ArcMap File Management

Recommended methodology for creating, saving, restoring, and archiving ArcMap projects


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1.  Starting a New Project

2.  Opening an Existing Project

3.  Summary of Creating-Saving-Opening Projects

4.  Why use this method

5.  Why not use your U: drive or USB drive

6.  Why won't my project open if I do things a little differently?

            How to fix it

7Backing up Projects

8Notes on Naming Files and Folders

9 Copying/Moving/Renaming/Deleting Shapefiles or other GIS data

10. Notes on Using Windows Explorer

Creating a new folder

Copying a folder


As a general rule, do not use spaces or non-alpha-numeric characters in any of your file or folder names... i.e., you can use only a-z, A-Z, 0-9, and the underscore ( _ ). This means you should not be working in the My Documents folder (due to the space in the file name), nor should you name your file City Buffer.shp, etc. (See Notes on Naming Files and Folders )


Starting a New Project

1.      Before opening ArcMap, start Windows Explorer

2.      In Windows Explorer, open the C:/Temp folder

3.      Create a new ‘working folder’ within the C:/temp folder – something like ‘GISproj’ (or ‘exercise2’ or ‘bellingham-map’ or ‘GISjan21’…) - (NO SPACES in the folder names!)

4.      Open ArcMap, and begin building your new project

5.      Save/Name this project file (.mxd) in the newly created C:/temp/GISproj folder

            Ending up with something like C:/temp/GISproj/my_proj.mxd - again NO SPACES.

6.      Optional (recommended): From the File| Document Properties menu in ArcMap, click Data Source Options, then choose Store Relative Path Names.  The benefit of this action is that ArcMap will find any data you place in this folder, even if you later move the folder to another location (such as your U:/ drive or USB drive).

7.      As you work, place ANY AND ALL new data (copied themes, re-projected data, new tables, graphics, etc) in this same C:/temp/GISproj folder

            You may make additional SUB-folders for data within your main folder if you wish

8.      Remember to save your work OFTEN, using File| Save from the menu or the Save icon (this will continue to save your map to the same location, i.e., your C:/temp/GISproj folder)

9.      At the end of the work session, save your map once more and close ArcMap.

10.  Start/open Windows Explorer again.

11.  Optional: open the C:/temp/GISproj folder to double check that everything you created is there (your .mxd file, any data you created, etc.). If not, now is the time to find our where any missing files went using ArcCatalog...

12.  Optional: IF a previous version of your GISproj folder already exists on your U:/ drive or USB drive, you should either archive it (by renaming it or storing it in a new folder) or delete it. Otherwise when you copy your current GISproj folder from C:/temp to your U:/ drive or USB drive the old and the new folders will be merged, potentially creating mis-matched files and confusing your data management...  See Backing Up Projects below

13. Copy the entire C:/temp/GISproj folder to your U:/ drive or to a USB drive.

14. Optional: delete the C:/temp/GISproj folder – this is basic good house keeping (keeping the hard drive from being too cluttered) and prevents others from seeing/using your work

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Opening an Existing Project:

1.      Before opening Arcmap, start Windows Explorer

2.      Copy your ‘GISproj’ folder from your U:/ drive or USB drive to the C:/temp folder (re-creating a C:/temp/GISproj folder, with your .mxd(s) and data inside)

3.      Note:  One common error people make in this process is the creation of recursive folders (i.e., a folder within a folder), where you end up with C:/temp/GISproj/GISproj.  Watch out for this!

4.      Open the C:/temp/GISproj folder and double click on the .mxd file to open your map project. (Or open ArcMap and direct it to open an existing map, i.e., your .mxd file which is located in the C:/temp/GISproj folder)

5.      Continue working with your map, again saving ANY AND ALL new data to the C:/temp/GISproj folder

6.      At the end of the day, once again save the .mxd map project and close ArcMap

7.      Copy the entire C:/temp/GISproj folder to your U:/ drive or to a USB drive, or onto a CDR

8.      You can now delete the C:/temp/GISproj folder if you wish, leaving a cleaner workspace for the next student…

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To Summarize:

Create a ‘working folder’ in C:/temp

Save your .mxd file and all data to your individual folder inside of the C:/temp folder (i.e., C:/temp/GISproj)

Use Relative Paths for your data sources (in the Map Properties)

Save your project frequently (basic Microsoft Windows operating procedure…)

Start and end each work session with Window Explorer (not ArcMap) making/copying your C:/temp/GISproj folder

When starting a different project, create a new folder in C:/temp just for that project/exercise (i.e., C:/temp/Hawaii_map)

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1.      Putting everything in a single folder makes it easy to find and copy all of the various pieces that ArcMap needs to reopen your .mxd map (remember that an ArcMap .mxd file does not contain any data, only pointers to the data files which must be saved and available in addition to the .mxd).

