What Might Work Elsewhere
I tried a few things that almost worked ....
Dewey decimal system
I ran into something called CyberDewey, written by David Mundie. This sounded like the neatest thing since sliced bread, especially because he seemed to have the same problems I did when trying to organize files.
I went so far as to buy a copy of the Abridged Dewey Decimal Catalog, which is actually pretty nifty; if you're looking to organize your paper files, you could do a lot worse than use an existing classification scheme like this.
For example, suppose that I want to know where to file an article on hurricane relief. I flip to the Relative Index portion of the catalog (about 200 pages out of 1,000 total), look for "Hurricanes," and see something like this:
Hurricanes: 551.55 Weather forecasting: 551.64 See also: Disasters
"Disasters" sounds promising, so I try that:
Disasters: 904 ... Social services: 363.34 Public administration: 353.9
This gives me some category numbers to check in the front portion of the catalog:
363.34 Disasters, including floods and war 353.9 Safety administration ... Disaster and emergency planning 904 Collected accounts of events 551.55 Atmospheric disturbances, including cyclones, hurricanes, ...
At this point, I have some choices about how to file my article: make a folder called 904 if it's an interview with a Katrina survivor, or 353.9 if it's about FEMA or government response, and so forth. It's nice because someone else has already done the hard stuff (figuring out the categories and where they go).
Unfortunately, the stuff available in the Abridged version is a little too general for my job. I also didn't feel like typing in the categories by hand or forking over $275 for a copy of WebDewey. You can get some of the DDC headings in digital form, but not enough to solve my problem.
See also Three and Four Digit Headings from the Abridged Dewey Decimal Classification (about 2,000 entries).
The Open Directory Project wants to be the largest, most comprehensive human-edited directory of the Web. Among other things, it provides a nice set of categories that are well-organized, free, and already in digital form. It's not hard to take its category list and turn it into a directory tree suitable for a web page. Figure 1 shows a section of my home page based on that list.
Figure 1. DMOZ categories on my home page
The 00hierarchy link holds the computer-related topics from the DMOZ category list that I thought would be most useful. This is OK for a setup with a small number of files and reasonably clean delineation between topics, but it didn't quite do the trick for my daily work.
Canadian government setup
"But Minister, it isn't like this film is the first troublesome thing to come out of Canada. Let us not forget Bryan Adams."
"No, no. The Canadian government has apologized for Bryan Adams on several occasions."
--South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut
Canada took a stab at making a set of consistent categories for government records management called ARCS. It's a block numeric records classification system based on function and subject. Each functional or subject grouping of records is assigned a unique three- or four-digit number; this is a primary number, and it's the main building block for the system. The system uses these numbers to classify all information related to a subject or function, regardless of physical format.
Most government offices deal with a similar set of administrative requirements, and the ARCS setup is a pretty nice representation. The documentation comes in PDF form and is very thorough. I made a directory tree suitable for web access based on this setup:
The plain-text categories file I used to generate the directory tree and indexes is here. The University of Calgary has a similar system more suitable for colleges and universities.
This works better for administrative work than for something like my job.