Silence: File Names and Context in Digital Collections

File names. They are important. I would prefer they do not contain symbols, diacritics or weird characters in them but that is one of the many challenges with digital collecting. Ignoring the fact that I work with digital collections professionally, for some reason it has taken me a while to come to the realisation that giving a file name some meaning is not only useful in general, but gives it context and a voice when it ends up somewhere else. It should not come as a surprise that completing an information management degree and working in a library has that affect.

As a photographer, I have been taking digital photographs since the early 2000s (although I would not have called myself a photographer back then). Somewhere along the line I decided that the file name assigned by the camera was important so I never renamed files once downloaded onto my computer. At least I had the common sense to begin organising my files in folders based on year, month and day at some point while studying photography but the earlier images are just in one folder for the entire year. What happens when IMG_0458.jpg finds itself on my desktop, in an email to someone else or orphaned out there in the digital world? My earlier digital cameras did not embed technical metadata into the file so the various dates (such as date created, or date modified) are not reliable indicators of its creation date. It also does not let me know what the photograph is unless I open the file to view it.

I have just over 2TB of digital photographs from 2002-2017 so it is definitely possible for files to lose their context given the amount of computers I have had during that time. Migrating data always involves risk, from data loss to files ending up in the wrong place. A couple of years ago I created my own file and folder naming schema for my digital photographs and I have progressively gone back through my archive to rename files and folders to give them more meaning (still more work to do there).

Example of my folder and file naming structure
The above example shows how the file name includes a date as well as a short description (in this case, my cat's name!). The folder structure keeps the files in an organised structure where I can easily find something if I know the rough date it was taken, and the descriptive name in both the folder and file name enable me to understand what it contains without opening the file first.

In the context of collecting institutions, file and folder naming conventions will be based on given systems and repositories. For example, folder names for born-digital acquisitions at SLNSW are based on the reference code assigned by the catalogue system (for either published or unpublished material) and we encourage our clients and donors to use descriptive file names where possible.

Using descriptive file names that includes both a date and short description ensure that digital files can speak for themselves without any in-depth analysis. It is also important to follow general file naming guidelines which include:

  • Follow basic computer system rules for file names. This includes only using alphanumeric characters, using hyphens or underscores instead of spaces, ensure file names end with a file extension
  • Use a unique name for each file
  • Append file names to distinguish originals from derivatives
  • Be consistent with file names
  • Do not use multiple names for the same file
Adapted from

This post is my contribution to the GLAM Blog Club August theme: 'Silence'.

Cover image: Any excuse to use a cat photo. This is 170302_Jade002, as seen in the naming example above.