2.      Working off of the C:/temp directory (as opposed to your U:/drive or a USB drive) is faster since you are working locally rather than across the network or from an auxiliary storage device.

3.      Making a backup (archive) copy of your .mxd map project and data is easy at any point (simply make a copy of your GISproj folder on a USB drive or CDR for storage.

4.    Sometimes, while using ArcMap some operations won't work on data from a network source... At times this will even cause the entire program to crash. This appears to be non-systematic (indicating that other variables like network speed may also be a factor), making it very difficult to trouble shoot why a process isn't working...

5.    If, for some reason, while working on a project your .mxd and/or data files get all messed up... you can always abandon your current efforts and you still have a copy on your U:\ drive or USB drive (having only lost, at most, your current days work...)

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Why not just save everything to my U:/drive (or USB drive) and work from there?

Well, this method does work (most of the time), but there are a number of problems with this strategy:

1.      Since you aren’t working locally, every time you redraw your view or layout (each time you pan, zoom, add or remove layers, etc.) it will take longer – and ArcMap is slow enough already…

2.      If something goes wrong with your .mxd while you’re working on it (which can definitely happen), you are working on your one and only copy (i.e., no backup) - for this reason alone you should NEVER be working off of your U:/ drive or USB drive.

3.      You are unable to share you .mxd map with other students or you instructor. For instance, if your instructor asked that you turn in a copy of your .mxd for a project, he/she would be unable to open it since it would require access to your U:/ drive for the data locations.

4.      Using a USB drive, zip disc or a floppy disc as your working drive will cause the disc to wear out faster (they are intended as portable storage devices, not as hard drive substitutes).

5.   Your chances of crashing ArcMap increase...

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 “Why Won’t My Project Open if I Do Things a Little Differently?…”

1.      If you attempt to open your project and rather than opening properly your Table of Contents is filled with red exclamation points ( ! ) and some or all of the data on your map is missing, you’ve probably done something wrong in one of the steps for creating, archiving or restoring your ArcMap .mxd file and/or data. Things to check:

a.       Are you SURE you saved ALL of your data AND your .mxd to your C:/temp/GISproj working folder?

b.      Did you move the ENTIRE GISproj folder (NOT just the contents) from C:/temp to your U:/ drive or USB drive, and then back to C:/temp?

c.       Make sure to avoid recursive folders:  C:\temp\GISproj\GISproj

d.      Make sure you didn’t rename or delete any files from you GISproj folder using Windows Explorer (all data management should be done using ArcCatalog)

e.       Did you remember to set File | Map Properties:Data Source Options to Store Relative Path Names?

2.      What’s probably going on:

a.       An ArcMap project file (.mxd) does NOT contain any of your map data, it only creates a list of ‘pointers’ to the data needed to create that project. Instead of making a copy of a GIS layer, it simply remembers where that layer is stored so that it can go get it when needed… So, inside the .mxd will be a reference to something like:   "C:/temp/GISproj/roads.shp," telling ArcMap that the Shapefile “roads” is located in a folder named C:/temp/GISproj. If for some reason the roads shape file isn’t in C:/temp/GISproj (for instance you renamed your working folder to C:/temp/GIS_project) Arcmap simply can’t find what it needs to open your project, and you’ll receive the red exclamation point next to its name

3.      How to Fix it: If you open a project and find that the table of contents is filled with red exclamation points and there is no data on your map, here are some possible solutions:

a.       If you renamed any of your files or folders you could close ArcMap, rename the files and folders back to their original names (the ones that your project is looking for), then reopen the .mxd again. If you did everything right, you should have a restored map project and no red exclamation marks. If you want to see where the data was (i.e., where is ArcMap looking for it) you can open the .mxd (with the red exclamation marks), open the Layer Properties and select the Source tab. This will give you details on the file name and location (where the data was when last the project was saved).

b.      Another option is to “re-path” your data pointers. For any data layer with a red exclamation mark (these are layers that have a bad path, i.e., ArcMap couldn’t find the data in the location it expected them to be in) you can open the Layers Properties (right-click on the Layer name in the Table of Contents and choose Properties), then select the Source tab and click on the Set Data Source button. This will allow you to browse to the location of the data (wherever it now is stored and named). Once you locate the data the map should once again be a map. When you save the project this new data path is saved. Alternatively, you can right-click on the Layer name in the Table of Contents and Choose Data / Repair Data Source to accomplish the same thing.

