Standard Filing Systems

Selecting a Filing System

Choosing the correct filing system can be difficult. All filing systems have advantages and disadvantages, and the information presented here offers guidelines and recommendations for the selection and use of different types of filing systems. Each University office and program must choose a filing system that is easy to use and meets the office’s particular needs.  If you require further information or would like to schedule an appointment with the archivist for more direct assistance, please call x1225 or email archives@nmu.edu. 

Step 1: Determine the Appropriate Filing System

First, you should arrange your files according to the established records retention and disposition schedules established for your office.  Your filing system should be linked to your records retention schedule in a way that allows you to move records to inactive storage in an easy and efficient manner, and to remove files with expired retention periods. These activities should be done according to your office's approved records retention schedule.

If you do not have a set of schedules or those you do have are out of date, please contact the University Archivist at x1046 or mrobyns@nmu.edu. 

1.      Consider the following four general questions

  • 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.

2.      Evaluate Potential Filing Systems

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 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.

3.      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.

Step 2: Select an Appropriate Filing System

All filing systems fall into three general classification categories: subject, numeric, and alphanumeric. There are several common filing systems in each of these general categories:

1.      Subject Filing System organizes names or subjects by letters of the alphabet.

A.    Topical (direct access) systems (also known as dictionary systems) one file follows another in alphabetical order. Related subjects are not grouped. Usually labeled folders are placed behind simple alphabetic guides. Topical systems are usually used for small numbers of files, since numerous subjects would require the use of an index to navigate the files.  

A typical topical filing system might look like this:

·         Accounts Payable

·         Accounts Receivable

·         Brochures

·         Capital Improvement Projects

·         Grants

·         Office Supplies

·         Personnel

B.     Encyclopediasystems are ideal for large volumes of records arranged by subject and easily conform to an office’s records retention schedules. Subjects are grouped under broad categories. These are then broken down alphabetically into more precise subjects. Major subject headings appear on dividers and secondary headings as well as major headings appear on individual folders.

A typical encyclopedia filing system might look like this:

Typical Encyclopedia System

The “Program Records” tab is the title of the record series identified by the office’s records retention and disposition schedules. v The “Family History Program” tab identifies the specific function, and the “Participant Lists” are the specific files or record types.  This type of filing system is flexible and can accommodate and change with a minimum number of revisions to the filing system. 

The advantage to the encyclopedia system is that members of the office staff do not need to remember specific names and subjects, but rather the record series identified by the retention schedule.  A good example is found in "Committees--Non-Smoking Policy Committee".  If simply placed alphabetically, without the category "Committees", one may not be able to remember the name of such a committee.  

C.     Structured – Functional systems are based on the organizational structure and functions of the office.  The filing system is similar to the encyclopedic model, except that the files are organized around the major functions of the office. 

Such a filing system also works very well with office records retention and disposition schedules, since these are usually established to document the various functions an office carries out to accomplish its mission.  A structured – functional system might look like this:

·         First Level:      Organizational Unit

          Example:         Office of Admissions

 

·         Second Level: Function Performed

          Example:         Freshman Applications

 

·         Third Level:    Processes required to complete the function

          Examples:      Application Forms Management

                                    High School Transcripts

                                    Test Scores

1.      Numeric classifications use numbers or dates to arrange information.

A.    Straight numeric systems simply number files consecutively and arrange them in sequence. Straight numeric systems are simple to use, simple to manage, and simple to expand. There are problems with straight numeric systems, however. High activity files are often grouped, leading to congestion. It is also difficult to assign blocks of files to individuals for filing and retrieving. Finally, there is no real way to handle miscellaneous records, they usually require a separate filing system or the use of an index to retrieve.

B.    Duplex numeric system consists of two or more number segments used to classify numeric codes assigned to files. Files are arranged numerically based on combinations of these segments. For example, middle-digit systems use the middle number sequence as the major file heading, terminal digit systems use the final segment, and primary digit systems use the initial number segment. Duplex systems are usually used for large volumes of records. They allow high activity files to be evenly distributed throughout the records and support the assignment of blocks of files to individuals for filing and retrieving.

Duplex Numeric System
Numeric Classification: Middle Digit Duplex System

C.    Decimal systems use ten general divisions, which can be subdivided by groups of ten as often as needed. The most famous decimal system is the Dewey Decimal System, developed in 1873, and used in ninety percent of the world's libraries. Decimal systems allow for unlimited expansion and the grouping of similar subjects (allowing browsing) in the same location. But they are also inflexible and limited to ten general classification areas.

D.    Chronologic systems arrange files by date. Correspondence, "tickler," and suspense files are commonly arranged using a chronological system.

2.      Alphanumeric classification uses combinations of letters and numbers.

Alphanumeric System
Figure 3. Alphanumeric Classification: Soundex Phonetic System

    A.     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.