Charting the iMAL archive

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This page is a translated version of the page Het archief van iMAL in kaart brengen and the translation is 100% complete.
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Creating an overview of your archive is a simple way to quickly become familiar with its content and determine your priorities. iMAL has an extensive but disorganised archive stored across various types of media, which results in it being confusing and inaccessible – even for the people who work there. PACKED vzw therefore employed a volunteer to create an overview of iMAL’s digital and physical archive and collection.


  • Charting the physical archive (September - October 2015);
  • Charting the digital archive (November 2015 - March 2016).



iMAL is an arts centre that is funded by the Flemish government’s Arts Decree. It focuses its operations on digital cultures and technologies, but it’s a small organisation with a limited budget, which until now has never found the time to sort out its archive. At the start of 2015, following the Preservation and Access to Born-Digital Culture workshop and symposium organised by iMAL and PACKED vzw, and the Requirements Analysis for Contemporary Visual Arts Archives and Collections (in Dutch), PACKED vzw conducted a preliminary audit of iMAL’s archive.

This digital archive and collection is stored on different types of separate carriers, such as CD-ROMs, DVDs, hard drives and various old computers. For the past five years, all the files created by artists and employees at iMAL have been kept on an external hard drive with contents documented in a Google Drive file. Files older than five years had not been backed up and were stored on various (old) computers. iMAL has lots of (old) computer equipment that can be used by artists to help create their work. There is no server or shared (overarching) directory structure. Each staff member is responsible for backing up and saving the files on their computer. Google Drive is also used to store documents that can be accessed by all employees.

The director is currently the only person who is more or less familiar with the whole archive. But without an overview, it’s not clear if it’s complete and if all files can still be opened. iMAL’s top priority was therefore to map out the archive.

Desired results

The aim was for the overview to provide answers to the following questions:

  • What does the archive contain?
  • How big is the archive?
  • Is the archive complete?
  • Where are which parts of the archive?
  • Is the archive still in good condition? Can (old) digital files still be opened?

Together with developing a vision and policy for the archive, a very important first step was to create an overview which could then be used to further determine priorities and objectives. Furthermore, this is one of the basic care guidelines that all organisations funded by the Arts Decree are required to follow.


Find a volunteer

Because iMAL did not have time to create the overview for itself, a volunteer was required for this project. This person had to have knowledge of how to look after an archive and an affinity with the media arts field.

Create an overview of the physical archive

For practical reasons, the first step was to map out the physical archive. This part of the archive is stored on shelves and in cabinets at iMAL’s offices.


In order to log the different areas in the iMAL office properly, the volunteer drew up a floor plan. The different locations were each allocated their own number, with agreements for how to identify the cupboards, racks, shelves and drawers. This all was documented on the diagram.

Image 1: A floor plan of the iMAL office space with archive locations (drawing: Sarah Dabaghy, CC BY-SA).

Identify the archive and collection

We could then start listing and documenting the archive. It was decided to describe this overview using large units without ordering them. It was important to make a classification based on similar packaging or common identifiers here, which could be found on labels on folders and boxes (such as ‘administrative archive’ or ‘production dossiers’). We worked shelf by shelf at iMAL; larger units, such as administration, were described together.

It’s important to know where the archive is located and what it consists of before you start ordering it. Organising the archive into an order is a top priority once it's been mapped out.

Image 2: the paper archive in the iMAL offices (photo: PACKED vzw, CC BY-SA).

iMAL’s physical archive and collection consists of the following documents and objects:

  • books, magazines and catalogues;
  • flyers and invitations;
  • CD-ROMs and DVDs;
  • administration;
  • artist, exhibition and production dossiers;
  • iMAL publications;
  • works of art;
  • the iMAL director’s personal archive.
Image 3: iMAL’s CD-ROM and DVD collectie (photo: PACKED vzw, CC BY-SA)

The documents date from the early 1990s to the present day. The administrative archive and correspondence was stored chronologically in ring binders. All archive items were in good condition (CD-ROMs and DVDs were not checked).

Note basic details

All findings were noted in an overview diagram. The following fields were used:

  • location: numbers for the room, rack or cabinet and their respective shelves or drawers;
  • name: a brief description of the group of documents, e.g. flyers, administration, exhibition dossiers, documentation...;
  • size: an indication of the size of archive items (piles of loose sheets of paper were expressed in centimetres);
  • date: the date when the oldest and newest items in the group were created or received.
  • content: a description of the types of documents and/or objects and their content;
  • condition: describes if the documents appeared to be in a good or damaged condition (CD-ROMs and DVDs could not be checked, so ‘unknown’ was entered here);
  • ordering principle: the method used to order the documents, e.g. alphabetical, chronological, per production...;
  • comments: additional information that could be useful for ordering the documents;
  • registrar: the name of the person who described the object.

The descriptions were entered in a Google Drive spreadsheet so that several people could work on the overview at the same time. The plan was drawn up using this model, which can be found on TRACKS.

Digital archive

iMAL had already taken a number of steps to be able to understand the digital archive better. An overview of all the hardware had been drawn up, with content from the back-ups on the external hard drives documented.

Image 4: a back-up drive with a label stating what is saved on it (photo: PACKED vzw, CC BY-SA).

But this strategy only applies for the digital archive since 2010. The older hard drives had not yet been backed up, and did not have their contents described. It was also not know if any archive items were missing.


The digital archive is saved on various individual hard drives, DVDs, CD-ROMs and (old) computers at iMAL. The various carriers were therefore located and gathered together to start with. The volunteer first noted that the digital archive files were not in any obvious order and contained little contextual information. So, in order to find clues, she started by creating a list of activities and events that had taken place at iMAL.

