Overall File Management


The Smithsonian Institution Archives provides guidance to staff in developing an overall file management strategy. For a complete strategy, the advice listed below should be used in conjunction with other guidelines found in Managing Active Records.

Please consult the glossary for definitions of many of the terms found on this page.

When should records be weeded?

Records can be weeded at any time. In fact, the more often they are weeded, the easier it is to do. Weeding involves removing records with short-term value from the permanent records. The weeded records can generally be discarded (shredded if they contain sensitive information), or deleted unless they must be kept for a certain period of time for legal purposes. The Smithsonian-wide and unit-specific records disposition schedules occasionally identify specific types of files that should be weeded from the permanent records prior to transfer to the Archives. Consult the Archives' guidance on weeding records for other types of documents or files that can generally be weeded. Weeding may help reduce the overall size of the files and is crucial to keeping email below the maximum mailbox size.

Top of Page

How is a records disposition schedule used?

Records disposition schedules outline the types of records (also called records series) found in the offices of the Smithsonian Institution. The schedules should be used to determine how long staff should keep each type of record and what to do with those records once they become inactive. The Archives maintains a disposition schedule that can be used by all Smithsonian staff. In some cases, unit-specific disposition schedules (staff only) also exist. In most cases, these were written prior to the creation of the institution-wide schedule. The retention guidance is the same in the unit-specific schedules as it is in the institution-wide schedule.

Many retention guidelines identify a time period to keep each series. In some cases, the Archives recommends that offices destroy a particular type of record when no longer needed. The retention of these records is left to the discretion of each office. Some files may be active for a period of three to five years and then no longer needed for day-to-day activities. Other types of records may remain active for much longer. When considering how long to keep these series, consider how they are used within the office and how long they are used by staff on a regular basis.

Top of Page

Should a file plan be created?

Most individuals do not need to create a file plan for their own records. File plans are most useful for central files, for individuals who maintain large quantities of records, or for entire Smithsonian units. A file plan is a tool that helps staff determine where to file documents or folders, and where to find them later. A simple file plan may contain a list of records series, how files within that series are arranged, and where that records series is located. The file plan may also include the disposition information for that series, a list of subcategories in that series, or a list of every folder within that series. A copy of the file plan should be kept with the files and should also be accessible to all staff in paper or electronic format.

Top of Page

What should a records management manual contain?

A records management manual is an expansion of a file plan. In addition to the file plan, it should include:

  • controlled vocabulary and naming conventions;
  • responsibilities of staff in general for creating, filing, or accessing files as well as the responsibilities of specific staff for overseeing the central files, maintaining the controlled vocabulary, updating the file plan and manual, discarding records, and transferring records to the Archives;
  • and information about the Smithsonian Archives, including the Archives liaison assigned to the unit and contact information for the Archives' Reference Team, as well as links to the website and records disposition schedule.

The records management manual can be its own document or a section of a staff handbook or procedural manual for the unit.

Top of Page

What responsibilities need to be assigned?

All staff should be assigned the responsibility of managing their own paper and electronic files, whether that means that they are responsible for maintaining their files themselves, or properly filing into the central files. One or more staff members should be designated as a "file administrator," responsible for managing all or a specific portion of the central files. One or more staff members, most likely a file administrator, should also be assigned the responsibility of maintaining the file plan, controlled vocabulary, naming conventions, and records management manual. Although the Archives accepts records transfers from any staff member, regardless of position, the unit should make an internal decision as to who may transfer or discard files. These responsibilities should be listed in the records management manual as well as included in performance plans.

Top of Page

Are there special considerations for records containing personally identifiable information (PII)?

PII refers to information about individuals which may or may not be publicly available, that can be used to distinguish or indicate an individual’s identity, and any other information that is linked or linkable to an individual, such as medical, educational, financial, or employment information. It should be kept physically protected at all times from anyone not authorized to access the information. Paper records containing PII should be stored in locked cabinets or rooms. Electronic records containing PII should be encrypted or password-protected. If these records must be saved to removable media, external hard drives, or laptops, the media or equipment should also be stored in locked cabinets or rooms when not in use.

Sensitive personally identifiable information (sPII) is a subset of PII and is defined as certain PII data elements that, if disclosed or used in combination with other data, could lead to harm to the individual (i.e., identity theft with the intention to do financial harm). sPII includes an individual's first and last name in combination with a Social Security number or personal Tax Identification Number; a driver’s license or government-issued identification number; a credit card number with or without an access code; a bank account number with or without a personal identification number (PIN) or password; or medical information (i.e., a diagnosis or condition). In some cases, sPII can and should be redacted as soon as it is no longer needed, even if the entire record is scheduled for a longer period. Contact the Archives and Information Management Team for additional information about redacting sPII on specific types of records.

Top of Page