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Each of my projects is a directory in which I have the following folders:

Data/.. (contains .shp files, tables, and rasters in various formats)

Maps/.. (contains .mxd files that depend on the files in Data/)

I reuse some feature classes extensively between projects. Most of them I would probably never update, so I keep copies of them in each projects Data/ folder. My supervisors/colleagues depend on this data organization as well, so that they don't have to dig around to find the supporting shapefiles for a given project.

This system has worked decently for our purposes, but it has problems. Some files are large, yet need to be available in multiple Data/ folders. This is an inefficient use of space. In addition, on occasion changes have to be made to commonly used files that we wish to persist for all versions. This results in many headaches and a lot of extra work for me.

What if instead of maintaining separate versions of each of these large datasets between each project we had a "file shortcut" like what people frequently put on their Desktops, but as a sort of proxy or pointer to the actual shapefile that would be stored in a common File Geodatabase.

Does such a "shortcut" method exist for managing various geospatial data formats, especially shapefiles?

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    You could use a layer file.. that contains the full path to the dataset and symbology for the features. Layer files are generally quite small. For what it's worth I think your data structure is quite workable, you could improve it by having a 'GIS Library' on a server or SDE for common, mostly static, datasets but be careful of locking situations if you're all looking at the same data. – Michael Stimson Jun 8 '17 at 0:06
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    I agree with @MichaelMiles-Stimson that there are existing solutions to your problem but if you ever want Esri to implement something new the place to post enhancement requests is ArcGIS Ideas. – PolyGeo Jun 8 '17 at 0:34
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    I don't understand why you need a shortcut? Create a new folder with "Common Data" in a network location and point everything at that one FGDB. Or use a workgroup or enterprise geodatabase – Midavalo Jun 8 '17 at 0:57
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    Building on @Midavalo 's comment, pointing to a common network location works well for read-only data, though is problematic when multiple users need to edit common shapefiles/featureclasses. That's where an enterprise geodatabase comes in handly--when multiple people need to simultaneously access spatial data and need edit permissions. – Aaron Jun 8 '17 at 2:55
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    Thanks @MichaelMiles-Stimson! Layer files were exactly what I was looking for. I would love to move our data to SDE or a common network location, but unfortunately such solutions don't play well with my colleague's workflows. They are PI's and PhD students who travel a lot and need the data in this format arranged ad hoc onto their laptops all the time. We used to use Dropbox, but that was a disaster keeping track of versions, having too many thousands of files in FGDB folders, and data corruption. – Wassadamo Jun 8 '17 at 18:33