A workstation was installed to consult the various hard drives and computers.

hard drives and computers at iMAL (photo: PACKED vzw, CC BY-SA).

Identify folders and files

In order to map out the digital archive, all hard drives had to be checked one at a time. All folders and files were looked at to check their size, date of creation and formats/extensions. A number of files were opened at random to check if they could still be read without any errors. If this wasn’t the case, this was documented.

All the files had to be checked for this, but we were able to use the preview window to look at them without opening each and every one.

Image 6: The preview window meant we could quickly check each file’s contents without needing to open them (screenshot: PACKED vzw, CC BY-SA).

We were able to speed this task up using the 'ls' command (for Unix-based systems such as Mac OS X and GNU/Linux) via the Terminal, or 'dir' via the command prompt (for Windows). This command lists all the folders and files found in a directory or folder.[1]

But because the folder and file names used by iMAL weren’t always very descriptive, we still had to check the files ourselves instead of using commands.

Image 7: A list of all the files on a hard drive from iMAL, created using the command ls -R in the Terminal (screenshot: PACKED vzw, CC BY-SA).

We originally planned to analyse each file using a software tool that recognises file formats, such as DROID[2]. An initial test with DROID took so long, however, that this plan couldn’t be executed. Furthermore, it was also impossible to connect the old hard drives to the volunteer’s and the PACKED employee’s computers. This also meant that the software had to be installed on each old iMAL computer (with outdated operating systems).

These tools also have a number of shortcomings; they don’t recognise all software, including the software used by artists at iMAL to programme their works. Nonetheless, tools such as DROID can still be useful for finding out the types of files that a digital archive consists of, and what software you need to open them.

Image 8: In this extract from a DROID report, you can see that DROID does not recognise .pde and .xcconfig files (column 6: Format). It also has problems with .ai and .plist files (screenshot: PACKED vzw, CC BY-SA).

The digital archive largely consists of:

  • DVD copies;
  • CD-ROM disk images;
  • images and videos;
  • production folders from iMAL residents;
  • DVD production folders;
  • graphic design and programming files;
  • various software.

The files are more or less organised by activity or subject in folders. The large number of CD-ROM disk images and DVD copies produced by iMAL or displayed in exhibitions is particularly notable. There are also various folders (such as the Downloads or Desktop folders) where files are unordered and disorganised.

Note basic details

Just like for the physical archive, the findings were noted in the spreadsheet. The fields used here were very similar:

  • number: for the digital archive, it was decided to allocate a number to the folders to keep a clear link between the main and sub-folders. The main folders are numbered 1, 2, 3... and sub-folders are numbered 1.1, 1.2, 1.2.1, 2.1, 3.1...;
  • location: consists of the name of the computer/hard drive/folder, such as iMAL-pb23/FAT MAL 35/Bart Ruimte;
  • name: a brief description of the folder, e.g. DVD copy, production folder...;
  • size: the size of the folder;
  • date: the date (year) that the oldest and newest documents in a folder were created;
  • content: description of the type of files (software, extension) and their content;
  • condition: if a file couldn’t be opened, the name of the corrupt file and the problem was entered in this field;
  • comments: extra contextual information that could simplify the identification or organisation of the files, e.g. a CD-ROM disk image that shows which exhibition it was displayed at;
  • registrar: the name of the person who described the object.


Were the desired results achieved?

  • We created an overview of the physical archive, but the overview of the digital archive is not yet finished. iMAL now knows what the archive consists of and where the archive items can be found. The physical archive is in good condition. Some digital files could no longer be opened or (fully) played; CD-ROMs and DVDs were not checked.
  • iMAL can use the overview to choose a number of actions to focus on over the coming years, such as developing an ordering structure, storing digital files in a central location and introducing back-up strategies. iMAL has a large collection of CD-ROMs and DVDs. Optical disks are subject to deterioration. In order not to lose the content on these disks, disk images of the drives need to be made.

Observations and difficulties

  • When you request a volunteer’s help, it’s important that they know how your organisation works and are familiar with your operations and workflows before they start. So make sure you take the time needed to show this person the ropes. When they get started, make sure someone from the organisation is available to help them with the archiving actions. As an employee, you have a better idea of what’s important and what isn’t, what the ordering principles are, and whether a document is an archive item, documentation or work of art. Creating an overview is a relatively simple task in itself, which can be carried out by a volunteer with the right supervision. A volunteer from among your supporters knows how the organisation works and can place archive items in the right context by themselves.
  • Creating an overview of the digital archive is also time-consuming and difficult if you’re not familiar with how the organisation operates. The digital archive contains little contextual information and the naming of the folders and files was unclear, which meant it wasn't easy to identify the files and folders or make a link with the iMAL’s operations. Good PC hygiene can help you maintain a good overview of your archive.
  • Mapping out the archive is just a first – but essential – step. Certainly when it comes to the digital archive, it’s important to set up subsequent actions quickly, and in particular at least to centralise the digital files and introduce (automated) back-up strategies. A digital archive is more vulnerable than a physical archive. If subsequent steps are not undertaken quickly, there’s a real risk that part of the digital archive will be lost in the short term.

Author: Nastasia Vanderperren (PACKED vzw)

  1. It’s also possible to list read and write permissions, the user who created the file, and the date of creation: see Microsoft Technet - Dir (Windows) and Mac Developer Library - ls(1) (Mac) for all the possibilities associated with the command.
  2. DROID is a useful tool that provides you with information about your digital file formats, which can identify digital files by recognising a large number of file formats for all sorts of applications (video, text, images, audio, vector graphics, databases).