What are the pros and cons of using tags instead of folders for the purpose of categorizing types of notes?

Things I have tried

On one hand, I think tags have these advantages over folders:

  • we can mark a note as part of two or more types of notes whereas a note just can be in one single folder.
  • they might make us more productive because marking a note with a tag is quicker than moving a file to a folder. We do not have to search in Obsidian file explorer the particular folder where we want to place the note. I think typing a tag is much quicker than searching not only the file location but also the target folder location and then doing dragging the file towards the folder to move it there.

On the other hand, tags are not viewable by means of taking a quick look at a file explorer. We would have to open each note to get to know the type/types I marked it with.

What I’m trying to do

As far as I read so far, it seems tagging can be used for two purposes, to tell either

  • the status of note or
  • the type of note

Using tags for the status of a note makes sense to me. But with reference to the type of note, I had created a one single level of folders, in which each folder includes the notes of a particular type. But now I realized there is another option instead of using folders: to include one tag as hidden Yaml front matter in each note to tell the type of note.

Before replacing the one level-folders structure and rely just on tags to categorize the type of note, I would like to hear your opinions because now I wonder:

  1. Is there a common agreement about what the best option is out of the two I described to mark the type of note, that means folders or tags?

  2. What are the pros and cons of using folders vs tags to make clear the type of a note?

Thanks

Actually, by tagging you associate your note with one or more predefined values. Folders, OTOH, are used to denote a hierarchical associations between terms, usually something like ‘contains’/‘is part of’ (or ‘owns’/‘is property of’ or even ‘category’/‘is a’)

I use folders when

  • there are many terms (notes)
  • the name of the folder makes it immediately obvious where to search for a particular item and where not
  • there is one and only one obvious hierarchy of terms that applies to a set of notes (or things, or terms)

I use tags to assign a set of values to notes that may reside in far distant folders. Some examples are:

  • use composite tags (person/myFather, places/USA/NewYork) for photographs, documents, newspaper clippings and so on
  • use single or composite tags to denote notes that contain a particular kind of information about the subject; I tag one or more notes in the folder /software/obsidian as #syntax/YAML or #syntax/MarkDown so that I can quickly find my notes about the relevant bits of syntax.

In fact, I use folders to tell the status of notes. Ongoing projects, for instance, live in /projects/ongoing, finished ones in /projects/finished, pending ones in /projects/pending, and so on. This is consistent with what I wrote above, as I usually know the status of a project when I want to retrieve some information about it, and the collection of projects is for my own personal use, so that I don’t care if anybody else knows it, too.

I don’t use tags for either of your purposes, so the list of potential uses could be longer.

The defining feature of a folder is that notes are either in it or not, whereas notes can have many tags. Easy to exceed memory of tags used, so categorical usage is apt to break; OTOH, too many folders can be confusing too.

In my question I forgot to mention that I was not thinking necessarily of a context of projects management. I was just thinking of Obsidian as a knowledge management tool. Anyway, it is is also useful to hear opinions about people who use it for purposes different from those I had in mind when I asked the question.

Some further thoughts I just came up with:
A note has all its meaning and metadata within itself. When we use folders, the metadata represented by the folder is stored somehow on the folder. If the note got out of its correct folder for some unknown reason, we would be losing this metadata.
Nonetheless, if the use of folders gets replaced by note tags, making the mistake of placing a note in a wrong folder would not be a problem any more.
Of course someone might argue that folder tag might be deleted by the user accidentally as well.

And if we want to use tags just as folder, we can just make sure each note has just a unique tag representing a folder. We could even call tags denoting folders with a prefix such as “folder_” so that we knew in advance only one tag starting with this prefix should be present in the tags yaml front matter section of each note.

Let’s say we use tags of two types as follows:

  • First type: it is part of a set A of tags representing a folder name because its name’s prefix is something as “folder_”. Only one single tag of this set must and can be present in the tags section of each note.
  • Second type: tags of a set B of tags that do not represent folder names. There can be more than one tag of these set B within each note to represent characteristics or the status of each note.

