Creating paper files
Paper files need to be consistently labelled and logically organised. This guidance describes best practice to create and describe a paper filing system. This will ensure accurate, prompt retrieval for as long as the files are required. Every new file should be registered and maintained in a filing system, with a unique title so that it can always be identified.
A good file classification system should support the business requirements of those who use them and incorporate information to assist long-term management. It should be easy to understand and maintain.
The classification system should have a structured referencing system with usually two, and no more than three, elements. Numbering systems should be applied consistently. There are several options:
- A single number system allocates a running number to a file, starting at 1, regardless of function. It has the virtue of simplicity, thus preventing errors, and is good for offices with large filing systems and limited space. However, an index is necessary, and as numbers grow, the possibility of misfiling increases. It should not, therefore, be used for very long runs of files.
- An annual single number system adds a running number to the current year, for example 2005/1. It prevents numbers growing too large, and helps in the systematic closure of files. It is particularly useful in filing financial records.
- A self-numbering system uses a sequential, meaningful number contained in the records, for example on invoices.
- An alphabetical system uses the name of the subject of the file, for example a member of staff, student or building.
The following information should always be provided on file covers:
- File reference – a unique reference for each new file. You may have different systems according to the type of information being managed.
- File title – a meaningful and accurate title should be given to each file. Acronyms and abbreviations should be avoided.
- Date opened
- Date closed
- Owner – this should be the name of the individual who is responsible for the contents of the file
- Department or team
- System reference – if the file relates to a record or file held on a computer system, you should record the case number or file name and path.
- Disposal date / action – date for disposal and the action that should be followed. The details will be provided in the retention schedule.
You should also capture and reference any additional information relevant to the use of the file, for example personal files may also record the date an employee joined the pension scheme, or contract files might record the start date of the contract.
Maintaining paper files
Records contained in paper files should be managed according to business and legal requirements. This means they should be filed correctly, as soon as possible after receipt or creation. If an action is required, you should still file the document, and circulate the file to the appropriate member of staff. Maintain a record of this circulation, to reduce the risk that the file will be misplaced.
Documents should not be placed loose into files or folders. This helps prevent loss, damage or destruction. The following principles will help in maintaining an orderly filing system:
- File latest record on top.
- File in order of the date on which the document was written, not date of receipt.
- File attachments or enclosures immediately below the documents to which they relate. Place bulky items such as plans or drawings in a pouch or pocket with the contents described on its front.
- Do not file duplicates.
- Circulated papers should be marked in such a way as to identify the original or master set and copies. File the original and, if necessary, insert a file note into other files to indicate its location.
Where appropriate, for example where files are stored by reference, code or index number, it is good practice to maintain a list of the files. A file list should contain the following information:
- File reference
- File title
- Date opened
- Date closed
- System reference
- Disposal details.
If a spreadsheet or database is used to maintain the file list, it will not be necessary to maintain an index to those files. However, if a manual system is used, for most filing systems an index must also be maintained. This will, of course, not be needed for case files stored in alphabetical order.
Remember to update lists when files are destroyed.
Movement of records outside the office must be tracked, for example when files are provided in response to a Data Protection request. File movement should be monitored using a tracking schedule, though it may be more appropriate to photocopy relevant documents than to issue the original file. An example of a tracking schedule is provided below:
A file should be closed, and a new file created, if:
- The file is no longer in use, for example a member of staff has left UCL, or a project has ended
- No papers have been added for two years
- The file is no longer in use, but needs to be retained for legal reasons.
Create a new part (a continuation file) and number accordingly when files become bulky – around 5 cm thick. It is sometimes a good idea to create a new part every year.
When closing a file, you should remove ephemeral material, for example:
- Un-annotated drafts
- Pro forma correspondence
- Compliment slips
- Publications, such as brochures, manuals, catalogues
- Blank forms
- Copy, i.e. unsigned, minutes.
The UCL retention schedule describes the retention and disposal information for all records. You should check and ‘tidy up’ records that are to be retained permanently, or for longer than 12 years, to ensure that the contents do not include items that will damage paper, for example:
- Post-it notes
- Steel paper clips
- Rubber bands
- PVC sleeves and folders.
Electronic media, such as floppy disks, should not be attached to or stored with paper files.
Once a file has been closed the following actions may take place depending upon its retention period and the type of materials it contains:
- Immediate destruction – if records have reached their destruction deadline, they may be destroyed.
- Retain for a period then dispose – records that are used frequently after closure (semi-active) may be kept on site. Responsibility for managing the files remains with the department or team concerned. Subsequent disposal must be agreed and all disposals properly documented.
- Retain for a period then dispose – records that are used infrequently after closure, but have not reached their retention deadline, should be transferred to UCL’s off-site store.
Retain permanently – if records must be retained permanently, they should be held on site as long as they are in frequent use, during which period you remain responsible for their management. When their administrative use ceases, they should be transferred to off-site storage or the UCL archives, in consultation with the Records Manager and Head of Special Collections.
Last modified 13 October 2011