Maintaining a Filing System, Identifying Inactive Files

Identifying and managing inactive records is an important step in the maintenance of a successful filing system.  Many filing systems break down and fail because drawers are clogged too full of paper to make records they hold easily accessible.  Electronic systems fail when too many versions of a document make it difficult to determine which one is the final draft.

Active vs. inactive records

Active records are consulted routinely in the daily performance of work.

Inactive records are rarely used, but must be retained for occasional reference or to meet audit or legal obligations.

Identifying inactive records: Cut-off

The cut-off signals the point at which a record series becomes inactive. It is used to determine the beginning of the retention period. The cut-off can refer to a specific event: termination of employment, end of funding period, termination of contract, accreditation received. More usually, the cut-off is tied to a period of time: end of the quarter, end of the calendar year, end of the fiscal year, end of the biennium, end of the academic year.

In determining the appropriate cut-off for a specific record series, a records analyst from Records Management Services, in consultation with the Records Authority/Coordinator,  will consider the following factors:

  • the frequency of reference to the files
  • the retention of the record series
  • the volume of the record series
  • the function of the record series (e.g., fiscal, personnel)
  • the function of the creating office (e.g., administrative, academic)

Storing inactive electronic files

The medium used for storing electronic records depends on their retention period.  Although most weeded electronic files can be maintained electronically, some should be printed.

Always print electronic files which are designated on the retention schedule as archival or potentially archival.  Files which have a retention period of 10 years or more should also be printed or should be copied onto microfiche (as per WAC 434-663).  Once files are printed or copied to microfiche the electronic copies can be deleted.

Weeded electronic files which are not printed can be saved to an "inactive" table or directory specifically set up for that purpose.  Depending on the size of the files they can  remain on the system or can be downloaded onto magnetic tape.  Word processing files saved to a disk should be uploaded to a directory on the hard drive or on the server, or downloaded onto magnetic tape.  

Always remember, all electronic files must be backed-up on a regular cycle that is not less than once a week.  The back-up should be kept in a different building, or at least must be kept on a different floor of the building.  The back-up itself is considered a duplicate record and may be overwritten or destroyed at any time.  Under no circumstances should it be maintained as long as, or longer than, the original file.

Additionally, if the retention period has not ended, always remember to migrate weeded electronic files when purchasing new hardware or software.  If migration is not cost effective, files which have not reached the end of their retention period must be printed.

Storing inactive paper files

Weeded paper records can be maintained in a storage room/basement or at the University Records Center. In general, storage rooms and basement storage areas create more problems than they solve. It is strongly recommended that weeded records not be maintained in these areas. Note: any basement area used for records storage must have a water sprinkler system. If there are physical safety questions, call Environmental Health and Safety (Fire Safety) 543-0465.


Storage rooms and basements are only suitable for the storage of paper files. If a storage area must be created, the following should be considered:

  • location -- convenience to the office
  • size -- including room for growth
  • access
  • security
  • fire protection
  • temperature/humidity controls
  • shelving
  • water/flood prevention
  • floor load
  • work areas/lighting
  • ventilation

The use of storage rooms and basement storage areas can seriously undermine a filing system unless the same procedures for files maintenance used in the office are applied to records stored in these areas.

If a storage area must be used, the following guidelines are suggested:

  • get clearance to use the area for records storage from EH&S Fire Safety
  • have one person responsible for maintaining the area
  • designate specific areas for the storage of records -- store equipment separately
  • apply retention schedules to the records
  • always use standard record storage cartons
  • label boxes with department name, record series, dates, and anticipated date of destruction
  • create an index of records which are transferred to storage
  • enforce charge out rules when retrieving records from storage
  • protect confidential records from unauthorized access
  • protect vital records

Records centers

The major objective of a records center is to move inactive paper records out of high cost office space and filing equipment into a low cost, service oriented environment as quickly as possible.

Built and maintained as warehouses, records centers maximize the use of space, providing the greatest economy in the storage of records. While storage rooms and basements provide some economy, they are usually viewed as potential office space -- records centers are not.  Five times as many records can be stored per square foot in a records center as in equivalent office space.

Records center advantages 

An official centralized records storage facility, like the University Records Center, has the following advantages:

  • provides maximum efficiency and utilization of space
  • provides orderly arrangement and control
  • employs procedures which assure prompt and efficient handling of records
  • provides fast and easy box and folder retrieval
  • provides physical security
  • protects against damage or destruction due to natural or other disaster
  • protects confidential records from unauthorized access
  • provides systematic legal disposition of records which have reached the end of their retention period
  • assures that records are destroyed only with prior authorization from the originating office

Inactive storage procedures

Once records are moved to inactive storage, procedures must be established to manage them. Intellectual and physical control must be maintained at all times.

Forms and logs are used to keep track of:

  • records transferred to storage
  • the storage location assigned each box
  • authorized access
  • records retrieved for reference
  • records returned for re-filing
  • records that have reached the end of their retention period and are ready for destruction
  • records that are destroyed
  • the manner and date in which records have been destroyed


When records have reached the end of their retention period, they can be destroyed, or if they are identified on a retention schedule as being potentially archival or archival, should be transferred to the University Archives where they will be preserved permanently.

Once paper records have reached the end of their retention period and can be destroyed, they are either recycled or shredded.

Records which are not confidential should be recycled in accordance with the polices of  University Recycling Program.

Electronic records should be deleted as soon as their retention period has ended. If possible, the entire drive or directory should be wiped. Remember, electronic records should be managed on the folder level, not by individual documents. Whole folders should be deleted, or if archival, printed and transferred to the University Archives.


Records Management Services and the University Archives are two distinct, separate University departments, with different operations, procedures, personnel, budgets, box numbers, and phone numbers.

The University Archives, under the Administration of the University Libraries, preserves records of both administrative and general research value. These records are retained for research and reference by University offices and the general public. The Archives assumes administrative custody of its holdings. Contact the University Archivist, John Bolcer, at 206.543.1879 or for more information about transferring records to the University Archives.

Records which have permanent administrative, legal, fiscal, and historical value are considered to be archival. Records Management Services consults with the University Archivist to determine which record series are considered archival or potentially archival. The final decision rests with the University Archivist.

Once a record that has been stored at the University Records Center has reached the end of its retention period, if it has been identified on a records retention schedule as potentially archival or archival, with the permission of the originating office it is transferred to the University Archives.

For procedures and details of transfer and use of archival records contact the University Archives.



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