Setting Up Paper Files


Paper files often require a large amount of office space. The Smithsonian Institution Archives provides guidance in setting up these files in order to minimize the amount of file storage needed. Spending time to properly set up files in the beginning will reduce the amount of staff time spent locating and managing files later.

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

Where should paper files be kept?

If files will be used by multiple staff, create central files that are physically accessible to everyone who uses them. Use "out" cards when removing any file from the central files. “Out” cards should contain the name of the file, the name of the person who removed it, and the date it was removed and the card should be placed in the space from which the file was removed. The files used most frequently should be kept closest to the staff that use them. Any file containing personally identifiable information (PII), including birthdates, birthplaces, Social Security numbers, credit card numbers, and other sensitive information regarding one’s identity, must be kept under lock and key when staff is not in the room. This may be a locked filing cabinet or a locked room. If storage becomes an issue, weed or discard files if appropriate or consider transferring files to the Archives. Consult the Archives' guidance on weeding, transferring or destroying records, and records dispositions to minimize the volume of files being unnecessarily kept.

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How should the files be organized?

Both central files and the files of individuals should be, at the highest level, divided into the series listed in the Smithsonian-wide or unit-specific (viewable by staff only) records disposition schedule. Within a series or type of record, choose a logical arrangement for the records (e.g. alphabetic, chronologic, or numeric by project number). For work that generally produces similar documents for every project, consider creating a standard list of file names to be used for all projects.

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How can I prepare for weeding files?

In many instances, units will be instructed to weed certain types of files from permanent records before transferring them to the Archives. These are generally logistical or reference files or copies of accounting records that are kept with the permanent files for convenience while a project is still active. Do not mix these materials into the same folders as the permanent files. Instead, create a separate folder or folders for these materials and note on the folder label that these should be removed. To make these folders stand out even more, use a different color folder or create a special mark for the label. For additional information on weeding files, consult the Archives' instructions for weeding files.

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What kind of folders should be used?

Standard manila file folders with top tabs are preferred, but colored folders are also acceptable, especially if the colors are useful to an office in keeping organized. Although unavoidable with certain filing systems, side tabs are no longer visible once they are placed in a box. Before transferring permanent files to the Archives, the information from the side tab will need to be written on the top edge of the folder. Permanent files must be removed from accordion files, binders, and hanging folders, and placed in labeled file folders before being transferred to the Archives. If using hanging folders, placing all files in labeled file folders before placing them in the hanging folders will save time later.

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How full should the folders be?

Most file folders have lines scored across the bottom front of the folder. Folding along the score lines creates a thicker base in which the files can sit. Once the last score line has been reached, it is time to start a new folder. There are two ways that these folders can be labeled. If the contents of the folder can be divided in a logical way, such as at a certain date or point in the alphabet, the date or alphabet span can be added to the label. If there is no logical break, add "folder 1" and "folder 2" to the labels.

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How should the folders be labeled?

Labels written directly onto the folder will last longer, but sticky labels, particularly those done on a printer, are more user-friendly. If sticky labels begin to peel, staple them to the folder. At a minimum, the label should contain a few words that describe the topic and/or contents of the folder and the exhibition or project name (truncated is fine) or number, if applicable. The date span of the records inside the folder is also useful, but not always practical. Information such as the records series or the disposition date can sometimes be helpful as well.

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Should controlled vocabulary and naming conventions be used?

A controlled vocabulary is a good idea in any aspect of the workplace and especially with files. Similar files should always be named in similar ways, both in the exact terms used and in structure. For example, a unit may decide to name its accounting records by the fiscal year, followed by the type of record, followed by a more specific detail such as the vendor. Another unit may decide to name its correspondence files beginning with the correspondent's last name. Another unit may look at its exhibition files, note that they can always be divided into the same categories, and then can create a list of folder titles to be used for every exhibition. The same controlled vocabulary should be used unit-wide. Using a controlled vocabulary and naming conventions help staff to determine where the folder fits into the filing system and where to look for the folder later. When creating a controlled vocabulary and naming conventions, consider the guidance provided in Setting up Electronic Files as well, to ensure that one set of rules will work for all the unit's files.

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