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Chapter 3:


Records management is the science of determining how files will be arranged, categorized, accessed and stored, and in what format. Proper filing practices ensure that the right information will be in the right order, at the right time, at the right place, to be retrieved for the lowest possible cost.

The Records Officer of an office is the "architect" of the filing system in use in that organizational unit. Establishing an efficient filing system involves planning the design of the system to ensure productive workflow. This includes deciding how files will be arranged, type of access, the classification system to be used, coding and indexing schemes, and selecting the proper equipment and supplies.

File Arrangement

All written records have one thing in common: If something is written down, then what is written is important enough either to be filed in a place where it can be retrieved, or a conscious decision to destroy it needs to be made. If there were no need to return to information, there would be no need to write it down. Both official records and grocery lists have life cycles, whether we file them in drawers or in our wallets.

The first step in creating a filing system is to develop a file plan. It specifies the logical order of documents or files and the arrangement or scheme by which documents may be identified, stored and retrieved. The plan consists of:

The most common methods of arranging documents are alphabetical, numerical, or alpha-numeric. The file arrangement should be based on how the information will be retrieved.

Alphabetical Filing

These may be topical or classified arrangements. Topical filing arranges files in straight alphabetical order. For example, subject correspondence would be arranged from A-Z, based on the name of the subject. This method is also called the "dictionary" method because it is the method used in dictionaries.

Classified filing places related documents under a major sub-heading. For example, customer complaint correspondence may be filed under the general heading of customer relations. An alphabetical arrangement also is appropriate for filing records that are arranged by geographical locations, such as cities, towns or counties. This system is also called "encyclopedic" because records are arranged first by broad categories (for example, "grants"), followed by sub-headings ("2001"), followed by still other sub-headings ("records" or "security").

Advantages of Alphabetical Filing Disadvantages of Alphabetical Filing

Numerical Filing

A numerical arrangement places records in order from the lowest number to the highest. This method also often tells the searcher which files are the oldest (the lowest numbered files) and which are the newest (the higher numbered files). A numerical scheme is easier to comprehend than alphabetical filing and may have fewer misfiles. Numerical filing by file number, social security number, chronologically or by patient or case number is common. Records that have preprinted numbers on them such as checks, invoices, purchase orders, and vouchers also are suited for this filing arrangement.

Advantages of Numerical Filing

Disadvantages of Numerical Filing

Alpha-Numeric Filing

An alpha-numeric arrangement uses a combination of numeric digits and alphabet characters to create a flexible filing system. Subjects may be substituted with alphabetical or numerical codes. An index is needed to use the system effectively. For example, ADM-001 could be a code for Administrative files, Director's Correspondence. All records that relate to this subject would be filed under that particular code.

Advantages of Alpha-Numeric Filing Disadvantages of Alpha-Numeric Filing


Another aspect of creating a file plan is deciding how files will be accessed. The two methods of access are direct access and indirect access.

Direct Access

A direct access plan allows the user to access the file without first referring to an index. Direct access may be ideal for small offices that produce a low volume of records. (Example: If it is easier to find information by a person's name, the system would be alphabetical. One looks for the file directly by the name.)

Advantages of a Direct Access System

Disadvantages of a Direct Access System

Indirect Access

An indirect access system requires the use of an index or codes to locate a file, such as assigning a number to a file (e.g., case number, project numbers, patient numbers). An indirect access system generally is used for large or complex filing systems. It may require the use of automated equipment to locate the files, as well as knowledge of the coding system. (Example: If a person comes to look for his/her file, but the system is numeric, the clerk assisting the individual must first look up the person's name in order to find the number of their file.)

Advantages of an Indirect Access System

Disadvantages of an Indirect Access System


A classification is a grouping of records with common characteristics or which document similar functions. The point of having a classification system is to keep all like records together, which, in turn, expedites records retrieval and maintains file integrity.

Generally, if the volume of records exceeds two file cabinets and consists of multiple records series, then a files classification system should be considered. Classification systems sort records by major headings and subdivisions. The major heading name usually is decided by the major function or main purpose of the records; the subdivision would be a small component of the major function. For example:

      Major Heading:       Human Resources Department
            Sub-Heading:             Payroll Section
                  Tertiary Heading:                   Payroll Timesheets

This filing system is often called encyclopedic, because the arrangement is the same as that used in encyclopedias.

A dictionary classification system is straight alphabetic, and many records managers find it easier to use a dictionary rather than invent one. Of the two classification systems, the dictionary system is simpler to operate.

A classification system is usually considered when:

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Created 2 September 2003
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Records Management and Preservation Board