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Backing up projects:

At the end of a project (or incrementally along the way) it is a good idea to make a backup (typically on a USB drive or CDR). Even if you will be continuing on with the same map (further developing the layout, etc) it is a good idea to save a backup of the work to date. This can be done by simply Copying your entire GISproj folder to a disk (possibly inside of a new folder with a date or proper title (i.e., on my USB drive I might create a folder called Whatcom_archive_01_10_11 and in this folder I would save a copy of my GISproj folder with all of the data and the .mxd inside it.) Alternatively, you can rename your GISproj folder (on your U:/ drive or USB drive), adding a date to the name (so you have GISproj_03_10_07, GISproj_03_10_09, etc) each time you make changes (always keeping the current working folder as GISproj - without a date on it).

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Notes on Naming Files and Folders:

ArcMap (and GIS software in general) doesn’t like spaces in the names of shape files, projects or file folders:

GOOD: C:/temp/exercise2/My_Project.mxd

BAD: C:/temp/exercise 2/My Project.mxd (space in file name)

BAD: C:/My Documents/My_Project.mxd (space if directory folder name)

ALSO: Do not use 'unusual' punctuation marks such as ' ; : / ! @ % & * ( ) + <

            Use ONLY: a-z, A-Z, 0-9, or _ 

Once you have created and named a new folder (like GISproj) and saved your .mxd and data to this location, do not rename the folder. Doing so may cause your .mxd to not be able to open, since the data paths will no longer be accurate (unless you are using relative paths for your .mxd).

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Copying/Moving/Deleting/Renaming GIS data files:

A Shapefile is composed of multiple files necessary to open the shapefile in ArcMap. Likewise, other GIS data sets are made up of multiple files. Thus, when copying, moving, renaming or deleting you have to make sure that you perform your desired operation on all of the separate files. The preferred method for doing such operations is to use ArcCatalog, not Windows Explorer. The only exception to this is if you have your data in a project folder (as outlined on this page) you can move the entire folder with Windows Explorer.

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Footnotes on Using Windows Explorer:

Note: These same steps could be performed using My Computer... however, Windows Explorer is the preferred application and is thus detailed here.

1) How to create a new folder in Windows Explorer

1.      Open Windows Explorer by either:

a.       clicking the yellow folder icon in the task bar

b.      clicking the yellow folder icon in the Applications Shortcuts folder (on the desktop)

c.       right-clicking the My Computer icon on the desktop and choosing Explore

d.      choosing Windows Explorer from the Start | Programs menu (it may be in Accessories)

2.      On the left hand section of the window, select the C:/temp folder

3.      In the right hand section of the window add a new folder by either:

a.       right-click and choose New and choose Folder

b.      from the File menu, choose New and choose Folder

4.      While the new folder is highlighted (selected) enter a new name for the folder to replace the generic ‘New Folder’ – getting rid of the space within the name in the process.

5.      To rename an existing folder later, click on the folder name once, then either:

a.       pause, then click on it a second time to select/highlight it for renaming

b.      go to the File menu and choose Rename

c.   right-click on the folder name and choose Rename

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2) How to Copy a folder in Windows Explorer

1.      Open Windows Explorer using either the yellow folder icon in the task bar, or the icon in the Applications Shortcuts folder (on the desktop), by right-clicking the My Computer icon on the desktop and choosing Explore, or by using the Start | Programs menu.

2.      On the left hand section of the window, open the folder that contains the folder you wish to copy (i.e., if you want to copy C:/temp/GISproj you would go to the C:/temp folder).

3.      In the right hand section of the window, select the folder you wish to copy by clicking it once.

4.      Copy the folder by either:

a.       Right-clicking on the folder and choosing Copy

b.      Choosing Copy from the Edit menu

5.      In the left hand section of the window, browse to the location you wish to copy the folder to, then click once in the right hand side (i.e. in your U:/ drive folder or on the d:/ drive for external drive)

6.      Paste the new copy of the folder into the desired location by either:

a.       Right-clicking in the new location and choosing Paste

b.      Choosing Paste from the Edit menu

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