How Should You Manage Files In Your Office - Six Concepts

Proper file maintenance in the office is the foundation of an effective record keeping strategy. Although each office is different and you must design your systems to best meet your individual needs, keeping in mind several key concepts will be sure to make your process simpler. It will also help Records Management and the College Archives better handle the material for long term retention.

Listed below are a few concepts that will help you as you plan to modify or create new record keeping systems in your office.

Six Concepts for Proper Management of Physical Records

Concept 1: Think in terms of "Records Series"

The term "Records Series" is an important one when you are planning your record keeping systems. As you examine your systems and the information produced by your operations, ask yourself: what kinds of records and material stand out as being cohesive, logical sets, relatively independent from your other records? Do you have particular record keeping systems in which various documents are filed together and can be considered a unit for retention and disposition purposes? For instance, the following may stand out immediately as potential record series:

  • Meeting records
  • Fiscal files
  • Correspondence files
  • Student files
  • Purchasing card files
  • Search files

Of course, depending on your operation these may or may not apply to you. You will most likely have other clear record series, unique to your department, that are not mentioned here. The key is to examine the information your department produces and start compiling a list of independent record series.

Why is this important? Because for longer term maintenance and storage you will find that different types of records need very different strategies. For instance, as a general rule search files are only maintained three years, and then shredded. By contrast, a correspondence file may need to be maintained as long as fifteen years, and then be transferred to the College Archives for permanent storage. If these two paper record series were produced, maintained, and stored in an intermingled way, the search files would need to be kept up to twelve years longer than necessary. In addition, when it came time to process the correspondence into the Archives, the search material would have to be hand-pulled from the more important correspondence. Both of these facts mean that significant resources would have to be expended in storage, maintenance, and processing. This could be easily avoided by storing and maintaining these two types of material separately.


Concept 2: Think in terms of time periods

A common mistake made in records maintenance is to create filing systems where information goes in, but which provides no way for information to come out. An example of this would be a subject file where information is filed in, but which has no facility for purging out older material. A filing system such as this is destined to grow to what will soon become an unmanageable size.

Eventually systems such as this must be "purged," and many departments have found themselves with filing systems so large and cumbersome that this can be a nearly impossible task. When each folder may contain material from a time span covering many years, separating the current use material from the outdated material can be a truly daunting prospect.

To avoid this it is useful to organize your filing systems so that a set "closes" on a particular date. This may mean that each year a new set of folders is created and the older set is sent to Records Management. Thus you may have a file on a particular topic in each yearly set. If you need a record about this topic from the 2005 set, then only that file need be requested from Records Management.

Closing a set is usually a simple task for record series that are maintained chronologically, which makes chronological organization a great choice whenever possible. However, for subject files and other sets stored in non-chronological order, this often means creating a new set of file folders each year, after the previous year's set is "closed" and sent to storage. Fortunately, many departments have found that their filing systems are so consistent from year to year that most files can be created in advance from a well-maintained outline.

 It is also important to balance cost of maintenance with record value. In some cases maintaining a record costs more than any benefit the material can provide. In these cases shorter retention periods may be appropriate. Contact the Records Manager for more details.


Concept 3: Digital records are real records

A common misconception is that there is something special about paper records that make them more "real" than the same records in digital formats.  This is not correct.  A properly produced, stored, and maintained digital record is just as valid in the eyes of the law as any paper record.  They key for both formats is that the record is produced, stored, and maintained in such a way as to affirm its authenticity, should it be questioned.


Concept 4: Know your copy of record

Many records exist simultaneously in both digital and paper formats.  Proper records management requires you to know which copy is your "copy of record", the copy which we have decided to maintain to meet our record keeping obligations.  Once a copy of record has been established (either paper or digital), the other copy can be safely discarded or destroyed.  In other words, if you decide your official copy of record of a document is the one in your digital repository, there is no need to keep the paper copy.  Likewise, if you decide that the paper copy is going to be maintained as the record, then the digital copy can be deleted.

Be mindful of document duplication whenever you are creating and maintaining records. Many internal Dartmouth documents (such as purchase orders, time sheets, etc.) may be duplicated in official records elsewhere on campus, and may not need lengthy retention by your office.


Concept 5: Aim for consistency

A common problem that faces many organizations is inconsistency in record keeping practices. This usually results from personnel turnover, where each new employee creates the system anew. If this happens several times, the record keeping systems for the department may become a combination of many techniques and schemes, and only an employee long gone may have the necessary knowledge to adequately retrieve outdated records. To combat this a degree of consistency is necessary. New employees should be trained in the current procedures of the department, and these procedures should only be modified to address a well-defined and documented need.


Concept 6: Document your procedures

The best way to ensure this consistency is with thorough and adequate documentation. Each department should produce a simple printed guide which identifies all the records series produced, and the guidelines for maintaining them in a consistent manner. Providing a document such as this to a new employee will help ensure consistency, prevent confusion, and guard against unnecessary altering of procedures.