Tech Tip: Original – Copy – Shortcut

For this installment of the Tech Tip series, opens a new window, we are going to explore the difference between originals, copies, and shortcuts on the computer.

One of the main barriers that people often face when improving their computer skills is the feeling of being lost or not knowing what to expect with each click. For instance, is the file you are opening the original file, a copy, or a shortcut? And what is the difference? We’ll get to those answers, but first, an obligatory preamble about computer files.

Simply put, a computer file is a digital resource on which data is stored. An example: A Microsoft Word document is the resource and the words you type into the document are the data. Together, they create a computer file, which is then physically stored on a computer’s memory/storage device. Similar to how paper stores words, computer files store bits of data, and just like you might house a bunch of pieces of paper in a file cabinet, the computer’s hard drive stores a bunch of computer files.

There are also different computer file formats for images, text documents, videos, etc.—but that is beyond the scope of this tech tip. For now, it is enough to know that a computer file stores data and that accessing computer files can be done in three main ways: opening the original file, opening a copy of the original file, or using a shortcut. Now, what is the difference?


The original is the first file you made and/or the version of the file that has the most up-to-date information. In most instances, this is the file that you will want to make sure to save regularly. The original can be saved in a variety of different locations, including on the hard drives (if you have multiple in your computer) or external storage devices (CD, flash drives, cloud storage, etc.).


A copy is a duplicate of the original file. This duplicate is like an editable snapshot of that file at a specific point in time. After you make a copy of the file, it is as if you sent an original through a copy machine: the end result is the creation of two discrete files. As a result, changing one file will not change the other, so you can keep one for posterity and one which will be regularly updated.


Rather than being an editable bundle of data like a computer file, a shortcut is a link that finds and opens a particular computer file. So if you cannot edit a shortcut and all it does is open a file, why use it?

Shortcuts save a lot of clicks since you do not need to navigate to the precise location where a program is installed or where the original document is saved. We use shortcuts all the time and often without knowing it. In fact, you likely use a shortcut each time you open your favorite web browser on a computer. On Windows computers, shortcuts are often distinguishable by a small blue arrow at the bottom left-hand corner of the icon.

So if a person were to accidentally delete, move, or make a copy of a shortcut, they would not change the file's contents in any way.

How Can You Tell The Difference?

Let's say you have three different icons on your desktop and you are unsure which one is the original. The first thing you can look at is the file name. When a copy is saved to the same place as another computer file with the same name, Windows will automatically change the name or ask you to replace the file at that location. In the example image on the left, we can tell that July (2) is a copy of one of the other two July files...but which one?

Now that we know that shortcuts have a small blue arrow at the bottom left of the icon, we can tell that the furthest July icon to the right is a shortcut, not a computer file. As a result, we know that the file in the middle must be the original.


Unlike paper documents, computer files can fluctuate between copy and original depending on how you use them, so the distinction between original and copy can sometimes be blurred. Still, having an understanding of the difference between originals, copies, and shortcuts can be incredibly helpful when it comes time to make sure important information is preserved.

If you are still unsure you can always right click on an icon, select properties from the options box that appears and then look at the computer file's details. Here you can find useful information about the computer file, like: date of creation, the last date it was modified, the file path, and whether or not it is a computer file or shortcut. Finally, it is always a good idea to open the file to double check.

If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to ask for a reference librarian, opens a new window! We’ll be happy to help!

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