University Archives

Managing Digital Records

Digital records are easily created, edited, and deleted. Though digital records do not have physical form, they need to be managed just like paper records. Without any organization, including file naming and filing them into a file system with digital folders, digital records will be difficult to find and use.

There are many strategies that can help you manage and keep your digital records accessible. Here are some helpful approaches for you to consider and, if suited for your office, to use successfully.

Creating Digital Records

Choosing a file format for your records is important. Why? File formats, especially those created and made available by software companies, may not have a long shelf life. If the files are no longer supported by the developer or the developer folds, you may not be able to open the file (remember WordPerfect and Word Star?). Unfortunately, it is hard to predict the future. So, choose as best as you can.

For general office use, programs such as Word, Access, and Excel, which are supported by Microsoft, are safe bets, at least for the immediate future. At some point, these born-digital records may have to be migrated to an updated version of that software with a minimum of data loss.

When deciding what type of file to use, think about the following:

  • Accessibility. The file format must let staff members and the public to find and view the record.
  • Flexibility. The file format needs to meet your goals for sharing and using records. If the file format can only be read by specialized hardware and/or software, your ability to share, use, and manipulate the records is limited.
  • Longevity. Developers should (hopefully) support the file format long-term. If the file format will not be supported long-term, the records are at risk. Records should be migrated or converted if you determine a file format is no longer supported.

It is often a good idea to migrate records to a new file format. For example, if your Word file is a version or two behind, consider updating to the new version. Word 6.0 documents (introduced in 1993) may not be able to open in the latest version of Word. But by migrating those files to a newer version after the software has been updated helps to ensure that the file survives with minimal loss.

Converting a record to an entire different format is a possibility, too. An example is converting a Word document to PDF.

If you do migrate or convert files, consider the following:

  • Accuracy. If you migrate or convert records, the file format you convert to should result in records that have an acceptable level of data, appearance, and relationship loss, if any. Does the record look like it is supposed to?
  • Completeness. If you migrate or convert the record, the file format you convert to should have an acceptable degree of data, appearance, and relationship loss, if any.

Embedding Metadata into a Digital Record

Metadata, or information about information, can be entered right into a born-digital file. The metadata entered can inform you and others using the record about its creation, purpose, and use.

Metadata can be entered or are automatically entered into the properties of the digital record. For example, it is easy to enter metadata into a Word file. Some information is automatically entered, including program name, when the file was created, last saved, last modified, and the number of revisions, as well as character/word count, line count, and number of paragraphs.

Other information must be entered into the properties of the document. These include title, subject, keywords, and comments. The author information can be entered when first using the software. That information can be modified if needed.

In the Word 2010, metadata can be entered by selecting the “File” option at the far left of the ribbon.

Word screen shot

Then on the right side of the screen, under Properties you can enter information for title, subject, tags, and comments field. You may have to click "Show All Properties" at the bottom to see additional fields.

The metadata entered into a document can be searchable within Windows. Right click the drive where your files are. In the “General” tab, make sure the box is checked next to the phrase “Allow files on this drive to have contents indexed in addition to file properties.

To check metadata for document, right-click on the file and select “Properties”.

File Naming

A file name is the chief identifier of a record. Consistently named records eases access to the information contained in each digital file.

Common file name elements include:

  • Version number (e.g., version 1 [v1, vers1])
  • Date of creation (e.g., February 24, 2001 [022401, 02_24_01])
  • Name of creator (e.g., Rupert B. Smith [RBSmith, RBS])
  • Description of content (e.g., media kit [medkit, mk])
  • Name of intended audience (e.g., general public [pub])
  • Name of group associated with the record (e.g., Committee ABC [CommABC])
  • Release date (e.g., released on June 11, 2001 at 8:00 a.m. central time [61101_0800CT])
  • Publication date (e.g., published on December 24, 2003 [pub122403])
  • Project number (e.g., project number 739 [PN739])
  • Department number (e.g., Department 140 [Dept140])
  • Records series (e.g., SeriesX)

General Challenges in File Naming:

