Electronic records management guidelines
A file name is the chief identifier for a record. In the world of electronic records, the record’s file name provides metadata that places the record in context with other records, records series, and records retention schedules. In most organizations, the policy for naming a file (and hence a record) is left to individuals or to groups of individuals (e.g., departments, committees). Consider establishing an agency-wide file naming policy that complements your electronic records management strategy.
Consistently named records foster collaboration based on mutual understanding of how to name files and use file names (including the file name metadata). Consistently named records also help you to meet your legal requirements. Legally, your records must be trustworthy, complete, accessible, legally admissible in court, and durable for as long as your approved records retention schedules require. Records that are consistently and logically named are easier to manage to meet these requirements.
In other words, with each staff member consistently naming electronic records, other staff members will be able to look at a record’s file name and use that information to recognize the contents and characteristics of the record and to make decisions about it. For example, a staff member could see that “HF0035broch96/97P.pdf” is a brochure about a House bill (HF0035) in the 1996/1997 session that is available to the public.
For more information on the legal framework you must consider when developing a file naming policy, refer to the Legal Framework chapter of these guidelines and the Minnesota State Archives’ Preserving and Disposing of Government Records.
As you develop your file naming policy, you will need to be familiar with the following:
- Differences Among File Names, File Paths, and Addresses
- Common File Name Elements
- Planning for a File Name Policy
A file name is the name of the file as it stands alone. The file path shows the location of the file. For example, the file named “CommitteeAMinutes021401.doc” might be stored in a series of nested directories (its file path) for all committees as: “X:Committees/CommitteeA/Minutes/2001/February/CommitteeAMinutes021401.doc.” An address describes the location of a file delivered on the Internet. For example, a map of a public park named Smith Park might have the following address: “http://www.parks.org/smith.html.”
When developing your file naming policy, you may wish to include some of the following common elements in the file name:
- 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)
Having a file name policy in place will assist with managing your electronic records. When creating a file name policy the following suggestions should be considered:
- Create unique file names. Duplicate file names will cause problems.
- File names should be simple and easy to understand.
- Use only alpha-numeric characters. Avoid using special characters such as: ? / $ % & ^ # . \ : < >. Special characters are often reserved for use by the operating system.
- Use underscores (_) and dashes (-) to represent spaces. Spaces are often reserved for operating system functions and might be misread.
- Use leading zeros with the numbers 0-9 to facilitate proper sorting and file management.
- Dates should follow the ISO 8601 standard of YYYY_MM_DD or YYYYMMDD. Variations include YYYY, YYYY-MM, YYYY-YYYY. This maintains chronological order. If dates of creation are used, these can make following retention schedules easier.
- Keep the file name as short as possible and always include the three character file extension preceded with a period (Ex: .jpg or .doc).
- Include the version number in the file name by using ‘v’ or ‘V’ and the version number at the end of the document. (Ex: 2004_Notes_v01.doc) Avoid using the word version or draft and the beginning of the file name for access purposes (Ex: Version1_2004_Notes.doc).
- Order the pieces of information or elements being used to create the file name in the most logical order based on retrieval methods. For example, use the date first on events that are time specific or reoccurring, and use the name of the event for events that are infrequent and will be easier to find by name rather than date.
As you develop your policy, you will also need to address the following:
Persistence over time. File names should outlast the records creator who originally named the file. With good stakeholder and staff input, and training, you should be able to 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 help staff members logically and easily name records and help ensure that records are accessible (as determined by the MGDPA). 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 your computer infrastructure, so that you can monitor policy compliance, manage records and records series, gather metadata, and perform other administrative tasks easily and in compliance with all legal requirements. For example, if all the records in a specific records series are easily identifiable by file name, they will be easier to gather and manage.
Scalability. Consider how scalable your file naming policy needs to be. For example, if you want to include the project number, don’t limit your project numbers to two digits, or you can only have ninety-nine projects.
Determining what metadata to collect. You will need to decide what metadata to collect and include in file names. This will help ensure the long-term usefulness of your records and help you to meet legal requirements for accessibility (for public records) and accountability, as well as protect not-public records.
Universal retrieval. Ensure that the staff and the public (as appropriate) can access your files. Legally, public records must be accessible. Standard file names allow users to find records efficiently.
Determining the official copy. Determine which file is the “official” copy. As part of your web content management (see the Web Content Management chapter of these guidelines), you should include in your policy which web site files are official records, and which version of the electronic file is the official record. Including an indicator of official record status in a file name may be useful for this purpose. The inclusion of this parameter in your policy will help you meet your legal requirements to capture records as set forth by the Official Records Act. The inclusion of this designation may also make administration of your web site records easier.
Determining file naming boundaries. Pay close attention to the freedom you give staff members (and outside vendors) in naming files. Provide guidelines and training on file naming. You will not be able to manage every electronic record’s file name, so you will need to rely on staff members and vendors to name files in compliance with your policy. By providing guidelines and training, you can maximize policy compliance in a way that meets your operational and legal requirements.
Relationship to and connection with paper records. Determine how the names of your electronic records relate to the names of paper files you have stored. Because electronic records may be part of records series that include paper records, the file naming policy for electronic records should fit logically with your paper records naming. For example, a letter published on a web site might be part of a records series that includes additional paper documents in a file folder. By ensuring that the electronic records’ and the paper records’ file names mesh, you can more easily manage the records series.
Note: Information about file naming conventions above was gathered from the following resources:
- Alberta Government. Naming Conventions for Electronic Records. August 2005.
- Bibliographic Center for Research’s (BCR) BCR’s CDP [Collaborative Digitization Program] Digital Imaging Best Practices Version 2.0 June 2008.
- Brookhaven National Laboratory (BNL) Web Communication Standards. File Naming Conventions and Directory Structure. February 5, 2008.
- Digital Projects Advisory Group, University Libraries at the University of Colorado at Boulder. File Naming Conventions for Digital Collections. March 4, 2008.
- JISC Digital Media. Choosing a File Name. November 2008.
- North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources. Best Practices for File-Naming. May 7, 2008.
Key Issues to Consider
Now that you are familiar with some of the basic concepts of file naming, you can use the questions below to discuss how they relate to your agency.
Pay special attention to the questions posed by the legal framework, including the need for public accessibility, as appropriate. Consider your current and future activities and records to help determine the components of a file naming policy that will work now and in the future. For example, you may currently publish official statements or press releases on paper, but in the future, you may publish such records on the web.
- Do we have a file naming policy? Does it cover various type of documents in various environments? Is it extensible into the future? Does it make sense to all user groups?
- How will people be accessing the files? How will people “think of” this record (e.g., “I need to find a copy of XYZ.doc.” or “I need information about legislation passed in 2002/2003.”)?
- What information is most important to capture in the file name itself?
- Are there limitations on the length of the file name? By the software, computer system, or storage device?
- Will the records move location (e.g., from one server to another, from a server to long-term storage)? Could these changes affect the file naming strategy?
- How will staff members and the public access and open files in the short-term and long-term? What limitations do these systems have for file naming?
File Naming, Annotated List of Resources
Next Chapter, File Formats
Electronic Records Management Guidelines, March 2012, Version 5.
Links updated March 12, 2012.