Artist’s Legacy Toolkit: Intro to Records Management


The life of a dance work extends beyond the rise and fall of the stage curtain.As an active company or choreographer, you constantly generate new records and materials crucial to your continued creative output, organizational functions, and legacy.  By instating an effective organizational system to ensure that these materials are easy to locate and use when you need them, you are able to better create and promote your work, apply for funding, and build your legacy. 

What is records management?

Records management is the ongoing process of establishing and using organizational systems to retain control over your records during their creation, use, maintenance and disposition. The resources in this guide are meant as suggestions for you to consider when establishing your own standards for organizing and describing your materials; before you develop your own systems, consider the ways in which you use your records, and adapt these guides to suite your unique needs.

How will records management help me?

  • Records will be organized, making it easier to find what you need to run your company, apply for funding, and create promotional materials.
  • You will save space and money. By implementing a system for determining which records to save and which records to get rid of, you will minimize the amount of storage space you need and time you will spend managing records.
  • Institutional memory will be preserved on paper, not in people, and hence will not be at risk of being lost.  
  • Legacy materials will be identified and properly cared for. Photographs, videos, and other records documenting your work will be inventoried and stored in a way that makes it easier to identify information about the work and preserves the work for the future.

What are records?

Records are documents or materials that were created as a result of your company’s activities.  These types of materials range from recordings of rehearsals and performances, publicity materials, photographs, and music scores to administrative and outreach documents like budgets, calendars, correspondence, and mailing lists.

Not all of the records you create need to be saved.  If a record does not show evidence of the following characteristics you do not need to save it:

  • Administrative Value: records that provide information on operating or business procedures.
  • Fiscal Value: records that detail the use of funds.
  • Historical Value: records that offer evidence of your company’s work, accomplishments, or activities.
  • Legal Value: records that document business transactions.
  • Operational Value: records that show actions to accomplish the institution’s mission or mandate

Getting Started

It’s not as overwhelming as it sounds. You probably already have some kind of organizational system in place, however provisional. Rather than creating a new system, identify and refine what you already have in place. What you come up with will be more sustainable for you if it’s based on what you were doing before. Before you start thinking “systematically,” write down or collect your answers to these questions:

  • What are the mission, vision, and goals of my company?  
  • What types of records do I create, and how do I use these records to support these goals?
  • Are my records currently organized in a way that makes it easy for me to find the documents I need to  support these goals?
  • Which aspects of my current organizational system work well and why?
  • Which aspects would I like to improve, and why?
  • Who else handles my records and how are they used?
  • What resources do I have to assist me (for example: database programs, interns, etc.)

Record Identification Chart

Use the following chart to identify the types of records your company creates, how they are used, and how they are currently organized.  This outline will give you a sense of whether your current organizational systems meet your needs.

→ See Legacy Tool #1: Record Identification Chart

Physical Records: Organization and Storage

When creating a system for organizing your physical records (programs, posters, photographs, videotapes, contracts, tax forms, etc.) consider the ways in which you use these records.  For example, you will probably look for creative records such as choreographic notes, rehearsal videos, set designs, etc. first by work and then by date.  The table below outlines suggestions for ways in which you might want to organize your records.

Separate materials by format (i.e. group all programs together, all tapes together, etc.).  This will help both with consistency in organization and description, and also in preservation.  By keeping like materials together, you can better control the conditions in which they are stored.  The table below outlines best practices for storing your records. 


  • Consistency is key.  No matter what system you develop for organizing your records, it is important to maintain consistency in the system across time and personnel to avoid lost or duplicate records.
  • Clearly identify, label, and date all items and storage containers in easy to understand and consistent terms.  
  • Develop a standard set of names and phrases to describe works, events, and places. (This is called a controlled vocabulary.) This will help you to avoid labeling and filing items related to the same topic in different ways, thus making it difficult to locate materials.
  • Once you create a system for organization and description, create a written document describing the system to include in staff and volunteer orientations.

Record Organization Chart

The following table provides suggestions for how you might want to organize your records.  The first column lists types of materials you may choose to group together, and the second and third columns provide options for how you may want to organize those materials. 

These are just a few ways you may choose to organize your materials; the most important aspect of an organizational system is that it makes sense for the organization and is simple to maintain.  Use the Record Identification Chart above to see how you are currently organizing your records and how you can expand or refine those systems to better meet your needs.

