How to build an archive (3): an archive that grows

One key aspect of curating your digital library is to notice when it is time to shift gears and scale up. What starts out with a simple folder with a random name, in an inconvenient place, with a few PDFs dumped in it, may eventually grow to be a fully used external hard-drive with a dedicated folder structure and consistent file-naming system. Until it is that time, however, one should not do so, as it would be wasted effort. Having 10 PDFs does not merit a dedicated external HD, nor does it require a multi-layered folder structure. However, some conventions may be adopted early on, such as a consistent file-naming system. File names, if chosen well, tend to retain their value throughout the evolution of your digital archive. But even here there are exceptions. At some stages in the evolution of your archive, you definitely do not want to rename all your files. It would, again, be a wasted effort.

At every stage of your archive, consider what would clearly be a wasted effort. Ideally, you then act in such a way that you neither waste that effort, nor cut yourself short in the future.Let us look at the evolution of a typical digital archive. Everyone who is serious about getting a great personal, digital library is well advised to go through all the stages.

Typical evolution of a personal, digital archive:

  1. Birth: You obtain your first digital documents of which you realize you want to keep it for future use. They have a somewhat random name, placed in a somewhat random folder, but that’s ok because you know exactly where to look for it. You have no idea other people have done this before you and the thought doesn’t come up that those others may done this better. You still make paper copies with the photo copier.
    Challenge: Making a conscious decision to start a personal, digital archive. Is this really the path I want to trot?
    Danger: Adopting an overly complicated folder-structure. Not thinking of a logical way to name files.
  2. Childhood: Your collection grows. You have found this one way to get files, and this is how you get them, in a haphazard way. You are not aware at all of file type, file size, quality, etc. You don’t understand the language people in later stages speak, but you sure do understand the potential of keeping digital files. You print out some of the more interesting digital files you have found. You start to use cataloging software but the amount of detail you put into each entry will not be maintained in later stages.
    Challenge: Setting up a folder-structure, preferably one that allows for growth.
    Danger: Skipping files because they are in an unfamiliar format. Downloading rubbish.
  3. Puberty: You have found multiple ways to obtain files and you get them en masse. You make real efforts to get as much files as you can, you delight in opportunities of reeling in files in bulk. You dream of one day sitting on top of the biggest pile of files anyone has ever collected in your field of studies. This is the most time-intensive period of your archive-building. You are constantly adding new files to your collection, usually you just dump them in a ‘to-be-processed’ folder. You are trying your best to keep that folder as clean as possible, but the accretion of new files is high.
    Challenge: Breaking out of old habits and finding new ways to obtain files, learning to use tools for obtaining, editing, and cataloging files.
    Danger: Downloading downloading downloading… but why do you need these files?
  4. Adolescence: You have seen it all. You have a strong, wide-ranging archive, and it is now time to fill in specific areas of interest. You get this through specific searches, file swaps, and using photocopiers to scan. Based on your reflections on what these areas of interest are, you create a new, big folder structure. Slowly, you are able to give all the files you have accrued a place. You only catalogue specific files, all the rest will have to be found based on your folder structure and file naming system.
    Challenge: Finding the right means to fill in gaps, esp. finding the right persons to do file swaps with.
    Not recognizing that not every file needs to be perfectly edited.
  5. Adulthood: Something to be proud of: you have an archive with a clear direction, geared exactly to your own needs. Now you only need to fill in missing details. You emphasize on scanning books and articles that are not digitally available. You adopt a multi-layered folder-system based on importance. Most important files are within a few clicks reach, but for others you will have to do more effort, e.g. take and connect an external HD.
    Challenge: Judging whether it is worth spending time behind the photocopier to scan yet another book.
    Loosing sight over the macro-structure of your folder system.
  • Death: Remember to develop a back-up strategy. Death is not inevitable!

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