ArcCatalog Basics: Tips for Accessing and Exploring Your Data

ArcCatalog is the ArcGIS application used to explore and manage geographic data, and it seems to be a little less well known than its sibling ArcMap. As with ArcMap and ArcToolbox, you have lots of options to adapt ArcCatalog to match your preferences and workflows. Below are just a few ideas you may want to try out to make your work in ArcCatalog more satisfying and productive.

Quickly Access Your Data

By default, the Catalog tree displays connections to your local disk and a number of root-level items, which vary according to your software installation. To access data stored on a network server, you create a connection to that server. Sure, from there you can navigate down to your data of interest, but if you have a workspace you consistently use, why not create a shortcut directly to that location? It’s easy—in ArcCatalog terms, all you do is create a folder connection, which enables you to access your data in a couple of clicks instead of many.New folder connection

To add a folder connection:

  • Click the Connect to Folder button Connect to Folder.
  • Navigate to the location where your data is stored.
  • Click the folder you want to connect to, then click OK.
    • The new connection displays in the Catalog tree.


Renamed folder connectionBy default, the path to the folder displays, but you can change that. For connections with long pathnames, it’s helpful to specify a shorter, meaningful name.

  • Simply click the folder connection twice slowly to make it editable, then type in the new name and press Enter.
    • Now, when you start ArcCatalog, you can quickly find the data you need.

Easily Access Non-GIS Files

By default, ArcCatalog displays files of many different types in the Catalog tree. Most are file types commonly used in a GIS, such as geodatabases, shapefiles, raster formats, Excel workbooks, etc. If you work in ArcCatalog a lot, it’s convenient to be able to access “non-GIS” files as well.

Suppose you have a coworker who prefers to send feature attribute updates in a Microsoft Word doc or even in a PDF document. You can easily tell ArcCatalog to display files of those types in the Catalog tree.

To do so: Add file types dialog

  • Click Tools > Options, then click the File Types tab.
  • Click New Type and enter the file extension into the top text box (e.g., “doc”).
  • Click in the bottom text box to automatically populate the description.
  • If you like, you can choose a custom icon to represent the file type.
  • Click OK.
  • Repeat as needed to add other file types.
  • Click OK to close the Options dialog box when you’re finished.

Get More Information from the Contents Tab

When you select an item in the Catalog tree, the Contents tab on the right displays some basic information about that item. By default, you see the item’s name, type, and thumbnail if one has been created. Displaying additional information is helpful for quickly determining if a particular dataset is the one you’re looking for (especially since cryptic file names are so prevalent in the GIS community). Contents tab

To display more information in the Contents tab:

  • Click Tools > Options > Contents tab.
  • Check each item of information you want to see in the Contents tab.
    • Notice that you can also display associated metadata. This is a big plus if your organization maintains metadata for its GIS data (as it should).
  • Click OK and refresh the Catalog tree (press F5 or click View > Refresh) to see the new information in the Contents tab.

Create New Data from the Preview tab

Did you know you can export attribute data directly from the ArcCatalog Preview tab? You can export to a dBASE table, Info table, text file, or one of several geodatabase formats. Note that the Shape field is not exported with the attribute data—this is a way to quickly create nonspatial data from spatial data.

  • Select a dataset in the Catalog tree and click the Preview tab.
  • In the Preview drop-down list, choose Table, then click the Options button at the bottom of the table and choose Export.
  • Browse to the location where you want to save the data and specify a name and output type.
  • Click Save, then OK.

Create Group Layers to Visualize Data in Context

From the Catalog tree, you can also quickly create group layers to enhance data exploration. Previewing individual datasets works well when you want information about specific features. When you want to see those features in context (or provide a more digestible view of your data holdings for other users), creating a group layer is an easy solution.

To create a group layer: Click to enlarge

  • Right-click the folder where you want to store the group layer and choose New > Group Layer.
  • Rename the group layer as desired, then right-click it and choose Properties > Group tab.
  • Click Add and navigate to a dataset you want to include in the group layer. Repeat to add all desired datasets.
  • After adding all the data for the group layer, right-click each sub-layer and choose Properties.
  • Set symbology and any other properties as desired. You have the same options as in the ArcMap Layer Properties dialog box.
  • In the General tab of the group layer’s Properties dialog box, you can add a description and set a scale range for the group layer.
  • In the Display tab, you can apply transparency to all layers in the group layer.
  • When you’re finished modifying the group layer properties, click OK.

Like any other layer, a group layer can be dragged from the Catalog tree into an ArcMap map document. If you’re working with ArcGIS 9.3.1 or higher, you can create a layer package (.LPK file) from the group layer in ArcMap, then share it with others.


About SuzanneB

Suzanne is a Maryland native with a degree in English Literature who enjoys writing about Esri technology and other topics. She works with Esri Training Services in Redlands, California.
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  1. genstrom says:

    The problem is not so much that we can’t find additional data types in ArcCatalog. The problem in large corporate databases is that ArcCatalog doesn’t seem to have a way to REDUCE the number of items that are returned. And, we must wait for a long time to have those results returned. For example, I only want to see the SDE Feature Classes, or the Datasets, and not all the “SDE Tables”, Oracle tables, and Relationship classes. We store our spatial data in an Oracle database that includes many non-spatial obljects. Arc Catalog labors thru its searhc returning ALL these objects, taking a very long time to return results that are then difficult to sort through to simply find, for example, just the feature classes. Through your instructions here, ArcCatalog offers ways to increase the types of files you can see, but it does not allow you to REDUCE or change the “standard data types” that are returned. Any help in filtering to improve speed of return would be appreciated, Susanne.

  2. SuzanneB says:

    Hi genstrom,

    I ran your question by one of our ArcSDE product managers, who conveyed the following:

    There are no specific “data type filtering tools” within ArcCatalog to filter which types of data will appear in an SDE geodatabse connection. However:

    1. It is typically the responsibility of the SDE geodatabase DBA to control user access to data within the SDE geodatabase. This is done by assigning the correct user permissions on datasets. DBMS roles can also be used – there is LOTS of documentation on this topic in the online help at

    2. Depending on which user is specified in the connection properties made to an SDE GDB connection, this will determine how much data will be shown in ArcCatalog. So if the user wants to minimize how much data is returned, they can simply assign the appropriate permissions on specific datasets, then connect to the SDE GDB with the appropriate username.

    So it sounds like a conversation with your database administrator may be the way to go.

    Hope this helps.