libraries is that they do NOT involve moving the files themselves into the library. You can see (and access) all the files that are in a library by opening up that library, but the files themselves are still actually stored in the same folders as they were and are still accessible via those folders as well as via the library.

Now, you might think I’m making a bit of a meal of explaining a very simple concept. If so, I apologise, but my experience is that for every person that grasps the concept easily, there are many more that can’t get their heads around it.

To my mind, the whole thing would have been a lot simpler to understand if Microsoft had just been a little bit more prosaic and literal in their nomenclature. Why didn’t they just call them “lists” instead of “libraries”? Everyone knows what a list is.

Windows Libraries - one is user-defined
A user-defined library (“Items Backed Up”) has been added here. Note that folders can be included in more than one library (the folder “Documents” appears in two libraries here)
Perhaps a better analogy is offered by iTunes and iPhoto. In these programs you can create “playlists” and “albums” (respectively) that just consist of the tracks and images that you place in them. Putting an item into a playlist or album does not move it physically around the hard drive. It just adds it to a list. And that’s all a Microsoft Library does.

As I’ve already said, I’ve tended to avoid trying to get that across to people just learning about files and folders and so on, but you will find Windows 8 File History very limiting if you don’t get to grips with it as it deals in libraries as its “unit” of stuff to back up. It is libraries that it backs up, and any files and folders that have not been added to a library will not be backed up. Also, any libraries that you have created (over and above the pre-existing default libraries) will not be backed up unless you add them to File History’s schedule.