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Guideline 18 - How to take control of your records

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These guidelines cover the implementation of records control processes that enable public offices to control their records. They are particularly useful to small public offices.


These guidelines provide advice on establishing control of your records. To manage records you need to know what records you have, where they are and what has happened to them. The guidelines give an introduction to what are known as 'records control processes' and provide practical tips on implementing these processes in your public office.

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These guidelines can also be viewed as a PDF document (66kb) for printing.

Who are the guidelines for?

The guidelines will be of most use to very small public offices trying to establish control over their records where there has been little before. They will also be of interest to public offices reviewing their records control systems or where specialised records management software is not implemented.

What do the guidelines cover?

The guidelines cover records in any format. Records can be created in any format, not just paper, so the control systems required to manage them have to be able to handle the way that records are created in your public office. Don't forget that email is a record too!

The guidelines cover:

  • registration
  • classification and language control
  • indexing
  • tracking.

A brief introduction is provided to each of these processes followed by practical tips on applying these processes to control your records.

Benefits of controlling your records

Why is it important to know what records you have, where they are and what happened to them?  Put simply, these basic controls can help you to:

  • find what you need, when you need it
  • share information with colleagues
  • show why you did what you did, and
  • prove to others that you did it.

Making the right records

Before you can successfully control records, you have to make sure that the right records are being made in the first place. Advice on this is given in the guidelines Create and Capture and in the 'DIRKS' Manual - Doing DIRKS to ensure the creation and capture of records.

Using the guidelines

The table below indicates the section of the guidelines to look at for topics of interest.

If you want to know how to… Then see…
Control your records The information about each control process
Set up a records control system See Registering files and the model records control spreadsheet (xls, 16kb)Note: Useful for small filing systems only
Create files (also closing files) Appendix A: File creation process
Title files to reflect business function and activity Classifying and titling files
Number files File numbers
Manage access and security Tracking: Access and security


Purpose of registration

The purpose of registering records is to provide evidence that a record has been made or received and captured into a recordkeeping system. It involves recording brief descriptive information about the record in a recordkeeping system, and assigning the record a unique identifier.

The level at which registration is applied is a risk-based decision. It can be applied to each record, e.g. individual letters, faxes or emails, or to aggregates of records, e.g. files. In many cases it may not be necessary to register each record where the activities which they document are routine and of low risk. Registration is often carried out at aggregate levels such as files or whole databases.

Registering files

Files are a familiar way of linking related records and provide a more efficient management tool than individual records. Additional records management processes, such as disposal and security restrictions, are usually applied at the file level rather than at the individual record level. Records, such as correspondence, should be attached to files, whether paper-based or 'virtual' in an electronic system.

Note: For records not kept in files, e.g. financial management databases, 'special' format records such as plans or photographs, decide whether these should be managed individually or at a higher level of aggregation, e.g. as a series.*

*Series - records that relate to each other because they are part of a filing system; they have been kept together and relate to the same activity, they are of similar formats and relate to the same function.
Judith Ellis (ed), Keeping Archives, second edition p. 479

Register information about files when the file is created. The information required includes:

  • Title of file
  • File number
  • Date created
  • Home location
  • Current location
  • Previous/subsequent/related files

Additional information that will be useful for records management includes:

  • Event history – e.g. date closed, date transferred to secondary storage
  • Retention and disposal authority and action.

See model records control spreadsheet (xls, 16kb).

Note: This is a very simple spreadsheet that would be suitable only for a small public office with a small number of files.

For more advice on creating files, see Appendix A: File Creation Process

File numbers

State Records recommends numbering files. Allocating numbers provides handy shorthand for referencing files and helps you manage the storage of files. Never reuse file numbers, even when files have been destroyed - it is important that each file number is unique. No file number in a public office should be duplicated.

If you have… Then…
A very small filing system use simple running numbers, e.g. 001, 002, 003, 004 … OR annual/running numbers, e.g. 04/022; 04/023
A larger filing system, certainly any system with over 1000 files. use annual/running numbers, e.g. 04/0022; 04/0023
Different filing systems at different sites or within different business units prefix annual/running numbers with an alpha character, e.g. A04/0985; B04/0985
Note: No file number should be duplicated.

Note: Some records may be managed outside of the main records control system, e.g. case files, contracts, etc. You may choose to use a different file number format for these records. This should be kept simple and should not not duplicate any other file numbers. State Records recommends that annual/running numbers are prefixed with alpha characters where necessary.

Tip: Colour code numbers on the side of the file. These then form a pattern on shelves and you can see quickly if files have been removed from the sequence or are out of order.

Registering individual records

Registering individual records in a records management system is good practice as it provides evidence that each record was made or received by the public office. It may not be necessary to do registration at this level for low-risk functions and routine activities. Examples of records that may require individual registration are contracts and tenders. Information to capture at registration includes: 

  • unique identifier for the record (often assigned automatically by electronic recordkeeping systems)
  • date made or received
  • date registered
  • title of record
  • name of author
  • file to which it relates (if appropriate).