  • Version control. Determine how and whether to indicate the version of the record.
  • Uniqueness. To avoid file names conflicting when they are moved from one location to another, each record’s file name should be unique and independent from its location.
  • Persistence over time. File names should outlast the records creator who originally named the file - develop file names that make sense to staff members once the file creators are no longer available.
  • Access and ease of use. The policy should be simple and straightforward. A simple policy will be more consistently used, resulting in records that are consistently named, and thus easier to organize and access.
  • Ease of administration. The policy should work with the computer infrastructure to monitor policy compliance, manage records and records series, gather metadata, and perform other administrative tasks easily and in compliance with all legal requirements.
  • Scalability. Consider how scalable the file naming policy needs to be.

Analyze your work and develop a file naming system that best help your office.

Filing Structure

So, you created records in the course of your job that are in file formats that will last and are properly named. Now what? A well-designed filing structure will be paramount in managing and making accessible your records. A filing structure reflects the activities of your office through a careful structuring of folders with meaningful titles that will contain the records.

A well-designed filing structure must:

  • Be a structure that is easily interpreted, which encourages users to place records in the appropriate location
  • Have simple names that make it easy for users to determine what records go where
  • Have three levels of folders representing functions, then activities, and then transactions of an office; records would be filed in the folders (transactions) in the third level
  • Have someone in charge of maintaining filing structure to ensure consistency

Every office is different – what works for one office may not work for another.

Hierarchical levels of filing structure

A functional approach focuses on managing records according to their business context (why they exist) rather than their content (what they are about) or their location (which unit or person that holds them).

  • First level - Functions are the major responsibilities of a unit to fulfill its mission
  • Second level - Activities are the tasks performed to accomplish each function.
  • Third level - Transactions represent dealings with other units or people as part of the business process.

Ask yourself then, what are the functions of your office? Then ask what activities are done to fulfill those functions? What transactions are performed to accomplish those activities?

Names of folders in filing structure

Folders names at all levels of a filing structure should:

  • Be named using “natural” language
  • Not use abbreviations – use full names or words
  • Keep names simple and to the point, but easily understood in the context of the file structure

If a record could be placed in several folders, decide on one folder in which that type of record should reside. A shortcut then can be created in Windows that will point to that specific folder without having to create duplicate copies of records to be placed into several folders. This strategy will help in version control of a particular digital record.

Here is an example of a well-developed filing structure – the first level is a function of the unit, the second level represents the activities of the unit, and the third level represents the transactions of the unit. Records would then be filled in folders in the third level:

Example of a file structure

File structure screen shot

The actual documents would then be filled at the fourth level (Consultation Correspondence, Draft Policy Development, Final Policy, Resources for Policy Development).

St. Cloud State File Space

Regardless of who you are, St. Cloud State has allocated digital file space for you. Use it. There are many advantages to using your office’s file space:

  • Files are centralized in one location and not spread out to individual staff computers
  • Multiple copies of the same digital record is minimized
  • Files can be used by anyone in your office who has access permission, including remotely
  • Files are backed up twice a day and kept for three weeks after the time of the backup; these files can be retrieved by right-clicking a folder, selecting “Properties” and then going to the “Previous Versions” tab.

How Long Should the Records be Kept?

Like records in paper form, digital records need to be managed to remain accessible, as required by state law. Yet at some point, records that no longer have value to your office should be deleted. Even though the records do not take any physical storage space like file cabinets, it is good practice to delete records that no longer are useful. Just like paper records, by deleting records that no longer have no value, they will be easier to manage.

A way to determine whether or not records can be deleted is to decide if you need the record for future reference, not to keep “just in case.” Another way is through St. Cloud State’s record retention program, which is managed by the University Archives.

A record retention program is mandated by Minnesota state law:

Minnesota Statutes, Chapter 138.17

It shall be the duty of the head of each state agency and the governing body of each county, municipality, and other subdivision of government to establish and maintain an active, continuing program for the economical and efficient management of the records of each agency, county, municipality, or other subdivision of government.