How to Locate & Manage Your "Stuff" in OS X

Over the years, I've taught the wonders of Mac computing to many new as well as to more 'seasoned' Mac users. One subject that came up regularly – and still does – was how to manage files. Near the top of Apple's list of goals is that of  providing the best in personal computer user experience. Part of that is to make the 'behind the scenes' details of file management as transparent as possible.

With iCloud and the Documents in the Cloud model, this becomes even more apparent. However, we haven't yet reached that utopia where we no longer need to be concerned about the nitty-gritty details of our data, where it's located and how to retrieve it. We are now at a crossroads where local file management meets document-based file storage on iCloud. Nevertheless, I don't think it's a stretch to say that most Mac users today still need to manage files stored locally on a Mac system drive.

Let’s take a look at where we are today with respect to managing local files in Mac OS X – specifically, where your personal data – your “stuff” – resides.

While a good number of our readers will certainly understand the concepts presented in this article, I find it interesting that so many Mac users – new and veterans alike – don’t have a good grasp of them. Of course, this isn’t surprising because of Apple’s “it just works” model that we all enjoy… the one where you just jump in and get your work done. Hassle-free. Nevertheless, knowing where your local files are actually located on your system drive can go a long way towards avoiding data loss some day.


The Home Directory icon.

This is the icon used by the OS X Finder to depict a Home Directory as seen by its owner.

Under OS X, all user accounts contain a special, personal folder called the Home Directory. The Home Directory is not actually named “Home,” but takes on the the user’s official Account Name established in OS X. I am not talking about logging into email or other online services. This is about which user you are logged in as when you start up your Mac. Most likely, it’s the original account name you established when you first set up your new Mac. Keep in mind that, depending on how things are configured on your system, you may or may not be prompted for logon information.

The point is, what you are looking at on-screen at any given moment is associated with a particular account name. All the files you can access in Finder, the desktop itself in fact, are associated with what’s known as the account’s Home Directory. If there are any other user accounts on your Mac – perhaps for others in your household – each account has its own private Home Directory. By default, each account cannot access the others’ Home Directories.

The Go menu in Finder with Home highlighted.

The Finder’s GO menu leads you quickly to popular destinations on your Mac and network.

The easiest way to access your Home Directory is via Go > Home in Finder. This is obvious since it’s called “Home” accompanied by a little icon depicting a house.

As with many Mac operations, there are various ways to accomplish the same thing, and how to get to your Home Directory is no exception. This can lead to some confusion because of your Home’s naming. As I mentioned, the actual name of the Home Directory is the same as what is known as your Account Name when you first set things up. That Account Name becomes the name of your Home directory. “Home” is simply a generic moniker to keep things simple.

At this point, you may be wondering how your Home Directory is set up. Fortunately, OS X does all the Home Directory configuration behind the scenes when new accounts are set up. Let’s look at this by way of an example where my buddy, Sal, is poised to set up his shiny new Mac.

The New Account pane in User & Groups Settings.

The New Account pane in User & Groups Settings

During the initial setup, Sal is prompted to create an account. He enters his full name, Sal Monella. Based on Sal's input, OS X then creates an Account Name of salmonella (all lower case, no spaces). During the process, OS X also creates a folder called  "salmonella," slaps the house icon to it, and places it inside the Users Folder located in the root directory of the system drive.

Opening the Users Folder at the system drive's root directory reveals the various home directories belonging to logon user accounts on the Mac.

The Users Folder contains all user Home Directories as well as the Shared Folder.

This folder called "salmonella" is officially designated Sal's Home Directory. You can see this on your own system by navigating the long way to your Home Directory, via Go > Computer in Finder, then double-clicking on the icon representing your system drive (typically named "Macintosh HD") and finally drilling down into the Users Folder.

Let's take a closer look at the Home Directory's structure by peeking inside.

Looking inside Sal's Home Directory.

Sal's Home Directory contains pre-configured folders for file organization. Additional folders can be created here.

Within each user's Home Directory, OS X creates seven default directories:

Desktop: If you, like many others, save working files, aliases and folders  directly on your desktop, know that they physically reside inside the Desktop Folder. What you see on your desktop, in fact the desktop itself, is an illusion. It's a graphical representation of the file structure underpinning as displayed to you by the Finder application. Try this: copy or move a file into the Desktop Folder found inside your Home Directory, and watch it appear on your desktop on-screen.

Documents: This folder is intended to act as a storage container for all of your, well... documents. Some of your applications may allow you to set your Documents Folder as the default save location. Organize files and folders as you wish within the Documents Folder. For local file storage, it's best to keep all your document files in Documents. In a pinch, you can make a one-click backup of your document files by copying your Documents Folder to external storage.

