Setting Up Electronic Files


Electronic files may be convenient in the short-term, but without proper organization, they may be difficult to locate in the future. The Smithsonian Institution Archives provides guidance in setting up these files in order for any staff member to quickly identify necessary files and avoid costs associated with the storage of duplicate files by multiple staff over time.

Please consult the glossary for definitions of many of the terms found on this page.

Although this guidance is intended to apply to all electronic file types, including email, databases, and websites, technology and software could make it difficult to apply all aspects of this guidance to all file types. When in doubt, contact the Archives. For general questions about electronic records management or specific technology issues, contact the Archives’ Digital Services staff.

Where should electronic files be kept?

If the files will be used by multiple staff, create central files on a shared network drive, however, be aware of security concerns. Many software programs allow password protection to limit access to documents. If there are concerns about who can view or change a document and password protection is not available, an alternate location may be necessary. Be mindful of files in both paper and electronic form that contain Personally Identifiable Information (PII), which can include birthdates, birthplaces, Social Security numbers, credit card numbers, and other sensitive information regarding one’s identity. Files used by individuals should be kept on their personal network drive that is backed up. Files should not be kept on the computer’s hard drive desktop, “My Documents” folder, external hard drive, or removable media such as CDs, DVDs, or flash drives, unless they are convenience copies. None of these locations are backed up by the Smithsonian’s Office of the Chief Information Officer (OCIO) and could result in data loss.

If storage is an issue, weed or delete files if appropriate, or consider transferring permanent files to the Archives. Files that will be transferred to the Archives should have password protection removed prior to transfer. See Transferring or Destroying Records for more information.

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How should files be organized?

Although there are a few logistical differences, electronic records should be organized according to the same principles as paper records. The top folder should be the records series from the Smithsonian-wide or unit-specific (staff only) disposition schedule, if one exists, or a broad category of records. Use as many layers of subfolders as needed to subdivide the series by exhibition, project, fiscal year, or other category. Be careful to balance convenience with accuracy. More layers allow more specificity and make it easier to identify the needed file, but there is a limit to the number of subfolders that can be used. Windows operating systems have a limit of 260 characters a file name and the path (e.g. Q:\Exhibit\2011\Loan\Bird.doc) to that file can have. If a file name is too long, file errors will result when trying to copy to another location.

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How can weeding electronic files be made easier?

As with paper files, there may be electronic files that are convenient to keep with the permanent files, but that should not be transferred to the Archives. A separate subfolder can be created to contain these records at any layer of the folder structure. Add a word such as "temporary" or "weed" to the subfolder name or file name to indicate that it should not be transferred. If printouts of the electronic files are maintained in the paper files, contact the unit’s Archives liaison to determine in which format the files will eventually be transferred. This may result in a larger number of electronic records being marked for weeding. See Weeding Records for more information.

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How should folders, subfolders, and files be named?

There is a limit to how much information can be included when naming electronic folders and files, as noted above. As long as files are being saved to the appropriate folders, the folder structure can be used to provide further information. When naming an individual file, stick to the details of that specific file and allow the folders above it to provide the context. For instance, the top folder may be exhibition records. Under that may be a subfolder with the name of an exhibition, and under that may be a subfolder for loan correspondence. The file name could simply include the correspondent's name and the date. Be sure both the folder/subfolder names and the file names are meaningful. It is also useful to include dates in the files names, either the date the information in the file was valid or, as in the case of a report, the date or dates that the information in the file covers. Dates can also be used in the subfolder names to define the date span of a project.

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Should controlled vocabulary and naming conventions be used?

A controlled vocabulary can be crucial when naming electronic records. To keep names short and to include as much information as possible, abbreviations will often be used. A controlled vocabulary developed in-house or discipline-based will provide meaning to those abbreviations and will ensure that all staff are using the same terms. In addition, a computer can sort folders and files alphabetically/numerically. By deciding to always start the file name with the date, a project number, or a name, the computer can sort the files into a desired arrangement. As much as possible, the same controlled vocabulary and naming conventions should be used for both electronic and paper files, though abbreviations should be avoided on the labels of the paper files if they are not necessary. For additional explanation, see Setting up Paper Files.

File name options include:

  • 2011_03_Final_Report.doc
  • 032011_Final_Report.doc
  • Report_Final_032011.doc

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What are acceptable file formats for saving electronic records?

Electronic records depend on the use of technology-neutral preservation formats to safeguard their authenticity and integrity and extend their longevity. This is particularly important where records have been scheduled for permanent retention. The manner in which to ensure the best possible capture of electronic records is to save or migrate the electronic record to the preferred preservation format for that document type when the record is created, that is, saved in its finalized format. In most cases, the preservation formats comply with the Smithsonian Institution Technical Reference Model. See the Archives’ "Recommendations for Preservation Formats."

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Can electronic records be compressed?

Electronic records should not be compressed unless a lossless compression method has been used. Please see Transferring Permanent Electronic Records to SIA for more information.

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Are there any special considerations for email?

Much of the guidance provided for setting up electronic records applies to email; however, Email as Records provides additional guidance on all aspects of managing these unique files.

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