Do You Need a Picture Archive?

So you have some digital photographs or videos and are wondering if you really need to worry about managing them or archiving them, or whatever it is you do when you have hundreds (or thousands) of digital files. You need at least a basic system to organize your files, but where do you start?
How big or complex your system becomes depends on your needs. In this tutorial we'll work our way through a set of key questions to help you identify your digital asset management (DAM) needs. The answers to these questions will help you start planning an archive that fits your pictures.

University of Michigan Library Card Catalog
University of Michigan Library Card Catalog, by David Fulmer, cropped from the original, CC BY 2.0.

These days, the answer to this question is yes for many, if not all, people. We love pictures and we're making them in tremendous volume.
Digital images need to be organized so that you can find what you need, when you need it. Colin Rowe, a digital asset management specialist with Archimedia, describes disorganized images as “digital landfill.” If you can’t easily access your pictures, your images are just taking up space.
The collection is one of the key building blocks in a picture archive. A collection is simply a set of images and associated files, and they are a great way to keep your files organized and useful. If you have more pictures than you can manage, the first step is to think about how to break your pictures down into collections. 
Beyond simple collections, proper data hygiene starts with naming your image files in a consistent, meaningful way and organizing those files into a logical file structure. Tagging your images with supplemental keywords that describe the content of the images also helps keep your collection healthy. All that organization can be a little tricky, though, without a system to implement it.
The catalogue is a second key structure in your picture archive. The catalogue is a way to organize your collections and the pictures within them. A specialized catalogue program or app will help you standardize filenames, add keywords, and sort your images into collections. Some cataloguing software is simple and free; others are heavy lifters designed to support teams. What you need will depend upon the size and complexity of your collection.
Digital photographs and videos are lost if only one person understands where the files are stored and how they are organized. A system that organizes images with a common set of principles makes it easier for someone else to access or manage the images on your behalf. Also, consider naming a designate and providing him or her with the necessary information to manage your collection should you be unable to do so.

Paintings in a window behind a security fence
Dawn Oosterhoff, Locked Pictures

Do you need to keep a digital file for later access or to fulfill a compliance or business reason, or do you need to set the file aside for security and safekeeping?
A backup system is a critical component of any digital picture archive. Digital files can disappear with one keystroke. Maintaining a second copy of your image files is the only way to protect your collection against a digital misfire.
Keeping a second (or third) copy of your files somewhere other than where you work on your images is your insurance against fire, theft, floods, or other disasters. Minimize the chance that disaster will strike both your original files and your copies by keeping them in two different places. Catalogue and backup software can make this process much less of a headache.

Servers in a rack
Managing the growth of your collection is one of the fundamental goals of digital asset management practices. Photo by Alex, cropped from the original, CC BY 2.0.

Instead of deleting images that you may—and likely will—want again, archive images that are not currently needed or not needed very often. New images or images that are accessed more frequently need to be stored in a system that is easily and and quickly accessed, but older images or images that are rarely accessed can be stored on slower and cheaper media.
Managing the growth of your digital files can be complex. It's hard to know how many pictures, and how many gigabytes of data, you'll need to keep. Will you upgrade to a new camera with a high megapixel count? Bigger files mean more storage. Will you start recording video? Again more storage. Hire a second camera for your growing wedding business? More storage.
Growth can be unpredictable. It can come when you least expect it and quickly become overwhelming. Your storage needs can change overnight. You don't want to run out of space at just the moment you need it most. A good digital asset management system has room for expansion and takes growth into account.
Is there something in your collection that has value? Do you want others, particularly future generations, to be able to access and understand your images?
Some cataloguing software is designed to be used and accessed by more than one person. And while most online services are not suitable for archiving images, many online services work well for sharing image collections. Using a consistent, logical organizational structure (names, folders, and keywords) will ensure that everyone can save and find what they need.
Digital asset management for your picture archive may sound like a complex, burdensome task, but a digital asset management system needs to be only as big or as complex as your collection requires. Moreover, the energy you put into creating and maintaining your system will be returned to you tenfold as you find it easier and easier to add images to your collection and later find exactly the images you or others want to see.
To learn more about digital asset management and building the management system you need, follow our series Digital Asset Management for Everyone.


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