In this case, if we ever got to the point of realizing a part of the structure of our “folders”, represented by set A of tags, needed to be changed somehow, we could move the folder tag out of the set A into the set B, by deleting the prefix “folder_” out of the tag’s name. And we could add a new folder tag to the notes that had the tag moved to set B i order to describe the new “location/folder” of those notes. I wrote “location/folder” within double quotes because the location/folder would not be represented by an actual folder but by a tag called “folder_…” of the set A of tags.

Looking forward to reading your ideas.

Thanks

Perhaps a bit of overthinking here.
Some of the thinking used for designing a database might be useful here. Think of a note as record in a database, i.e. as a row in a table. The text of the note would be, of course, one field. Other fields would be the file name and the name of the folder we assign the note. Other fields are (in this context) of less interest, such as the creation date and its size and so on.

In a real database design we would list the fields of interest for the topic represented by the note. We then would carefully note which of the fields must be present at most once, at least once or many times. We would also note which of the properties are bound to be changed often and which ones not at all.

Lastly, we would determine which information about the note can be used to find it in a largish collection of similar notes and which values in a particular field must be unique for the whole set of notes.

So: a note can have one and only one name, and it’s exactly in one folder. Both the name and its location can change during the lifetime of the note, but it’s bound to do that not very often. The name of the note must be unique within its folder.

One note may have many tags which assign it values in the same domain. A practical example would be that one note may mention many people, or none at all.

From this, you can develop practical guidelines as to which information to put into which place of the note. You also gain insights into how you can manage to find your notes again, perhaps even misplaced ones.

I think its simple:

Folders themselves don’t really matter from an Obsidian perspective, or for the normal linking within notes. Folders are really a virtual construct. Tags are just a virtual construct as well, just not at the OS level.

However, all those notes don’t file themselves in folders, you have to put them in folders. And that is TIME CONSUMING. So I think you have to ask yourself, what is the purpose of the folders. Is it just “busy work” to satisfy some OCD trait, or is it actually useful.

If you are already tagging notes, why do they also need sub divisions into hierarchical folders. Seems like double the work.

For some purposes folders might be very useful. For example, I have folders for different projects. But no folders for the notes within those project folders. Maybe you want to separate work and school or family. After all, these are OS folders, and you may want to be able to use the OS file system to go into those folders and find something specific outside of using Obsidian. You might even use other applications to edit the same .md files, but maybe only certain folders.

I jumped on the PARA concept from the start. So I have very few folders. I could see over time that this might become an issue. For example, I’m collecting “concept” notes and I already have a few hundred, and that can be an issue in the navigation pane on the left. I might have to sort them more in the future to avoid endless scrolling if I can’t remember a title or tag to search for something.

I cannot agree with you more!

Thanks! The PARA method did not sound familiar to me. I will take a look at it.

By the way, how did you think you would sort the notes to avoid endless scrolling? Were you thinking about renaming the notes filenames by adding prefixes to them so that they showed up on the navigation pane in any order that made sense to you?

Regarding sorting notes into folders after the fact…

I use tags in my notes, so in that sense, the notes already have a virtual structure, I just need to find all the Concept notes tagged with #psychology say, and move them into a Psychology folder within the Concept folder.

My OS indexes file contents, so I just went to my OS Concepts folder, and searched for #psychology, and all the files(notes) that have the tag can now be moved into the new Psychology folder.

The problem with OS folders versus tags is that many notes have multiple tags and therefore, if I move it into one folder, its can’t be in another folder. Making duplicate notes or mirrored notes is silly.

What we need is for Obsidian to institute Virtual Folders, which are just tags, then a note could be in many “folders” at once. The left navigation pane in Obsidian could have an OS Folders or Virtual Folders switch.

And if you think about it, this is just a permanent tag search pane at that point.

There may still be a need for OS Folders in the case I mentioned above, having a vault with 10000 notes in a single folder might not work, but inside Obsidian, it could have all the virtual structure you wanted.

People have proposed the virtual folder idea, but I don’t know if it made it onto the Obsidian timeline.


The alternative to all this, is creating MoCs with the “Text ({expand}}” plugin. This can easily create a note with a dynamic list of note links that satisfy a criteria, for example, contain a certain #tag. In that way, you are getting a Virtual Folder of sorts. People probably don’t realize that this is why MoCs are a big deal, they are virtual folders. Also, that plugin shows the links in Edit Mode as well as Preview Mode.

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