I’m here to tell you what you should already know: Always, ALWAYS, always, ALWAYS back up your files. And have back-ups for the back-ups.⠀
I have this marvelous 8TB hard drive with all my work on it reaching back to 2002. I've backed that sucker up relentlessly. A few months ago, I started noticing some files wouldn't open, and took it to a local computer repair service who could run a diagnostic. They said the drive was okay. I didn't quite trust them, so I took the time to make sure critical things were backed up in the cloud & elsewhere. In spite of my misgivings, I kept using it anyway.⠀
Because hindsight is 20/20, I now know that was a mistake.
I'm here on the other side of that mistake -- I got 95% of my data onto a fresh & brand-spankin’ new 8TB drive. This mistake has revealed weaknesses in my backup system, so I’ve made a few tweaks. It’s far from perfect, but it got me thinking — how many other artists have lost work this way?
I should say I’m pretty lucky—my father is a software engineer, so from an early age I witnessed how important (and cumbersome and time-consuming) backing up data was. That awareness gave me the motivation to cultivate my own backup habit, and that's why you can see this image:⠀
This image was one of the many that got corrupted. I had to reach back into my "just in case" archives to grab them & share them with you here. This is my work. This is what I make. This is what it looks like hanging on the wall. But I almost lost work forever!
So I’m here to pass on my knowledge of digital asset management, as the nerdy-artist-daughter of a software engineer.
WHAT IS DIGITAL ASSET MANAGEMENT
Digital asset management refers to a whole variety of activities under the sun, but most essentially for the individual artist it refers to how your organize, store, use, and maintain your important files. These could be movies, music, documents, images, video, or other specialized software files that are relevant to your work.
In order to be safe & easy-to-use, you need to a good organizational system for your files, first and foremost. Think about what it would be like to be your own personal librarian — making sure that you create a digital archive where the approach to making folders & naming files is consistent, and you apply it to everything you do. It’s like you always putting your keys in the same place every day, so you know when to find them when you need them.
FOLDER STRUCTURE & FILE NAMING
For backups & retrieval, we need practical and analytical ways to categorize work. So I find it most helpful to have the files on my master drive all categorized by date, rather than subject matter or even client name. Dates and times help to put my work in order, and they are also non-subjective ways to look through my body of work. So for each year, I create a top-level folder. Inside that year are dated folders with the project title or subject matter of the thing I worked on.
YYYY > YYYYMM_CLIENTNAME_PROJECT
Examples: 2006 > 200605_ClientName_ProjectTitle or 2008 > 200812_SeriesTitle
I now have a chronology of all the work I’ve done at my fingertips — a record of the things that I’ve worked on and the order in which I’ve completed them. This framework allows me to know timelines with certainty, helpful for pulling out old work, and allows you to reflect on changes you see in your work over time. I learned this style of naming & categorizing from my experience with peers in the photography industry, along with the extremely techie tome called the DAM book. It’s still useful to me today!
CREATING A PORTFOLIO FOLDER
Now, for work or images & project files that I prepare for publication, I have a folder on my computer that syncs to the cloud storage labeled PORTFOLIO. This folder contains none of the working files—that has only the final images of relevant work I want to promote—and they’re categorized according to project, theme, or subject matter. (Hat tip to Kaylan Buteyn whose Get Gallery Ready workshop really upped my game on this.) These files are named like so:
That way, even though the exact date isn’t in there, all the relevant information I need to know is there without having to open up files & explore things. And generally, filenames shouldn’t have any spaces in them—use underscores or dashes instead.
BACKUPS & CLONING
Now that I’ve got my important files labeled & in a cohesive, organized place, it’s time to back tem up. I’ve been instructed in the classic “3-2-1” backup strategy — have 3 copies of any work that you deem important—two in different mediums, and one of those copies stored at a physical location away from where your main working drive lives.
For me, this means I have:
- 1 working copy (on my master external hard drive)
- 1 physical backup copy (the weekly clone of my master hard drive)
- 1 cloud copy (through online services)
Notice here that I don’t store all of my data on my computer’s hard drive — I’ve found that trying to keep the archive of all my images on the hard drive of the machine I’m working with eats up so much space that it can slow my machine down. In order to keep my machine running optimally, I don’t use my computer as my primary storage solution. I find it’s better for me to separate out my storage so that if my computer’s latest update makes something go awry, I’m not putting my stored data at risk. And if my external master storage drive fails, I can still keep working & creating with my machine.
So my master drive (an external hard drive of all my work) is duplicated (aka backed up) to another physical hard drive on a weekly basis using Carbon Copy Cloner. That takes care of 2 out of the 3 copies. My last backup location is in the cloud. I happen to use Zenfolio because I’ve worked in a photographic medium for so long. That service functions as my archive for all my final images, while the everyday sort of documents I use to run my business (text files, spreadsheets, marketing materials, letterhead, logos, behind-the-scenes photos, etc.) are all synchronized to the cloud using Dropbox.
And keep in mind that cloud storage isn’t a magic bullet. File syncing is a wonderful thing, but it’s time-consuming, eats up bandwidth, and one major drawback is that if a file corrupts, it automatically syncs that corruption to your cloud storage and then POOF, there goes your data. What we call the cloud is just someone else’s computer somewhere on the internet. Storage providers work very hard to ensure that their hard drives don’t fail, but it is possible for that to happen. That’s why physical backups are just as important as cloud storage options.
THE FINAL WORD & FURTHER READING
I’m not a data expert, but I do have a few years of experience managing my own files. My personal system is far from perfect, but it’s done pretty well so far through a handful of crises. I can tell you right now that most of my backup failure comes from the user: I didn’t always organize & execute backups with consistency. That’s why I’m still missing (& trying to recover) that last 5% of my data. And it wasn’t until recently that I got in the habit of using tools like DataRescue and DiskWarrior to keep a eye on things and then to assess the hard drive that went wrong.
But before you go try to pick out the best tools, gather up your data & organize it. There’s plenty of general backup advice, as well as this great set of recommendations geared towards artists. Comparisons of backup tools are also widely available online.
The toughest part about backing up your data (aside from initially setting up a system for yourself) is creating a habit of doing it. It's so easy to forget how much of our work & lives don’t exist in a truly physical form. Digital creates the illusion of ease & the internet gives us the false idea of permanence, but don’t let it lull you into a false sense of security—back up your data, and you’ll be so glad that you did.