→ See Records Management Tool #1: Record Organization Chart

Controlled Vocabularies

Using a consistent set of terms will help you to avoid labeling and filing items related to the same topic in different ways, thus making it difficult to locate materials. It’s best to keep a list of the terms you will use, called a “controlled vocabulary.” The following table provides suggestions for terms you might want to use to describe your records. Feel free to create your own terms–just be consistent, and document what they mean!

→ See Records Management Tool #2: Controlled Vocabularies


  • Store materials in a cool and dry environment with adequate ventilation.
  • Do not store materials in attics, basements, near water pipes, or in hot and damp places. If materials have to be in a basement or ground floor, elevate them at least 6 inches off the floor.
  • Use metal shelving, and do not place materials directly on the floor.
  • Store oversized items flat, not rolled, when possible. If they have to be rolled, do not use rubber bands or stack rolled items.
  • Make sure magnetic tape (audio and video) are tightly wound and stored upright (like a book) with the wound side down.
  • Do not expose materials to unnecessary light.
  • Minimize the use of staples, glue, rubber bands, and other adhesives. However, don’t try to remove these if they have been used in the past. This can increase damage.
  • Dust and inspect materials periodically for signs of mold or insect infestation.
  • Identify and date each item directly on the item itself, using pencil on paper materials, and an acid free archival marker (not a Sharpie) on other materials; labels can be added to tapes using archival cloth tape and acid-free marker.
→ See Records Management Tool #3: Storage Guidelines

Digital Records: Organization and Storage

For many individuals or small companies, systems for managing digital records were developed haphazardly as electronic record keeping and communication became increasingly prevalent.  As greater numbers of digital records are created and accumulated, more people begin to interact with the system, and file formats and hardware become obsolete, informal organizational systems are no longer sufficient.  Implementing a formal records management program for your digital records, either from scratch or restructuring a current system, may seem daunting.  In the long run, by implementing a simple organizational structure and standardizing file names you will be able to increase efficiency in administration, find the records you need to promote your work, and ensure that your legacy is not erased with a crashed hard drive or obsolete file formats.

Use the suggestions in the guide to create a records management system that is tailored to your own needs.

Filing Structure

Developing a structure:

The organizational systems that you use for filing your paper materials may not be the best system for filing electronic records.  Quantity, duplication, alterability, and differing file types are only a few of the ways electronic records differ from paper records and therefore demand differing systems of organization and identification. 

Filing structures should reflect your organization’s activities and how you use your files, so that most records will have a clear home.  It is important to develop a system that is simple and intuitive so that you and your staff are inclined to use it!  Before you create your filing system, create a list of your organization’s departments and/or functions.  Some examples of this could be:

  • Creative
  • Development
  • Education
  • Financial
  • Human Resources
  • Public Relations

Filing Structure

After you have established your top level of folders based on departments or functions, create a second level of folders based on activity or project.  Some examples of this could be:

Filing Structure

Save your records within the activity or project folders, not in the higher level folders. 

Filing Structure

Best practices

  • Don’t make the organizational system so individualized that people who come after you won’t be able to take it over. Before initiating a new system, discuss it with your staff and volunteers to make sure that it is easily understandable and useable by all.
  • If your organization has several staff members or volunteers managing records, define clear roles and responsibilities.
  • Having a policy or system in place does not mean that others will follow it.  When instituting the system, or training new staff or volunteers, make sure they understand the importance of the system and how it will help them and the organization in the long run.

File Naming Conventions

Establishing a standard format and set of guidelines for naming electronic files will aid organization and identifying the content of the document without opening it.  While it is helpful to determine a shared system that everyone follows, it is more important that the titles be clear, consistent, and meaningful rather than overly prescriptive and formalized.  It will be helpful to establish a standard set of names and phrases to describe works, document types, and creators. (This is called a controlled vocabulary.) This will help you to avoid labeling and filing items related to the same topic in different ways, thus making it difficult to locate materials.  An example of a controlled vocabulary is included below.

