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Organizing Your Digital Files

An album for DVDs protects thousands
of digital photos in one place

The task of organizing digital files can be daunting with the thought of organizing hundreds — or even thousands — of files. But once you have a system established, you'll be able to drag-and-drop files and complete the project fairly quickly.

The most important thing to remember when organizing your digital files is that there are several levels of information that should be recorded for each digital file.

  • The most general is the name of the folder the image is kept in.

  • The name of the digital file itself — that is, the title that you will click on to open the image.

  • The file log that records important information such as where you got the photo, where the original is stored (if it's a copy), where and when the photo was taken.

  • The photo caption (saved as part of the digital file) that records details about what is happening in the photo — who is pictured, and the date and place the photo was taken.

There will be some information overlap in each of these levels, but the repetition helps guarantee the information will be preserved.

4 Steps To Organizing Your Digital Files:

  1. Group Your Materials into Categories & Subfolders

  2. Name Your Digital Photos and Documents

  3. Create a File Log

  4. Create Photo Captions

1 Group Your Materials into Categories & Subfolders

Once you've evaluated and centralized your digital assets, you can begin a more detail-oriented organization.

Sub-folders can be created to reflect specific subjects such as events, people, places, etc., as well as the types of media (e.g. videos, photos, etc.). As with any labeling or organizing project, keep it simple. If you give your folders "high level" names, you can add photos and other digital files to your folders and subfolders as time goes on.

Examples of folder names (Birthday-Bill 1999):

2 Name Your Digital Photos and Documents

Once your photos and documents are grouped in folders and subfolders, you should standardize the names of the photos and documents themselves.

Names for your files should be short and simple. Each name should cover the basics, capturing some of the "who, what, when, where and why." Many photo or digital camera programs let you automatically name a saved file as you create them, but you can also go back later and rename files for more detail and accuracy.

Keep in mind that your photos or documents may one day become separated from the folder you're putting them in, so it's a good idea to include enough information in the file name to identify the file without the folder name. For example, if your folder is called "Birthday--Bill, 1998" the images inside that folder should still have something like "1998_BillBirthdayParty" as part of the name.

File naming tips:

  • Start the file name with the year, or include the entire date.

  • Include a subject, but keep it short.

  • When naming a subject with more than one word, do not insert spaces. Start each word with a capital letter.

  • Use an underscore to separate years, subjects and series numbers.

Examples of file names (1999_BillBirthdayParty_01):

3 Create a File Log

A file log is a simple list of all your digital assets. A log will make it easy to search for names, dates, places, etc., so you can locate specific photos or other digital assets you need. Your file log can be created in several different formats — a simple text file or written document, a spreadsheet or even a database created with a specialized software program.

If you move your family archive — the physical files or the digital assets — be sure to move your file log, too.

NOTE: If you have digital assets stored on websites, make sure to record the information for them as well, including the web site address, username and passwords, and what photos (or other digital files) are being stored. Be sure to make a backup of any photos stored on a website.

Just remember to accurately input the information and keep it updated.

In your log, include:

  • File names and/or folder names.

  • Subject(s) (including a brief or detailed description).

  • Physical location (i.e. computer; external hard drive).

  • Format (e.g. if you have scanned an image of a document, the original format).

  • Size (optional).

  • Condition (optional).

  • Source and contact information (whether it's from a friend, relative or library or you took the photo yourself, always note the source of a digital image in your file log).

Example of a file log:

4 Create Photo Captions

Most photo editing programs such as Photoshop allow you to add captions to your digital files. The captions become part of the image file. Use the Help function of whatever program you're using to find where to add captions to your photos. Alternatively, you could record captions as part of your digital file log, instead of as part of each image file.

When writing photo captions include the "who, what, when, and where," as well as details such as who took the photo(s), why you were there, what you were doing, or even a special memory.

Captions can include:

  • Date (at least the year, and if possible the month and day)

  • Location (as much detail as possible — city, state, specific home or address)

  • Subject(s)

  • Names of people (be sure to say if you're going left to right or front to back)

  • Anecdotal information, such as a memory (optional)

Here's an example:

(Foreground, left to right) Prime Minister Winston Churchill, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Marshal Joseph Stalin at the palace in Yalta for the Crimean Conference, February 1945. [Source: U.S. Signal Corps; Prints & Photographs Division; Library of Congress].

Preserving Your Digital Files

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