Skip Navigation

Chapter 4:

Indexing Files

An index is a listing of files arranged alphabetically or numerically that is used to determine where files are located. If you have an indirect access filing system (like one that is arranged numerically), you must have an index in order to find the file. The most common type of index is called a relative index. It alphabetically lists the various combinations of how records might be requested. If one is looking for property deeds, for instance, one might look under "Deeds, property." If one is looking for the Department of Highways Maps, one might search for "Maps, Department of Highways." Both the headings (Deeds, Maps) and sub-headings (property, Department of Highways) will be arranged in alphabetical order. This type of index is used in most published material such as books or periodicals. Any reference book or textbook can be used to see an example of this.

Whenever multiple terms can be applied to the same records, a cross-reference is created to the indexed topic. The cross-reference acts as a pointer to redirect the user to another location where the file can be found. For example, patient records can be cross-referenced by patient number, name and Social Security number. However cumbersome it may seem to do this at the outset, if those responsible for creating individual files are taught to index those three parameters each time a file is created, the process becomes routine and easy very quickly.

If a computer database is available, or the software to create a spreadsheet can be bought (many can be bought off the shelf from office supply stores), that's ideal. Through keywords or descriptors, documents and their locations can be accessed in a matter of seconds. For those who are not able to do this and must budget for it in the future, the time to set up the index manually is not wasted. Any system that is created electronically must have first created an index manually.

Coding Documents

When documents are released to be filed, they should be indexed and coded according to the classification systems established. Coding is the process of marking the filing segment (name, subject or number) used for filing a document. Colors and bar codes also can be used as codes. File codes must be accompanied by an index that details the meaning of each code.

During the coding process, keywords in the document are marked by underlining or circling names or subjects. A subject title, name or numeric code also may be written at the top of the document to indicate where it should be filed.

For example, a piece of correspondence relating to an employee's worker's compensation claim may be filed under employee payroll records, risk management records or insurance records, depending on the classification system. If the records can be requested by more than one term, a cross-reference should be created to direct the requester to another location. The person coding the text may place a mark by a name or subject to indicate a cross-reference. A cross-reference card or folder is placed in a separate location; also, the source document can be photocopied and placed in a separate location, although that can lead to excessive duplicates.

The following is an example of an alpha-numeric coding system:
HR     Human Resources
HR-01     Payroll Office
HR-01-02     Timesheets

Sorting and Filing

Sorting is the process of arranging records in their correct filing order. Sorting can be performed alphabetically or numerically. The level of sorting depends on how records need to be accessed. For example, a customer service department may organize its records by region, address and customer name (three sorting levels).

Tracking Files

When a file is retrieved, a "charge-out" card should be inserted in the location where the file was removed. If an office can afford the expense, automated tracking systems that use bar code wands are helpful in managing the check-in and checkout process for large filing systems. Automated tracking systems also can produce reports to show what was requested, when and by whom. Most public offices, however, use some form of manual charge-out. This process is essential to maintain control over the records at all times.

Filing Cut-Offs

The file cut-off date is a break or stop in the filing of a current record series, based on a predetermined event. At that date, a new group of file folders is created for the same series. The file cut-off date keeps records relating to the same time frame together. Once files reach their cut-off dates, they should remain in an active file system for at least one year, and then be transferred to inactive storage. The storage site for inactive records may be an unobtrusive corner of an office or a regulated off-site storage location.

Many localities use the end of the fiscal or calendar year as their cut-off date. In some cases, however, such as with case or personnel files, there is no break in filing. This is called continuous filing; individual files are removed from the series after an event.

Other cut-off dates may be established to meet administrative needs, as per retention schedules.

The total time you must retain your files is based on the cut-off date, plus the time stipulated on your retention schedule. Cut-off dates add structure and control to file maintenance by establishing a timeline to move files to inactive storage or off-site storage.


File maintenance involves implementing procedures that monitor and control the creation, distribution, usage and destruction of records. In the creation stage, files must have folders labeled using standard terminology developed in the classification process. Files must also be arranged according to the file plan to avoid misfiles.

There should be a process that approves the release of documents from the creating office to the file room. Records should be purged of duplicates and non-records prior to being released to the file room. All folders should be the same type, cut and dimension. Labels should be typed and placed on the tab of each folder.

If there is no "file room," but merely a series of cabinets where the records are kept, it is still a good idea to periodically purge the individual records. For example, when a renewal arrives at a licensing entity, the file for that person, company, or institution is pulled, and, before it is refiled, it is looked over to see if there are individual records within the file that are no longer needed (according to the record schedule), or are duplicates.


A key part of filing systems maintenance involves controlling the growth of the system. You should review records annually and, based on the retention and disposition schedules, purge and dispose of records that are no longer needed. Documents containing confidential or private information should be shredded, and then recycled. Remember, however, that you must complete the official records disposal form, submit and receive required signatures and retain the original for the official file to document records disposed of.

Previous | Next

Table of Contents

Created 2 September 2003
All or part of this handbook may be reproduced for non-commercial educational or training purposes.

Records Management and Preservation Board