Best practices

  • Include DATE, DESCRIPTION, and CREATOR in file names
    • For example, “2013_05_16_mellongrantapplication_mfw.docx”
    • “2005_program_nutcracker.psd”
  • Include DATE, WORK, LOCATION, PHOTOGRAPHER, and NUMBER IN SERIES in photograph names
    • “2005_nutcracker_oakland_smith_.004.tif”
  • Use lowercase letters when possible
  • Eliminate spaces between words, periods, and backslashes in the filename to minimize potential OS and software problems.
  • Dates should be yyyy_mm_dd
  • Develop a system for establishing version control
  • Numerical indicators such as 1.0, 1.1, 1.2, …, 2.1, 2.2, …
  • Phrases such as “draft,”, “review,” and “final”
  • For example, “2013_05_16_mellongrantapplication_mfw_draft.docx”
  • Or, “2013_05_16_mellongrantapplication_mfw_1.3.docx”
  • Create a document outlining your file naming conventions, and share it with all staff and volunteers.


Email is often viewed as different from other types of electronic records, and is subject to highly individualized systems of organization and not incorporated into shared filing systems.  Not all emails need to be saved outside of the email client and into the filing system, however many relevant records and correspondence are rendered inaccessible when they remain only in email.  Developing a shared understanding of what constitutes an email that is important to save will ensure that important organizational decisions and transactions will remain accessible to everyone even after the current staff members move on or in the event of a malfunction with the email client. Be sure to download important attachments and back them up.

Best practices

  • Consider saving email messages that:
  • Need to be forwarded for information purposes
  • Contain discussions relevant to internal operational systems
  • Contain information about business transactions
  • Contain information about hiring or firing staff or volunteers
  • Contain information about or discussions with funders or donors
  • Determine who is responsible for saving email messages to the filing system
  • For internal messages, the sender of the email
  • For messages sent externally, the sender of the email
  • For external messages received by one person, the receiver of the email
  • For external messages received by more than one person, the person responsible for the area of work related to the message
  • Use meaningful titles in the “Subject” field of the email
  • When saving emails to the filing system, file them with related materials (i.e. save email correspondence with a donor in the “Development” file) and follow established file naming conventions
  • Provide clear direction to staff and volunteers regarding when and how to save an email into the filing system

Cloud computing

Cloud computing is a technology that allows you to store and access digital records on multiple servers and through the Internet.  Cloud computing is a useful tool when working collaboratively, working from home or on the road, and sharing documents and files with others.  While this freedom to share and collaborate on documents is can be conducive to productivity, it also means that files can be easily changed, removed, or deleted by others.  It is important to implement a records management plan within these cloud computing environments so that you are able to maintain control over the documents that are important to your organization.

Best practices

  • Be selective when granting editing permissions.
  • Be consistent in your organizational and file naming systems.  Follow the same organizational structure and naming conventions in the cloud as you do on your own server.  This will help in locating documents across platforms.
  • Save copies of final documents onto your server.  Saving final copies of documents will ensure that future revisions, accidental deletions, or the termination of a user account will not jeopardize the document.  These documents should be saved in the filing structure.
  • Before a user account is terminated, make sure other users will be able to retain access to important emails, documents, calendars, etc.

Preservation and Storage

The most important thing you can do to protect your digital records is to regularly backup your server or hard drive.  An external hard drive is one reliable format for creating your back-ups.  Store multiple hard drives in as diverse of geographic areas as possible.  For example, consider sending a backup hard drive to a board member located in a different city or state.  CDs, flash drives, and online services can be used as temporary forms of back-up, but do not rely on these types of media for long term storage as they may become obsolete or inaccessible.

Alternatively or in addition, sign up for a cloud-based back-up service such as Backblaze, which offers regular automatic backups of your files to the cloud. This service should be used solely for backups, and is separate from collaborative cloud-based platforms such as Google drive or Dropbox.

Keep these materials in a cool and dry location away from dust and water pipes.  Be sure to save one copy of the hard drive that you do not use to access files on a regular basis.


An inventory is a way to get an overview of all materials and set priorities for improving organizational systems. It is a crucial first step, especially for organizations that have existed for several decades, have had staff turnover, and may have materials stored in different locations.

Creating an inventory for your AV materials will help you to keep track of the content and condition of your recordings.  Your inventory can range from the most basic, providing minimal information identifying the content and format of the recording, to a more comprehensive inventory that will allow you to track the people involved in the production as well as any copyright or licensing notes.

