Records Management - Developing a filing scheme

We file in order to retrieve - that is the fundamental purpose of filing.


1. What is a filing scheme?
2. The principles that govern any filing scheme
3. The most important aspects of any filing scheme
4. Why are filing schemes required?
5. Where does responsibility lie for the creation and maintenance of the filing scheme?
6. What different types of filing scheme are there - and which one should I choose?
7. Example filing schemes
8. Major and Minor Divisions
9. Is a referencing system required?
10. How to create a functional filing scheme
11. How to implement a filing scheme
12. How to maintain a filing scheme
13. What help is available?

1. What is a filing scheme?

1.1. A filing scheme reflects the intellectual basis for organizing a school or section’s records, (ie classification) this is realised in the physical arrangement of the actual records; the arrangement is always hierarchical and nearly always involves a referencing system.

A filing scheme is essentially a recordkeeping system that reflects the inter-relationship between the demands of the business activity, the records that evidence it and the recordkeeping system (filing scheme) wherein they are managed, this is best explained diagrammatically:

Figure 1.

Derived from 'Managing Records: a handbook of principles and practice' (E.Shepherd and G.Yeo, Facet Publishing, 2003 - figure 1.7.) with permission

2. The principles that govern any good filing scheme

      • everyone who uses the scheme needs to know how it works;

      • it should be simple;

      • it needs to be kept up to date;

      • it should be maintained and modified as necessary;

      • it needs to be weeded on a regular basis;

      • it needs to be archived as is necessary;

      • cross-references need to be incorporated as is necessary

3. The most important aspects of any filing scheme

3.1. To be efficient a filing system has to be simple.

3.2. With whatever type of information you are dealing with, the aim of any filing system is to enable you to find the information as quickly as possible and with the minimum of effort.

3.3. Remember: We file in order to retrieve.

4. Why is a filing scheme required?

4.1. A filing scheme supports the survival and accessibility of important University records by promoting the consistent filing of information within a shared information environment. Specifically it helps to ensure:

  • that the University is able to retrieve information within the statutory 20-day response deadline to any requests for information made under the Freedom of Information Act 2000;

  • that the University is able to identify information that is subject to the Data Protection Act 1998;

  • that there is consistency in respect of the names we give to different types of information;

  • that we can preserve the business context within which the records are created – that is, we have a coherent set of records generated from, and identified by reference to, a particular business function or activity;

  • that the development and implementation of a retention schedule is better realized by the ordered physical arrangement of the records.
5. Where does responsibility lie for the creation and maintenance of the filing scheme?

5.1. It is the responsibility of each school and business area to develop and implement a filing scheme for the records it holds. This can be done by those responsible for carrying out the functions and activities that are covered by the information map - or by nominated administrators charged with responsibility for records management in the particular schools or business areas.

5.2. Although model filing schemes are available, it is the responsibility of the school or section concerned to customize such schemes for their own use.

6. What different types of filing scheme are there - and which one should I choose?

6.1. There are three main types of filing scheme and the University recommends the function based model for most applications.

Subject Based

6.2. A subject-based approach to filing involves the development of a classification scheme for the records based on their subject matter.

6.3. Subject based schemes work well for case files - where the files can be easily arranged by an individual (eg appeal or disciplinary files) or an individual organization with which the University deals. The scheme also works well for subject based research records.

6.4. The approach is not recommended for other types of records however, and it needs to be recognized that the development of a comprehensive subject-based filing scheme is a lengthy and time-consuming process both to create and to maintain.


6.5. An organization based approach would require a structuring of the scheme to reflect the organizational structure of the University.

6.6. The main advantage of an organization based filing system is that it keeps together related business issues in specific records series and which, when seen together, can provide a rapid understanding of the work and structure of the school or section. The major disadvantage of the system is that the University's organizational structure is clearly not static (evidenced by the recent re-structuring exercise) and is always subject to change due to both internal and external reasons.

6.7. Another disadvantage is that it becomes more difficult to find information over time, as those who remember the earlier organizational structure (from which the scheme evolved) slowly leave University employment.


6.8. A function based approach generates a clear business context for the records. It does this by employing a hierarchical division based on the business functions, activities and transactions carried out by the school or section. (see Figure 2.)

6.9. If an information map has already been produced, the information you need to generate a function based scheme will already be there.

6.10. The functional approach is far less subjective than a subject-based approach, and more enduring than one based on organization. It is simply the case that underlying business functions change far less frequently than organizational structures.

6.11. Although the general recommendation is for the preparation of filing schemes based on the functional model, guidance will still be provided for the preparation of both the subject based and organization based models.

Figure 2.

7. Example Filing Schemes:

Filing Schemes
1. A subject based filing scheme
2. An organization filing scheme
3. A function based filing scheme
8. Major and Minor Divisions

8.1. Irrespective of whether you decide on a subject, organizational or business function approach, you will always find it useful to set up major and minor divisions within each of them.

8.2. With such a device two filing divisions are set up within the same filing scheme. (or even the same folder) One is for ‘major’ records, that is, items of long term business significance, and the other is for ‘minor’ records - ie records of short term value.

For example, a ‘major’ file for a committee might contain the final minutes, agenda and associated papers, while the ‘minor’ file would contain things like drafts, meeting arrangements and routine correspondence. Again a ‘major’ file for a contract might contain actions, policy decisions, legal contractual agreements, signed notes of understanding.

8.3. The adoption of the major/minor device will assist you considerably in the essential task of weeding and with the implementation of records retention decisions.

9. Is a referencing system required?

9.1. It is always advisable to adopt a referencing system it provides the shorthand for referring to your files. In some very few circumstances it is not necessary; for example in a very small office keywords may well be sufficient for indexing purposes.

