Archiving is a practical endeavor — one that will save you time and money and prevent you from repeating your efforts again and again. Developing a working archive of your creative business will help you access the digital files, physical materials and key records you need to operate your business on a daily basis.
The other benefit to archiving your work is the ability to preserve examples of and stories from your career as a professional maker for future generations.
Historical accolades aside, hopefully all of us will bequeath our work to the next generation via our children or next of kin. The objects we are creating today will one day become the cherished family heirlooms that are passed from generation to generation.
Archiving is not always easy and you may discover that your goal for easily accessing material clashes with your more far-sighted vision for long-term preservation. However, as a former digital archivist, I am happy to share some basic principles and best practices for managing a working, lasting archive of creative and entrepreneurial work. *
Keep it or Toss it?
There is no practical way to save everything. And would we even want to? As artists, writers and craft professionals, we don’t need to overthink this part. As a rule of thumb, get rid of stuff that is not important. If it lacks functional use to your business operations or holds little meaning in the arc of the body of work you are creating, consider letting it go. Throwing stuff away (or donating) is actually a good thing, because it automatically increases the importance and value of what you’re retaining intentionally.
Good Description Means Easy Access & Transparency
The future archivist or descendent that acquires or inherits your body of work will act as a kind of detective, trying to sleuth their way through your archives. Make it easy on them by clearly outlining the basic details with the “who, what, where and when.” The “why” and “how” will be trickier to document, but not impossible.
A simplified way of organizing files and records are to group them first by type or category. From there, organize in sub-categories, and, finally, in chronological order. Being consistent in your organization is key.
The digital world is more volatile and fragile than the physical world, so consider creating a printed, physical guide or summary. Include a few key photos of projects of the year, thoughts on your work, and important accomplishments — This can be as a beautiful as an annual report printed with a self-publishing service (like Blurb) or as simple as a single paragraph that outlines a body of work, such as a few lines about the series of quilts you made in 2010. If you keep a blog, add a year-in-review post, and make a note to print this post each year for archival purposes. These notes together might comprise a single file folder for the duration of your life.
Do you have a backlog of unorganized, unlabeled records, works of art, craft projects and junk? Set aside time for appraisal and description. Start with 30 minutes per week. See “How to Name Your Files, Some Examples” in the resources section below. Each year, take notes on the projects you’ve completed or any other highlights you wish to document.
The Digital World
When in doubt, print it out. If a record is important to you or your business operation, retain the original, physical version — the preservation copy. Of course, if you want easy access on your hard drive, go ahead and scan your preservation copy. This will make your life easier if you want to quickly find something on your computer without having to dig through physical files.
Back up your digital files. Not everything that is created digitally will see the light of the physical, analog world. To preserve these digital files, do your best to follow good practice: use a hard drive and backup your data in the cloud. Filed saved “on the cloud” are saved on hard drives and servers managed elsewhere by another company (see examples of these companies in the resources section below). Redundancy is what often saves volatile digital files and prevents you from losing those files forever when something goes horribly wrong with your computer.
But can you open it? Over time, file formats become obsolete. If you’re in possession of a bunch of older files that are currently in an out-of-date format, consider migrating these files by opening each one and resaving them in an accessible format.
Avoid external media like DVDs. Remember those floppy discs we used to use? Pretty useless now, right? One day, those DVDs in your shoebox will be just as laughable. Sure, there are institutions that collect older PCs to access the content on these floppies, but who wants to keep a museum of old computers in their home? Instead, keep your files on your hard drive and back everything up in the cloud.
Save your website. Or not. Websites are just digital files. (Personally, I hope everyone has already forgotten the initial launch of my website.) But, if you are keen on saving every iteration of your site, back up the older versions of your site along with all of your digital files. For fun, look up your site on the Internet Archive’s The Wayback Machine. My site, Hudson + Daughter, has been saved eight times in the two years that I’ve had it online, with the first version accessible alongside the latest iteration, for better or worse. Just a note about this awesome resource: this is an access tool, not a preservation tool. The Internet Archive is a business and could go under someday. If you’re truly interested in preserving your site, save the digital files yourself.