Downloads: This is the folder where, by default, Safari and several other applications that allow downloads, will deposit the downloaded files. By the way, you should go in here occasionally to clean out the cruft that accumulates over time. You may be surprised at how much storage you can free up on your drive.

Movies: iMovie and other movie and video creation and editing software will place their files and folders in here. Feel free to use this folder for your manual storage of movie and video files.

Music: GarageBand and iTunes store your files in the Music Folder by default. Be aware that, although this folder is called Music and because all of iTunes media files reside here, it will include iTunes movies, TV shows, Books, Apps, Podcasts, iTunes U, and Ringtones; everything handled by iTunes. Third-party sound editing apps may deposit files the inside the Music Folder as well. Examples include Audio Hijack and Piezo.

Pictures: By default, Aperture, iPhoto and Photo Booth create your photo Libraries within the Pictures Folder. Third-party apps, like Adobe Lightroom, will also place your image files in here. You may choose to manually place image files, and organize them at will, inside the Pictures Folder.

Public: This is a special folder that is used for file sharing and collaboration with others on your local network. The Public Folder should not be confused with the Shared Folder (located alongside your Home Directory inside the Users Folder). The Shared Folder is used for sharing files among other users accounts on the same Mac, and is quite useful in a multi-user/multi-account environment.

As time marches on, you may find that other folders are created within your Home Folder. For example, Dropbox will create it's main directory here, though you can choose another location. Additionally, in special cases to preserve copyrights, an Applications Folder may be created within your Home Folder. This happens when applications are installed only for use within your logon account. This is particularly useful if you have your own account on an office Mac that is shared with other users. Actually, I don't think this mechanism is used much, if at all.

Normally, Apple's default apps, as well as any purchased apps, are stored inside the Applications Folder located at the root level of your system drive. This makes the apps available to all user accounts.

You can quickly get to your Application Folder via Go > Applications in Finder. Additionally, there is an embedded folder called Utilities located within Applications which contains a number of useful apps provided by Apple. The shortcut to this folder is Go > Utilities.

Keep in mind that many apps allow you to define where you want to store files created with that app. Check your apps' preferences to see if this feature is offered.

OK, some of you are chomping at the bit to tell me that I forgot about the Library Folder. Yes, there is an eighth folder created within the Home Folder. Starting with OS X Lion the Library folder is rendered invisible.

The Library Folder icon.

If it were visible, the Library Folder would look like this.

Why is this?

Simple. Apple wants the typical Mac user to keep their grubby cotton-pickin'-mouse-clickin' fingers out of there! Your iCloud storage, your iOS device backups, your email, contacts and calendar data, as well as many other resources vital to your digital life can break very easily if you go about moving, renaming, deleting or editing files within your Library Folder.

Having said all that, there are ways to get into your Library Folder for support and troubleshooting. You will find many articles that tell you how, so get searching if you must know more about this.

To help preserve your sanity, I suggest that you keep your personal files and folders intact where they are saved for you by your apps. They will never attempt to store them outside of your Home Directory. However, for your own manual local file storage needs, you can create as many folders as you want anywhere within the Home Directory itself or any of the default folders  – as long as they are saved somewhere inside your Home Directory. Remember that, by default, your Home Directory is not accessible to others as long as you have a secure logon configured for your account.

To finish up, I offer you... Three quick Home Directory tips:

First, because your Home Directory is so important, I suggest you have it always available to you in all your Finder windows – right in the sidebar. You can activate this feature by going to Finder > Preferences > Sidebar where you will see a number of checkboxes representing items that may be listed in a Finder Window's sidebar. Look in the Favorites section for your Home Directory. It will have a little house icon and your Account Name.

The Finder Preferences Pane.

In Finder Preferences, you can enable having your Home Directory listed under Favorites in the Finder window sidebar.

In the illustration, you see that Sal's Home Directory is named as his Account Name: salmonella. On your system, make sure you tick that check box to have your Home Directory show in the sidebar's Favorites section.

Second, if you want every new Finder window you open to take you directly to your Home Directory, activate this feature via a pop-up menu you'll find in the General pane of Finder Preferences.

Finally, you can always drag your Home Directory onto your dock in the section set aside for files and folders just to the left of the trash can. An alias of the Home Directory will be created there. Alternatively, you can place an alias directly onto your desktop.

In conclusion: strictly speaking, you don't really need to know where your files are physically stored – as long as your backup software does. For this, you can thank the combination of Spotlight, Auto-Save, and other aspects of Apple's new Modern Document Model found in Mountain Lion,  Even so, being aware of your Home Directory – where it is and how it works – goes a long way towards good stewardship of your local data files.