Wouldn’t it be great if you could go to a single place for all the files associated with a particular activity or project rather than having to remember which folders you put them all in or, for that matter, on which PC they’re stored

See also: Windows 8 review

The good news is that you can do exactly that, thanks to Windows libraries, a feature introduced with Windows 7 but all too frequently ignored. If you too haven’t yet got to grips with libraries, or perhaps had noticed the libraries in Windows Explorer but assumed they were just ordinary pre-defined folders, we’re here to help.

At first sight a library looks like a folder, and if you open one up you’ll probably see that it appears to contain files. In reality, though, it doesn’t contain any files. Instead libraries show files that are stored in other places and this is the key to their strength.

Essentially, rather than putting files and folders into libraries – although you can do that too, after a fashion – you just tell it which folders to include in a particular library. The files aren’t actually copied to the library, instead they remain in their original locations, but they appear to be in the library.

This is a convenient way to pull together all files of a particular type or associated with a particular job, especially since they don’t need to be on the same disk or even the same machine. A library on your desktop PC, therefore, could include files on that PC’s hard disk, on one or more external drives, and on several other desktop or laptop PCs connected to your home network.

To start, we’ll see how to use one of Windows' four default libraries which are Documents, Music, Pictures and Videos. This guide will show you how to start making use of libraries and give you a good feel for what they offer. However, you don’t have to stick with just these pre-defined libraries so we’ll also show you how to create your own libraries.

Here we’re using Windows 7 but the principles are much the same if you’re using Windows 8. However, if you’re working with Vista or earlier, libraries are not supported. We should also point out one further limitation, namely that libraries cannot include folders on NAS (network attached storage) devices, CD/DVD drives, or memory cards. USB memory sticks may or may not work depending on their exact specification.

How to use Windows libraries

1. To start, let’s take a look at a library – we’ll use Pictures as our example. The easiest way to find Windows’ libraries is to open Windows Explorer and examine the navigation pane on the left. Click on Libraries and icons for the four default libraries will be displayed to the right.

Windows Libraries 1

2. We’re going to look at the Pictures Library so either click on Pictures under Libraries in the navigation pane or double-click on the Pictures icon to the right. Depending on where you store your pictures, you may see images in the Pictures Library or it may be empty.

Windows Libraries 2

3. To understand what, if anything, you’re seeing in the Pictures Library, click on the blue text next to “Includes:” (which, unless you’ve already customised the library, will read “2 locations”) under the heading “Pictures library”. The ‘Picture Libraries Locations’ dialogue box is displayed.

In Windows 8, you won't see this link. Instead click the arrow next to the Pictures library in the left-hand pane to expand the tree and see the folders contained within. Right-click on the Pictures folder and choose Properties to see a similar dialogue box.

Windows Libraries 3

4. You’ll see that, by default, ‘My Pictures’ and ‘Public Pictures’ are included in the Pictures Library so only if you’ve used these folders will you see anything in the library. You can add other folders, though – click on Add, navigate to the folder, click on ‘Include folder’, and then on OK.

Windows Libraries 4

5. Although libraries only contain files and folders which are really stored elsewhere, you can move or copy files or folders into a library - it behaves just like a normal folder. Try moving or copying some files or folders into the Pictures Library using any of the methods you’d use if it was an ordinary folder.

Windows Libraries 5

6. To see how this is possible, right-click on the Pictures Library in Windows Explorer’s navigation pane (this works in both Windows 7 and 8) and select Properties from the pull-down menu. This will list the included folders and, unless you’ve changed it, you’ll notice that there’s a tick against ‘My Pictures’. This is where files written to the library are actually saved.

Windows Libraries 6

7. Although ‘My Pictures’ is the default, you can change where files or folder that are written to the Pictures Library are actually stored. To do this, with the Properties dialogue box still displayed, select one of the other folders included in the library and click on ‘Set save location’.

Windows Libraries 7

8. It can be useful to share a library with others in your Home Group so your pictures can be accessed from other PCs or a smart TV. Right click on Pictures Library in Windows Explorer’s navigation pane, select Sharing from the pull-down menu, and chose who to share it with.

Windows Libraries 8

9. Finally, to create a new library, right-click on Libraries in Windows Explorer’s navigation pane and select New and then Library from the pull-down menu. A new library will appear and you can change its name to something more memorable, just as you would with a new folder.

 Windows Libraries 9