It is impossible to accurately predict all of the situations in which a file might be used. Therefore, in the interest of preserving access to digital files, we choose file name components that are least likely to cause a problem in any environment. File names should provide context and be easily understood by humans and computers, now and in the future.
Following file-naming practices is an easy way to help you manage, retrieve, reuse, and share your electronic files. Here are some handy hints.
Use underscores instead of periods or spaces
Periods already have a specific function in a file name, which is to tell the computer program where the file name extension (such as .doc) begins.
Do not use special characters in a file name \ / : * ? " < > | [ ] & , .
These characters are frequently used for specific tasks in an electronic environment. For instance, a forward slash is used to identify folder levels in Microsoft products, while Mac operating systems use the colon. Using these characters in a file name will result in lost files and/or errors.
Spaces are frequently translated in a web environment to be read as "%20". This alteration causes confusion in identifying the actual file name. For example:
File naming tutorial.doc
File%20naming%20tutorial.doc when the file is available online
Spaces in file names also cause broken links, since word processing tools like Microsoft Word and email clients like Microsoft Outlook recognize spaces as an opportunity to move to another line.
A link to
Acceptable file name lengths may differ among operating systems and software. Some systems allow up to 256 characters, while others allow far fewer. Generally, about 25 characters is sufficient to capture enough descriptive information for naming.
Include descriptive information
Although you should be brief, your file name should include necessary descriptive information.
This is especially important if you keep your electronic files in a series of folders, and routinely copy these files to other folders, download, email, ftp or otherwise share them. The file name, then, must be sufficiently descriptive to live independent of the folder where the original file lives. For example:
The context provided by file naming is particularly important as it provides authenticity and trustworthiness of the file.
Include dates, and format them consistently
You may find it helpful to include a date at the start of the file name, or at the end. Either way it is a useful sorting tool. Just keep your format consistent.
A file frequently has multiple versions. You may decide to include a version number on the documents in order to manage drafts and revisions more easily. One method is to add the letter v--to designate a version number--to the main file name: v01, v02, v03 etc. An exception to this rule is FINAL to indicate the final version of a document. FINAL can be used instead of the version number or in addition.
The most important guideline in file naming is to be consistent. If you are a member of an office or group which routinely shares documents, discuss your options and make decisions that work best for the entire group.
Still have questions? I am happy to help!
Jessika Drmacich, Records Manager and Digital Archivist