• Pictured: Patsy Gay and Kat Bell of the Dance Heritage Coalition organize records at the Dance Theatre of Harlem.

Records Management

Best practices in records management for dance companies and choreographers

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. If you organize your records for access and use later, you will be able to promote your work, apply for funding, and build your legacy. Access our practical guide, or download the Records Management manual (pdf).

The Records Management guide is a component of the Artist's Legacy Toolkit, an ever-evolving online resource that empowers artists with easy-to-follow information on how to preserve their legacies. The guide was developed by Mary Wegmann using resources from the Library of Congress, the Society of American Archivists, the Northeast Document Conservation Center, the California State Archives, and with the help of Arlene Yu, Nichole Arvin, and Meagan Samuelsen.

Records Management

What is records management?
How will records management help me?
What are records?
How to get started
Record Identification Chart (sample)

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.

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How will records management help me?

Find what you need more easily. Records will be organized, making it easier to find what you need to run your company, apply for funding, and create promotional materials.
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.
Solidify your institutional identity. Institutional memory will be preserved on paper, as well as through people.
Preserve your legacy. Legacy materials will be identified and properly cared for. Photographs, videos, and documentation will be inventoried and stored in a way that makes it easier for people to appreciate the value of your work in the future.

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What are records?

Records are documents or materials that were created as a result of your company's activities. These types of materials can 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 demonstrate one of the following characteristics, you do not need to save it.

Administrative Value: records that document your operating or business procedures.
Fiscal Value: records that document the use of funds.
Historical Value: records that document what your company creates and accomplishes.
Legal Value: records that document business transactions.
Operational Value: records that document fulfillment of the institution's mission or mandate.

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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 uses my records and how do they use them?
• What resources do I have to assist me (for example: database programs, interns, etc.)

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Record Identification Chart

Download this 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.

Record Identification Chart example

Image of Patsy Gay, with re-housed Dance Theatre of Harlem video collection. Photo by Judy Tyrus.

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Examples of how to organize your records
Controlled Vocabularies
Record Storage

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.

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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.

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Download this table for 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.

Record Organization Chart example.

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. `

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Controlled Vocabularies

Download this table for suggestions for terms you might want to use to describe your records. 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.

Controlled Vocabulary Chart (example)

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• 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.
• Use metal shelving, and do not place materials directly on the floor.
• Store oversized items flat, not rolled, when possible.
• Make sure magnetic tape (audio and video) is tightly wound and stored upright with the wound side down.
• Do not expose materials to unnecessary light.
• Minimize the use of staples, glue, rubber bands, and other adhesives.
• Dust and inspect materials periodically for signs of mold.
• 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.

Download more guidelines for storage.

Image of Dance Theatre of Harlem programs in process of being organized. Photo by Judy Tyrus.

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Filing Structure
File Naming
Cloud Computing
Preservation and Storage

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.

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Filing 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.

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.

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

• Don't make the organizational system so individualized that people who come after you won't be able to take it over. Before instating 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.

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File Naming Conventions

Establishing a standard format and set of guidelines for naming electronic files will aid organization and make it possible to identify 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.

• Include DATE, DESCRIPTION, and CREATOR in file names
      For example, "2013_05_16_mellongrantapplication_mfw.docx"
• Include DATE, WORK, LOCATION, PHOTOGRAPHER, and NUMBER IN SERIES in photograph names
• Use lowercase letters when possible
• Eliminate spaces between words, periods, and backslashes in the file name 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.

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Email is often perceived as different from other types of electronic records; it is subject to highly individualized systems of organization and not incorporated into shared filing structures. Not all emails need to be saved outside of the email client and into the filing system, but many relevant records and correspondence are rendered inaccessible when they remain only in email. Developing a shared understanding of what constitutes an important email to save will ensure that significant 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.
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

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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, or sharing documents and files with others. While this freedom to share and collaborate on documents 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.
• 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.

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Preservation and Storage

The most important thing you can do to protect your digital records is to regularly back up your hard drive. An external hard drive is the most reliable format for creating your back-ups. Store these hard drives in as diverse of geographic areas as possible. For example, consider sending a back up 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.

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

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An inventory not only helps you locate your materials, but it is vital when calculating insurance needs, applying for funding to work on collections, transferring your files to another organization, or developing a disaster plan. We've provided a sample document that gives you 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. If you need assistance with your inventory, contact DHC!

Download a Sample Inventory Template

Unique number

All audiovisual items should receive a unique identifier for inventory purposes and item-level processing. If you already have a system that is clear and easy to use, don't feel that you need to redo anything. If you are starting from scratch, here are some suggestions for designing a system. Most importantly, find a work flow that is efficient and clearly identifies your materials.

• Start your unique identifier with the acronym for your organization (e.g., DTH for Dance Theatre of Harlem). The letters will help identify the item if it is borrowed or moved. Also, the letters prevent confusion if the item or label is upside-down.
• After the acronym, use a 4 or 5 digit number sequence depending on the number of tapes in your collection.
• The first digit can represent the format of the item. So 1 = VHS; 2 = Mini-DV; 3 = Beta-SP; etc.
• The next 4 or 5 digits are unique to that item and can go from 001 or 0001 to 999 or 9999.
• Following the system above, numbers may look like ABC_20020, indicating the ABC company's 20th tape in Mini-DV format
• If you have tapes that are copies or excerpts of other items, you should use your numbering system to reflect relationships. Keep the system simple and standard across all your items.

Image of Patsy Gay (on ladder) and Kat Bell viewing items at Dance Theatre of Harlem off-site storage. Photo by Judy Tyrus.

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 (sample).

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.

Physical Storage and Preservation

The Northeast Document Conservation Center offers storage advice for a variety of paper records.

The American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works

File Naming Conventions and Electronic Records Management

Best practices for file naming from the North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources

Electronic records management and file naming guidelines from the Minnesota State Archives

Image of film reels of Dance Theatre of Harlem South Africa tour. Photo by Judy Tyrus.

Records Management for Dance Companies and Choreographers was made possible through funding from the National Endowment for the Arts.