9.2. Whatever system you choose, the reference assigned to each file has to be unique and easily understood and should always relate to the filing scheme hierarchy. The decision is yours but it is the case that an alpha-numeric system is invariably the most accessible for users - the references generally being much easier to remember.

9.3. The most common types of referencing systems are:

Referencing Systems
1. An alphabetical referencing system
2. A numerical referencing system
3. An alpha-numeric referencing system - 1
3. An alpha-numeric referencing system - 2
4. A keyword referencing system
10. How to create a functional filing scheme

10.1. The scheme will usually consist of a three (exceptionally four) level hierarchy, with the lowest level reference being the individual files, and the highest level reference being the business functions. The upper levels of the filing scheme can be drawn directly from the functions and activities identified by your information map

10.2. Preliminary research is essential to the preparation of a successful scheme so if you have not already developed an information map, now is the time to do so.

10.3. If current resource prevents you from developing the information map properly, you still need to minimally ask the following questions to develop what is in effect a pared down information map, and which you will always base your filing scheme on:

    1. what are your school/section’s functions? (ie what do you do);

    2. what activities do you carry out to fulfil those functions? (ie how do you do it);

    3. what information do you receive to carry out the activity?

    4. what records do you produce from the activity?

    5. to whom do you provide that information?

    6. what records do you need to keep?

    7. what records do you generate that other business areas need to keep?

    8. what is the best way of organizing the information?

10.4. Answers to questions 1 and 2 (the functions and activities) will form the top two levels of the filing scheme. Answers to questions 3 to 8 will contribute to the setting up of the individual files that will populate the scheme. To prevent the scheme from becoming difficult to use, always try to restrict the scheme to three or four levels of hierarchy, with the third or fourth level being the individual files.

10.5. The first file in any filing scheme needs to be a ‘metadata file’. A Metadata file is the file that will contain information about the filing scheme itself, including its structure and the details of any alterations and additions that are made to it.

10.6. When you are setting up a file, the file’s position in the hierarchy, its title, reference and date of opening need to be recorded in the metadata file.

10.7. File titles need to accurately reflect their contents they also need to be both brief and sufficiently comprehensive to describe the contents clearly. For example: Industrial relations: Joint Negotiating Committee: Minutes.

10.8. With file titles the use of acronyms, abbreviations or any general terms, such as “general” or “miscellaneous” should never be used - to many people they make little sense and will help no one in searching for information.

10.9. When developing the scheme, involve as many people with an interest in the area as possible. This will ensure that the scheme has a significant consultative dimension and meets all of the needs of your business area.

10. How do I implement a filing scheme?

11.1. Once the scheme has been drawn up, you need to set up the files as specified in the scheme.

11.2. It is not always cost effective to convert legacy paper material to a new system. If this is the case, close existing files down and open new ones.

11.3. It is a matter of judgment and preference when it comes to the file storage of records – the key thing is to be consistent and to adopt a school or section standard.

11.4. If you need to take papers in and out of files you need to consider using spring clip binders or lever arch files, but bear in mind that lever arch files are not accepted into the University Records Store and could therefore be a bad choice if the records they contain need to be transferred to the store at some point.

11.5. Box files are an appropriate way of storing bulky documents but are not the right choice for loose papers.

11.6. Bear in mind that whilst adopting a standard is important, you should always avoid using proprietary storage solutions, they can be very expensive to maintain.

11.7. Irrespective of the type of file container you choose, it will need to have sufficient space to enable you to enter:

  • The file title;

  • the date the file was opened;

  • the date the file is closed.

11.8. To avoid having to re-sort papers, always file them chronologically, with the most recent date on top.

11.9. Files should never be allowed to become so large as to become unwieldy. They need to be closed and a new file opened when the file becomes too thick (and this is not much more than 1 inch or 2.5cm).

11.10. As a matter of routine, files should be closed if they have been open for five years, and a new or continuation file started. Additional advice is available in respect of file creation and file management

11.11. Your electronic records should also be brought into the filing scheme (unless they are already held in a clear, usable and easily accessible structure) - in a hybrid paper/electronic records environment, such as that which exists at Newcastle, this is a particularly important consideration.

11.12. For electronic records, simply use use folders and sub-folders to reflect the filing structure. In respect of basic records management there is absolutely no difference between electronic records and paper records. Ensure that the scheme is in a shared drive, and accessible to all who need to use it.
12. How do I maintain the scheme?

12.1. Organizations change over time, the University is no different here, and for a filing scheme to remain of value it has to be kept up to date.

12.2. Once the scheme is established it is generally advisable to review it every five years in order to demonstrate that it is still relevant to your school or section’s needs. Some things to consider are:

  • check that the business functions are the same since the scheme was compiled; (change is unlikely here, core business functions are generally stable, – but the question nevertheless still needs to be asked)

  • check that the business processes have not changed; (change is more likely here as it focuses on ‘how things are done’ rather than ‘what is done’)

  • check that the records that are being generated have not changed;

  • check that the scheme still meets users’ needs

12.3. It is best to conduct reviews of the scheme at the same time as you review the information map and upon which your scheme should be based.

12.4. It is important to remember that the review process is there to identify changes that might otherwise have been overlooked - it is not intended to replace the informal changes and additions that need to be made to the scheme as and when your business requires it. The review process therefore, is no substitute for good, on-going, records management husbandry.

13. What other help is available?

13.1. Further advice and guidance in respect of records management, data protection and freedom of information can be obtained by emailing or telephoning ext. 8209



Example Referencing Systems