Physical records management involves numbering, filing and retrieving file folders. If this is what you have to do and you have a large number of file folders to manage, then the Terminal Digit system should be of value to you.
Have you ever had to remove files from shelving or cabinets and reallocate them to other spaces because a drawer or shelf is packed tight with no room for new files? Then had to do it again and again and again? Are you tired of wasting time reallocating files; moving files from drawer to drawer or shelf to shelf?
One of my favorite records managers used to call this the “Squishing” problem; all the files are ‘squished’ together and there is no room for new files
The squishing problem is inevitable if you start to load files from the beginning of any physical filing system, be it shelving or cabinets and unload file files from random locations as the retention schedule dictates. If you create and file new parts (a new folder called part 2, part 3, etc., when the original file folder is full) then the problem is exacerbated. You may well spend a large part of your working life shuffling file folders from location to location; a frustrating and worthless, thankless task. You also get to inhale a lot of toxic paper dust and mites which is not a good thing.
You may not be aware of it but there is a very simple algorithm you can utilize to make sure the squishing problem never happens to you. It is usually referred to as the ‘Terminal Digit’ file numbering system. It is an old but well-proven solution.
Importantly, you don’t need to change your file numbering system other than by adding on additional numbers to the end of your current file folder numbers. These additional numbers are the terminal digits.
How to do it
The number of terminal digits you need depends upon how many file folders you have to manage. Here is a simple guideline:
- One terminal Digit (0 to 9) = one thousand files
- Two Terminal Digits (00 to 99) = ten thousand Files
- Three Terminal Digits (000 to 999) = greater than ten thousand files
Obviously, you also have to have the filing space and appropriate facilities available (e.g., boxes, bays, etc.,) to hold the required number of files for each terminal.
It is called the Terminal Digit system because you first have to separate your available filing space into a number of regular ‘terminals’. Each terminal is identified by a number, e.g., 0, 1, 2, 09, 23, 112, 999, etc.
The new terminal digit is additional and separate from your normal file number. It determines which terminal a file will be stored in. Let’s say your normal file number is of the format YYYY/SSSSSS. That is, the current year plus an automatically incrementing auto number like 2012/000189 then 2012/000190, etc. If we use two terminal digits and divide your available filing space into one hundred terminals (think of it as 100 equally sized filing slots or bays numbered 00 to 99) then your new file number format is YYYY/SSSSSS-99. The two generated file numbers above may now look like 2012/000189-00 and 2012/000190-01.
File folder 2012/000189-00 is filed in terminal number 00 and 2012/000190-01 is filled in terminal number 01. In a nutshell, what we are doing is distributing files evenly across all available filing space. We are not starting at terminal 00 and filling it up and then moving on to terminal 01, then terminal 02 when 01 is full etc. Finding files is even easier because the first part of the file number you look at is the terminal digit. If a file number ends in 89 it will be in terminal 89 in file number order.
The other good news is that when we unload files from the shelves say at end of life or at the point in the lifecycle when they need to sent offsite, we will also unload files evenly across all available filing space. If the terminals are actually big enough and if you have calculated everything correctly, you should never again suffer from the ‘squishing’ problem and you should never again have to ingest paper dust and mites when tediously shuffling files from location to location.
Obviously, there is a little more to this than sticking a couple of digits on the end of your file number. I assume you are using a computerized records management system so changes have to be made or configured to correctly calculate the now extended file number (including the new terminal digit) and your colour file labels will need to be changed to show the terminal digit in a prominent position.
There is also the question of what to do with your existing squished file store. Ideally you would start from scratch with your new numbering systems and terminals and wait for the old system to disappear as the files age and disappear offsite to Crown or Iron Mountain. That probably won’t be possible so you will have to make decisions based on available resources and budget and come up with the best compromise.
I can’t prove it, but I suspect that the terminal digit system has been around since people began filing stuff. It is an elegantly simple solution to an annoying and frustrating problem and involves nothing more complicated than simple arithmetic.
The surprise is that so few organizations actually use it. In thirty-five years in this business I don’t think I have seen it in use at more than one to two-percent of the customers I have visited. I have talked about it and recommended it often but the solution seems to end up in the too-hard basket; a shame really, especially for the records management staff charged with the constant shuffling of paper files.
It may be that you have a better solution but just in case you don’t, please humor me and have another look at the terminal digit filing solution. It may just save you an enormous amount of wasted time and make your long-suffering records staff a lot happier, a lot more productive and a lot healthier.