An inventory not only helps you locate your materials, but it is vital when calculating insurance, applying for funding to work on collections, transferring your files to another organization, or developing a disaster plan. Listed below are sample fields to choose from when you are creating your inventory. By selecting the fields that are relevant to your needs you have the flexibility to develop an inventory only as detailed as you need. Think about how items are already labeled and how that information can be transferred to a spreadsheet as you develop your inventory template.

How detailed should it be?

Before you start, decide how detailed you want the inventory to be: consider both your needs for access and what will be feasible to complete. Audiovisual items should be inventoried at the item level (i.e. make an entry in the spreadsheet for every item, with some exceptions for multiple duplicates). For paper materials, you might inventory at the folder level or box level. You may make different choices for different parts of the collection, but be sure decisions are consistent and clearly documented.

First steps: Checklist

  • Make a complete list of locations where materials are found. Are there materials off-site?
  • Do you have any partial or incomplete inventories that can provide a starting point? Be sure to evaluate these inventories (is information still accurate?) before using them.
  • Come up with a project plan determining what order you will inventory the collection. Tip: divide up the collection by format. AV materials will often be the most time-consuming.
  • Gather supplies you will need, e.g., acid-free markers, labeling tape, folders.
  • Agree on a final version of the template you will use. You may want to adapt DHC’s template, adding or eliminating columns to suit the needs of your organization.
  • Determine who will be responsible for supplying or vetting information. Tip: A long-time company member may be the best person to supply missing information, such as identifying performers. Establish a plan for how much time the person is able to contribute and what the protocol is for contacting them.
  • Decide whether you will perform any other actions during the course of the inventory, such as flagging preservation concerns or re-housing.
  • Develop a controlled vocabulary for works, locations, etc.
  • Develop a system of unique IDs for materials to be inventoried at the item level. (See tips)

General Tips

  • Inventory by material type. Create separate tabs in the spreadsheet for material types, e.g. AV materials, Photo and paper materials, Costumes, Artifacts.
  • In the process of performing the inventory, you may want to flag any materials that are found to require immediate preservation attention (papers or photos at risk of deterioration, tapes improperly stored or poorly wound, presence of severe dust, mold, etc.). These items can be prioritized or receive remediation (interleaving with acid-free paper, re-housing).

Tips for AV materials

  • Be sure you know how to identify and describe videotape formats. The Texas Commission on the Arts’ Videotape Identification and Assessment Guide is a useful resource, as is the National Archives’ Video Identification resource.
  • Do not play tapes in order to ascertain content unless you have consulted an AV preservation specialist. Older tapes that have not been played in a long time can easily be damaged and can damage playback equipment. Obtain as much information as possible from labels or inventories, or consult a specialist for recommendations on whether it is safe to play tapes.
  • IDs and labeling: A simple way to create unique IDs is to use a prefix for the company or artist (e.g., DTH for Dance Theatre of Harlem) and start with 001 or 0001 depending on the total number of items. There is no need for IDs to contain information (e.g., codes for types of content, work titles, etc.) If you already have an existing system of IDs, you can continue using these as long as they meet the criteria of being unique numbers. Label items with archival tape and acid-free markers; label the container and the item.
  • Group items together that are components of a single title (for instance, originals and copies made in other formats, or multi-part items.) Also, group duplicates together; if there are multiple DVD copies of a title, for instance, they do not need a separate line in the inventory. Give related items the same Unique ID with a decimal number to distinguish items: ex. DTH0035.1, DTH0035.2. Determining which tapes are duplicates and which copies are most original may be challenging and time-consuming; however, this is extremely important information if there are plans to digitize the collection.  
→ See Legacy Tool #7: Inventory Template Guidelines
→ See Legacy Tool #8: Sample Inventory Template

Record Retention Schedule

Once you determine what records your institution has, you can use that information to develop a records retention schedule.  The following document is intended to provide guidance in developing your organization’s document retention and destruction schedule.  Statutes of limitations and state and government agency requirements vary from state to state, therefore each organization should carefully consider its requirements and consult with legal counsel before adopting a Document Retention and Destruction Policy.

→ See Legacy Tool #3: Document Retention and Destruction Schedule

Additional Resources

Physical Storage and Preservation

Digital Storage and Preservation

  • The Library of Congress’ Personal Archiving: Preserving Your Digital Memories website provides simple and practical strategies for preserving digital photographs, audio, video, email, personal digital records, and websites.

File Naming Conventions and Electronic Records Management

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