In an organized filing system folders are arranged in some kind of order. Some commonly used systems include: alphabetical, straight numeric, terminal digit numeric, or by a category. Sub categories can also be added to the above methods. Knowing the advantages and disadvantages of the various systems upfront will allow for an informed decision based on your particular needs.
This article looks at alphabetical filing. Numeric systems are evaluated in other articles.
Before putting the files into alphabetical order you have to decide what will be the designator of the file. This will allow you to get an idea of the total quantity of files in the system. Using a name is the most commonly used factor. Most systems put last name first, then the first name. For example: Beth Smith would be filed before Pam Smith.
Alphabetical filing has several advantages.
a) Most people are familiar with this type of filing because libraries (at least partially) and home filing systems are usually alphabetical.
b) The staff should be able to learn and become comfortable with the system in a timely manner.
c) The total amount of shelving available for the system can be divided into alphabetical order before you start to add records (*the chart below shows how to estimate space for alpha sorted files).
d) Another advantage is the need to shift the records after purging records is reduced because what records are removed is usually random. The new records added to the system will also be random and fall across the entire filing system.
e) A cross-reference may be avoided if the situation is such that the name on the record is easily available.
Alpha filing also has some disadvantages.
a) This system does not work well with very large filing systems. With a large amount of files the chance of duplicate names is great which can lead to confusion and increase retrieval time.
b) Color coding is more difficult since you need to have 26 colors or combination of colors to designate all the letters of the alphabet. Spotting mis-files can also be harder.
c) Trying to remember where a letter falls in the alphabet adds to the time of filing and retrieving the records. Also, dealing with some of the rules of alpha filing is confusing. For example, does Mc come before or after Mac? Every time I go to the library I stand at the stacks trying to remember these rules (and I have to keep going through the alphabet to find a particular letter on the shelves).
d) If confidentiality is an issue having a person’s name on the file may be a privacy violation. In addition, the chances are increased that an unauthorized person can find a particular file.
In conclusion, making the decision on what system to use depends on your needs and how you rank the advantages and disadvantages listed above.