Members of the Tibetan Institute for the Performing Arts in Dharamsala, India dance at the 2000 Smithsonian Folklife Festival. Image 2000-5651

Archives, Record Management, and Digital Material

Reflections and Advice from an Archives Intern

Color photograph of a large group of Tibetans in traditional clothing, standing outside on the Natio

As a student with a background in libraries, one of the most interesting things I learned as an intern at the Smithsonian Institution Archives this summer was how closely related records management is to archival practice. I was unaware that as an institutional archive, the Archives is specifically concerned with preserving records that relate to the Smithsonian’s identity, institutional memory, and decision-making processes. And contrary to my initial preconception, only a small portion of records produced at the Smithsonian are considered to have an enduring value.

What I mean by this is that only certain records have an inherent historical, legal, or evidentiary value, and only these will become part of the organization’s archival collection. Other records are only really useful for a specific function or a short period of time; after which they are typically scheduled for disposal for legal and practical concerns. As such, I was fascinated to discover that a central role of an archivist at an institutional archive involves evaluating material in order to decide what to keep, but also what to dispose of.

Color photo of workers in yellow rain gear laying a brick foundation outside in rainy weather.

The main project I worked on this summer was processing an accession of digital work files relating to the annual Smithsonian Folklife Festival. These records were mainly research materials, schematics used in the construction and planning of the festival, correspondence between various government agencies and sponsors, as well as a cache of photographs taken during the setup and breakdown of the festival. Processing this material was no small task; the collection was one of the biggest born-digital accessions the Archives has received - weighing in at approximately 60GB or over 55,000 computer files.

In addition to evaluating material for historical value, a large portion of my time was spent using a variety of software applications to weed and delete duplicate files that were produced during day-to-day activities of the festival. As we all know, digital material is easy to copy, store, share, and transfer between personal and work computers, phones, tablets, hard drives, and now the cloud. What this means for archivists is that these files get copied and are left in duplicate until they are removed during the accession process.  

Here are five easy records management practices anyone can implement to facilitate the archival process, as well as to make their work files more useful for future researchers:

  • Immediately delete Personally Identifiable Information (PII) after you’re done using it. Unless there is an explicit need, PII should never be retained.
  • Use accurate and descriptive titles for your files, and include dates when appropriate. This will help archivists appraise files prior to accessioning and make material easier for researchers to find and use.
  • Avoid duplicate files when possible. This includes material saved in different file formats; keep the master file and delete the copy after using it.
  • Understand the difference between temporary and permanent records. Certain materials always need to be kept; however, documents such as receipts, invoices, and contact information should only be stored for their assigned retention period or, if not assigned a retention period, for as long as they are useful.
  • Organize your computer files on a regular basis. This is the simplest and easiest way to ensure effective organization.

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