Be consistent and clear when naming your digital files. Consider using descriptive terms within the actual file name, and name those files with sorting in mind. See “How to Name Your Files, Some Examples” in the resources section below.
Build in a few hours each year for a digital preservation audit, perhaps during your business’s slower months. Review your digital files for older formats and, in necessary, schedule time to save them in up-to-date formats. Print your most important digital records and consider keeping a copy of your hard drive in the cloud.
Preservation of Physical Material
Once you’ve done the hard work of appraisal — choosing what to keep — physical preservation will be much more manageable. The common threats to physical material are extreme heat or humidity, pests, flood, fire and theft. Each type of material will have its own preservation concerns, but here are some general guidelines:
- Opt for acid-free storage. Gaylord Archival makes high-quality storage containers and file folders.
- Store oversize artwork on paper in flat files.
- For fragile, valuable textiles, consider storing them in flat acid-free boxes. Otherwise, roll large textiles and quilts onto acid-free tubes with the decorative side facing out.
- Designate an area in your home or studio that is most likely to not be affected by one of the major physical threats and is likely to be treated with regular housekeeping.
- If possible, label your files with a naming system that corresponds to your digital files.
Create a space (or spaces) in your home or studio to house key business records, descriptive annual summaries of your work and, of course, your creative body of work. Consider investing in storage materials made for your particular type of media or art format.
Security and Privacy
Digital passwords are key to ensuring that your digital material will live on. My husband has two of my passwords: the password to my computer, and the password and username for LastPass, a password management tool that stores all of the usernames and passwords for my digital life online. There are many password management tools to choose from, and all have the potential of being hacked but, for me, the convenience they provide far outweighs any potential privacy risk. This is a personal decision that you will have to determine for yourself.
The paradox of email: it isn’t private and you’ll probably lose it all one day. I love the idea of printing a few emails from the early days of my courtship with my husband, as well as some correspondence I’ve had with mentors who have meant a great deal to me. I am going to assume that emails in my Gmail account will be gone one day, and I’m OK with that. (Heck, I’m pleased by that.) But if you have a few special notes you’d love to save for posterity, be sure to print them out. On the flip side, it’s worth noting that anything you write via email can be forwarded, shared, posted and widely disseminated. I’m sure that we’ve all learned the lesson, myself included, of not writing anything in email that you wouldn’t say aloud to a room full of people.
Tell your partner, best friend or next of kin where your key business records are located and how to access them. Consider using a password management service. Update this master password at least annually (and don’t forget to tell your next of kin when you change that password.)
*I am not giving legal advice on records retention — consult your attorney or financial professional for guidelines in these matters.
- Artifact Uprising
Here are a few options for backing up your data online (in addition to your own hard drive). Many of these offer additional services like file sharing and versioning:
- Google Docs
- Microsoft OneDrive
- Amazon Cloud Drive
- Apple’s iCloud
Preservation formats of digital files
This gets a bit techy, but if you’re curious, here’s a current, evolving list of file formats that are considered to be the most sustainable, by file type (text, still image, moving image, etc.).
Access older versions of websites
The Wayback Machine from the Internet Archive is a tool that displays older versions of websites.
Preservation supplies and storage materials
Gaylord Archival sells high-quality preservation supplies to archives, museums, personal collectors and artists.
Preservation resources, education, and services
NEDCC, a conservation lab outside of Boston, Massachusetts, is a wonderful resource. I have worked with them throughout my career and I would highly recommend them if you are considering hiring a professional archivist or preservationist. Check out their preservation leaflets for more detailed information on preserving specific formats, especially works of art on paper, records and photographs.
The Benson Ford Research Center has developed a thorough guide to caring for textiles.
Password Management Tools
I use LastPass and would recommend it. There are many password management tools to choose from.
Contingency Planning by Kristin Link for the Craft Industry Alliance
How to Name Your Files, Some Examples
An example of a file-naming system that is organized first by category, then sub-category and, finally, in chronological order:
Examples of big-bucket categories you may be working with:
- Journals and Notebooks
- Business Records
An example of a descriptive file-name:
Blog_2016_01_14_WatercolorWithPreschoolers_01.jpg (not WatercolorPost1.jpg)