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Effective: January 1994
Selecting a Filing System
Records management is intended to control recorded information from its creation until its disposition. The ability to file and retrieve information easily and effectively is central to this process. Choosing the correct filing system can be difficult. This chapter provides a basis for making that choice. Although records come in all formats - paper, microfilm, audio-visual, and electronic media - this chapter will only deal with paper-based filing systems.
All filing systems have advantages and disadvantages. This chapter offers guidelines and recommendations for the selection and use of different types of filing systems. Each agency must choose a filing system which is easy to use and meets your needs.
Types of Filing Systems
All filing systems fall into three general classification categories: alphabetic, numeric, and alphanumeric. There are several common filing systems in each of these general categories:
Alphabetic classification organizes names or subjects by letters of the alphabet.
Numeric classifications use numbers or dates to arrange information.
Alphanumeric classification uses combinations of letters and numbers.
Figure 3. Alphanumeric Classification: Soundex Phonetic System
- Subject-numeric systems use numbers and letters to represent subjects. A good example of a subject-numeric system is the Library of Congress classification system. Most subject-numeric systems require the use of an index.
- Phonetic systems are used primarily for the classification of names. Phonetic systems assign numerical values to different letter sounds. This allows file searches for names which sound similar but are spelled differently. The most popular phonetic system is the Soundex system, created by Remington Rand Office Systems Division.
Which is the right system for your office?
To determine which system is right for an office's records, four questions must be answered:
- How are the records used or retrieved? Types of records and the usual method of retrieval may determine the filing system. For example, a numeric system would work well for purchase orders retrieved by number. An alphabetic system would make more sense for licensing files retrieved by licensee name.
- How many records do you have? Offices with limited records volume can often use an alphabetic filing system. Large volumes of records usually require numeric or alphanumeric systems.
- How big is the office or agency? Large agencies, especially those with multiple branch offices, may use an alphanumeric central filing system to insure consistent filing practices throughout the agency. Larger agencies have more people filing and retrieving records.
- Who uses the records? The needs of the people filing and retrieving records must be considered when choosing a filing system. The Dewey Decimal System would be inappropriate for specialized subject files where a few people with intimate knowledge of the subject use the records. It would be very useful for an agency library, however, where many people use records with which they may be only generally familiar.
Filing System Access
There are two types of access used in filing systems: direct access and indirect access. Direct access allows a person to find a record by going directly to the files and looking under the name of the record. Alphabetic systems are usually direct access systems.
Indirect access requires the use of an index or authority file to determine the code assigned to a record. Alphanumeric and numeric systems are usually indirect access systems. In deciding which access system is best for your agency, consider the following features.
Direct access system features:
- + Records can be located quickly without the use of an index.
- + Users can browse the records.
- + The system is usually easy to learn.
- + Time is saved filing and retrieving records.
- + File guides following logical divisions can speed up retrieval and filing time.
- - The system is cumbersome to use when storing a large volume of records.
- - Files with similar or identical names frequently cause congestion or confusion.
Indirect access system features:
- + Record security is provided for all files. Without knowing the coding system, individuals cannot access specific files.
- + The system is highly efficient when used to control large numbers of records.
- + Filing and retrieval are generally more accurate than in direct access systems.
- - An index must be consulted before a file can be located.
- - Misfiled records may be very difficult to locate.
- - Indirect access systems generally have a high learning curve.
Evaluating a Filing System
Here are some questions to ask about any system you are considering. These same questions can also be used to evaluate an existing system.
- Is the system logical? Logic speeds learning, so staff members do not have to rely on memory alone. The method behind the system should be clear and reasonable.
- Is the system practical? Does it do what you want it to do? Avoid academic and overly complex classifications. The system should be designed to use common terms known to all users of the system.
- Is the system simple? Simple here means easy to learn. The system should be as straight-forward as possible, with little (or preferably no) room for interpretation.
- Is the system functional? Does it relate to the function of the records it addresses? Classification terms should reflect the function of the records regardless of their operational location.
- Is the system retention-conscious? Your filing system should be linked to your records retention schedule in a way that allows you to move records to inactive storage, and to remove files with expired retention periods. These activities should be done according to your agency's approved records retention schedule. The efficiency and practicality of a filing system should not be sacrificed to retention considerations, however.
- Is the system flexible? You should be able to expand it when needed. Additional or different classifications might be needed in the future, or your office may experience unforeseen growth or change. Your filing system should be able to accommodate growth and change.
- Is the system standardized? Filing system terms should be standardized, because using different terms to describe the same record or subject will cause confusion. You should also have a written set of rules for all staff to follow, to avoid lost files, misfiles, and unplanned duplication of records and filing locations.
Adapted from the Oregon State Archives Records Management Manual (1994).