Good organisation is an important prerequisite for locating items in your archive. This article therefore provides useful information for drawing up a classification plan for your paper and/or digital archive. The quality of this plan depends on the names used for its components and folders, so it’s important to consult the Naming files and folders section, which also looks at how to name individual files for digital archives.
What is a classification plan?
a classification plan is a system that your organisation adopts to arrange your archive in a structured, logical way. Drawing up a folder structure for your digital archive is also a classification plan. It aims to provide a clear (folder) structure which anyone can then use to sort and find documents. It might sound complex, but if there’s a clear vision for your organisation’s archive management and all your colleagues cooperate, it’s quite easy to implement a classification plan.
Classification plans are useful for both physical and digital archives and collections, and you can use the same (folder) structure for both archives. Plans are normally developed for the physical archive initially, and then also applied to digital documents, but it can work equally well in the other direction, i.e. you start with a folder structure for your digital documents, and then adopt this same structure for your physical archive and collections.
How do I create a (new) classification plan?
The best starting point for a new classification plan is to study a model classification plan and check how you can apply it to your own archive. Note: no two organisations are the same, and this also applies for their archives and collections. No archive corresponds exactly with the model classification plans, and it is not the intention that you copy the models exactly; you can use them as a source of inspiration and basis for developing your own folder structure.
Traditionally, there are two principles that you can base your classification plan on:
- your organisation’s organisational structure;
- the roles and activities in your organisation.
A classification based on organisational structure is the ‘conventional’ way to organise an archive, and has the advantage that it corresponds to your colleagues’ current work situation. But this classification is not recommended these days. classification plans based on organisational structure have the problem of being unstable, partly because they needs adapting every time your organisation is restructured. It’s also difficult for smaller organisations or organisations with a flat structure to implement a folder structure that matches their organisational structure.
It’s therefore better to classify your folder structure according to your organisation’s roles and activities. This includes both the general and administrative tasks (such as general, financial, member and buildings management), and the specific and artistic activities that your organisation undertakes (e.g. a theatre company creates a show, rehearses, performs, organises educational activities, promotes its work, etc).
A functional classification of the archive does not depend on the organisation’s structure and is therefore more stable. The organisation’s roles remain almost the same throughout its existence, which means the classification plan barely needs adapting. It also makes much less of a difference who drew up the document in question, because only the role or activity that produced the document is relevant here. This working method offers many advantages in organisations where employee tasks overlap.
Three model classification plans have been drawn up to illustrate this guideline: one for an arts organisation with a non-profit organisation structure and two for individual artists.
- classification plan for organisations with a non-profit organisation structure based on roles and activities (Stephanie Aertsen, AMVB);
- classification plan based on individual roles (developed by Het Firmament, based on the model archive plan for architectural archives from CVAa);
- classification plan for theatre archive #(documentation) (developed by Het Firmament, based on S. Baudaert’s archive plan for Wim Van Gansbeke’s archive) (A detailed example).
How do you go about creating a folder structure? The first step is to ensure that everyone in your organisation wants to cooperate. Creating a new folder structure/classification plan is major undertaking that requires a lot of engagement from everyone involved. There’s no point creating a folder structure if your colleagues don’t want to use it. Please feel free to contact a TRACKS partner organisation for supervision and support.
Map out all your organisation’s roles and activities, and try to define them so that there are no possible overlaps. Place all these roles in a logical structure, in a general to particular order. Make sure it is a stable structure that you don’t need to change later on. You can add, remove and move components as you wish, but don’t use too many classification levels. This makes the plan cluttered and confusing, and means the path lengths might be too long for digital archives, with adverse consequences for digital storage. It’s best to stick to a maximum of eight classification levels for both digital and analogue archives.
The higher classification levels in your folder structure must reflect the organisational structure or tasks/activities in your organisation. Ask yourself: ‘What does my organisation do?’ A chronological structure is not (yet) used at this level. You also shouldn’t create a classification based on topics, where all documents on a certain subject are placed together (e.g. event, person or external organisation). A topic-based classification is too subjective at this level.
You can choose the following classifications for the lower levels:
- the editorial form of the documents and objects, with classification in series (Photos/Posters/Invoices/…);
- the content related to the documents and objects, with classification in sections (collection of information about related organisations, prizes, festivals…);
- the relationship that the documents and objects have with a particular project, with a dossier-based classification (per production/design/concert/…).
A classification based on dossiers is simplest for finding certain items quickly, because all documents that relate to a specific project are stored in the same place. Classification by editorial type can possibly be used for special types of items that are stored separately (e.g. photos or posters). A section-based system is generally not recommended because it means taking your documents out of their original context. It can however be useful for documentation folders created by your organisation, for example.
Make sure that the classifications (folders) are clearly named and don’t overlap. Each document should only belong in one place. If you notice that a large number of items can be archived in multiple places, you need to adapt the classification. When naming folders, always start from the perspective of someone who is looking for information. The idea is that everyone must be able to find all the information in the archive, even in the absence of a colleague who normally ‘knows where everything is’.
Points for attention when introducing a classification plan or folder structure in your current operations:
- Think carefully before introducing a classification system. Test the classification system before briefing the entire organisation.
- Be consistent when following the classification system. It may only be adapted if everyone agrees.
- Appoint someone to be manager, but emphasise the need for shared responsibility. Be consistent when speaking to your colleagues if they don’t archive their documents in the right place.
- Avoid using the title ‘Various’ for folders and classification levels. It is not transparent and could contain anything in principle. The classification level title should let you know straight away what items you can find there.
- The earlier you get started, the better. The task only becomes greater if you wait until files pile up in offices or on the server and in the cloud.
- Paper and digital documents may be left out of your archive’s organisation while you’re still working with them, but it’s best to store them away correctly when you no longer need regular access to them. This will help you and your colleagues find the items faster at a later date.
- Schedule regular cleaning times to clean up all the analogue and digital documents that have been left on your desk(top) over the course of the week. This keeps everything well-organised and you can still rely on your memory. Place the documents in a logical way in the developed structure. You can read the best way to approach this in the Organise a digital clean-up or trash day section.