Everyone’s an Archivist: Organizing Your Files for the Future.

Nina Tarnawsky Everyone's An Archivist Leave a Comment

This is a guest post by Nina Tarnawsky, a graduate student at the School of Information at the University of Texas at Austin with a focus in archival work. Nina has worked at the Harry Ransom Center and is currently a University Archives Intern at the Dolph Briscoe Library.

When you think of an archive – if you think of one at all – you probably conjure up a quiet room with mahogany paneling, large leather chairs, thick carpeting, and rows of researchers sitting quietly over folders of documents.

You’re not far off, though the mahogany paneling and large leather chairs are disappearing. However, archives aren’t just academic repositories anymore. Your computer, cell phone, and tablet all form your personal archive.

You’re an archivist too.

Your files are almost certainly not as organized as those you could find in the National Archives, but it doesn’t take much to get them there.

In my next few posts, I’ll give you some advice on basic things you can do to get your personal archive into a more organized state and a system you can use moving forward to keep it usable.

This will make your life easier when uploading to your Permanent Archive. Just remember, organization means accessibility.

How do I know?

So, who am I to be telling you how to organize your files? I’m a graduate student at the School of Information at the University of Texas at Austin. My focus has been on archival work and I’ve worked at a few repositories here in Austin where I’ve processed physical materials and organized digital collections.

I’ll be sharing with you some principles that professional archivists use when they process collections as well as some guidelines that records managers apply in their work. I’m an Apple user, so you’ll be seeing Apple software in my screenshots. However, the tips that I’ll be giving you are not tied to any one operating system and can be applied to a PC. And when you’re done, you can upload your files to your Permanent Archive from anywhere.

It’s up to you to decide how in depth and detailed you want to be in your organization. Whether you choose to do a full overhaul, or simply build in a few of my suggestions, everyone can benefit from organizing their materials.

If you can’t find it, they won’t find it.

One thing to consider when you’re organizing your materials is who you’re organizing them for. Chances are you’ve got an interest in not only preserving, but also sharing your personal legacy.

Many of us know the joy of discovery when we look through the photographs, letters, or diaries of our ancestors. We identify ourselves in our family’s past and cling to whatever was left behind for us. With your digital archive, you have an opportunity to preserve so much more of your family’s history than before, but that can feel overwhelming.

Think about the heirloom items on your computer – wedding photos, the birth of your child, correspondence with your family – and make those your initial focus. If these files are preserved in a jumble, they will be impenetrable to your descendants.

The memories that you want to pass on to your family are precious, but a cluttered and confusing hard drive is a burden rather than a joy. Materials that you’ve already deemed important, organized, and preserved are a way for your family to connect with their history for generations.

Do it for them.

Oftentimes an archivist works with a collection after its creator has died and we have to make sense of it. We have to determine the context of the records, their original order (how they were created or organized by the creator), and then create a finding aid (an intellectual ordering of the materials) and a physical order (how the materials are actually stored and organized).

Most collections have some degree of chaos and that chaos reflects the creator, which can in itself be interesting. However, that chaos is a big pain to live with.

The organizational tips that I’ll be focusing on in this series will help you bring some order to your files today and make it easier for your family to find them in the future. Make sure they can access the important records you want them to have, even if you’re not there to guide them. You can be the archivist of your own collection.

This post is the first in a series of four entitled “Everyone’s an Archivist” in which I will discuss simple and easy to follow ways to get the most out of your Permanent Archive. In my next post, I’ll discuss how establishing a file naming convention will make finding your memories easier, for now and the future.

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