Managing your digital records
Four simple things that digital archivists want you to do
8 August 2016
Most of us have moved into the digital world in order to work, communicate, take photos, and generally to run our lives. But the huge storage capacity of contemporary computers and other devices, and a sense of being too busy, mean that many people have chaotic personal digital archives, disorganised and prone to accidental loss.
If our digital archivists could be angels on the shoulders of digital content creators, they would bestow 4 pieces of wisdom.
These things apply to everyone and will make your life easier when you are looking for information. And yes, if you transfer your archive to a collecting institution in the future your records will be in good shape.
1. Name your files properly
This is the simplest step. When you save documents, think about making it clear for someone unfamiliar with your work (which may be you in a few years trying to figure out what these files are).
- Be descriptive, but…
- …keep it short. You can run into problems with character limits for the name and file path.
- Leave out spaces—some programs and systems don’t process them properly—you can use capital letters or punctuation like fullstops or underscores instead,
- Consider adding dates in a consistent format, for example, YYYYMMDD.
Ask yourself: In 50 years will I understand what the item is by the title—will I be able to find it?
2. Control and organise your digital records
Control baby! That's what it's all about.
If there is one thing to fill an archivist’s heart with dread it is a pile of loose papers—what are they about? What do they represent? What was their original order and meaning? What stories would they tell if they still retained their order and context?
The same applies to digital records—a lack of order equals a pile of loose digital items—hard to find anything and eventually they become useless.
Just as we might control paper records with folders and subject titles in a filing cabinet or box, we also need to control digital records.
Consider setting up a simple folder structure for your digital records. Name the digital object meaningfully but succinctly. Such simplicity will pay dividends when you come back in 20 years to try to find something or to remember the context or the reason you created the record in the first place.
Review your digital records at regular intervals and delete those that don’t have permanent value.
3. Manage your emails—yes really!
It often seems like emails are all consuming—they come in, they go out, they come in again—it's difficult to manage them effectively. Email has the advantage of speed but can often take away thought and good management.
Personal email boxes come in various shapes and sizes. When deciding which to take as part of a personal collection, archivists will look for structured, well titled and contextualised email boxes.
To avoid the pitfalls of an uncontrolled email system here are some thoughts:
- Review your emails on a regular basis and delete any that only have temporary value. Identify what is of permanent value, temporary value or not sure yet.
- Control emails with permanent value by using a folder structure. Identify subject, function or activity.
- Apply a meaningful subject to your email every time (no more Re:... or Hey....). This will save so much time in searching and avoid the need to have to open the email to see what it is about.
- Email in a string or conversation rather creating a new message each time. The trick to this one is to make sure to delete earlier copies of the string.
Regardless of which methods you use, it must be easy to use. You should be left with the messages you feel have long term value and should be kept forever.
Remember to think like an Archivist: In 50-100 years will I understand.
Have you experienced the sinking feeling of losing a document you’ve worked hard on, or worse, a whole computer worth of digital photographs, music, essays, emails and documents? Theft, natural disaster, accidental deletion, hard drive failure or a simple coffee spill can spell very bad news for your personal digital archive if you’re not prepared.
External hard drive and cloud storage are 2 popular options, and there are many online resources about them. We suggest you identify what you want to back up and decide on how often you will do this.
Having this routine will also make it much easier to migrate your files to a new computer.
Start your new regime today! Remember without order there is chaos.
Emma Jolley and Beth Lonergan
Digital Archives, Pictures and Manuscripts Branch