This is often done through electronic records management systems, registers of mail, and in some databases, e.g. financial management systems, payroll systems, which automatically assign unique numbers to records of transactions. For records on physical files, you may want to use a File Minute Sheet (doc, 33kb) to record the records attached to the file. Note: This can be incorporated with a File Movement Sheet (doc, 38kb).

If records are not registered individually, it is important that they are appropriately classified and linked to related records through files or other systems that enable them to be managed properly. Even if not registered individually, ensure that records which are added to files have information about:

  • the date made or received, e.g. make sure that a letter has a date stamp, or a fax has a stamp or fax transmission sheet to show it has been sent.
  • the name of the author, e.g. make sure the record includes the name of the person who created the record.
  • Records come in all sorts of formats. Emails are records too. Don't forget to register emails. If you can't manage them electronically, then print them out and put them on file. See guidelines on managing email. Don't forget to register plans, photographs and other 'special' format records.
  • Do not register ephemera or junk mail that is not acted upon.
  • Once a record is attached to a file, it should not be removed.

Classification and language control

Purpose of classification

The purpose of classification is to link related records so that you can recreate, through the records, the story of what happened and why. Classifying records in systematic and consistent ways helps to improve their capture, retrieval, maintenance and disposal.

State Records recommends classification according to business function and activity. This way, you can link the classification with disposal, access and security requirements.

Note: See the the examples of classification provided below if you want to find out more about the advantages and disadvantages of different classification approaches.

Classifying and titling files

Classification is usually applied at the file level. The title of the file reflects the business function and activity that is being documented. For example:

(business function)              (activity)      (subject)

By including information about the business function and activity in the title, staff can see at a glance what records are likely to be contained in the file.  

For more information about classification and State Records' thesaurus products see the Keyword thesaurus products page on the State Records website.

Classifying records

When you make or receive records you must classify them in order to identify the correct file to which they must be attached or to identify that a new file is needed.

Language control

For any records system with more than a handful of files, some language control will be necessary for classification to be consistent over time. This involves designing and using tools to control language used for titling and indexing records and files. Using a controlled language helps to ensure that classification terms are used consistently throughout a recordkeeping system.  Typically this involves developing a thesaurus to guide you from terms that should not be used to the correct terms.

See the guidelines Developing and implementing a keyword thesaurus for more information on developing a thesaurus.

For simple filing systems, you may not need a thesaurus - a list of standard file titles that should be used in your public office may be sufficient. You will have to decide this based on an analysis of the way your public office works and the needs of your users.


Purpose of indexing

Indexing helps users to find records when they need them. Indexing records is usually bundled up with the classification process as terms from the thesaurus are used as indexing terms. Limiting titling and indexing terms to the thesaurus or controlled language terms makes searching easier as you don't have to work out what other people may have called the record.

Note: Classification and indexing are related but are distinct. Classification helps to link records to their business context. Indexing helps to find records by attaching labels to them.

Indexing records

Most software products used for managing records have a good search function. In electronic records management software systems this is very sophisticated. You can use the Find function in standard word processing applications or spreadsheets, e.g. Word or Excel, to find your records by searching for the terms used to title them.

If you do not use software in your records control system but keep a paper file register, you will need to develop an index to help users find files. This should present the index terms alphabetically and link these to the files to which they have been applied.


Purpose of tracking

Tracking is very important to managing records well. You need to know what has happened to records and where they are. This is vital to protecting the value of records as evidence of decisions taken in your public office. It is also important to be able to locate your records when you need to use them.

Tracking what happens to records

You need to know what happens to records. Once records are registered into the recordkeeping system they should not be changed. If changes to a record are required, this should be considered a new record, e.g. a policy document and its successors will each be a record.  This is particularly important for electronic records where it is not easy to tell if something has been altered.  In many cases you need to know what happened between the first record and the second record, or at an aggregate level to a group of records. Examples of when this is important include:

  • advice given to public offices
  • the reasons for business decisions
  • public office policy and its basis
  • in business systems such as financial management systems, personnel systems.
  • if there is the risk that a system could be accessed without authorisation.

The information required includes:

  • what changes were made
  • when they were made
  • who made them, and
  • with what authority they were made.

This information is called metadata (meaning information about information). Records management software systems can be set up to capture this information automatically. In paper systems it may be necessary to create a record of this, e.g. a file note, and attach it to the file.

If you want to find out more about metadata, see Recordkeeping in Brief 18 Introducing recordkeeping metadata.

Tracking the location of records

Tracking the location of records is usually done at the file level. Files move around a public office as needed by staff. Records should have a home location. Document the home location in the records control system, e.g. the records storeroom, a filing cabinet, a named individual. When other staff request files, record the current location in the records control system.

The level of documentation will be a risk-based decision. The table below gives examples of the decisions you may make in a small public office.

If files… Then…
move within a business unit you may not need to record this daily movement provided they are returned to their home location at the end of each day.
are transferred to another business unit update the current location in the records control system.
are transferred outside the public office update the current location in the records control system.
are transferred to secondary storage update the home location in the records control system.

Tracking who has looked at records or files

It is a risk-based decision whether you need to track who has looked at a record or a file over time, regardless of whether any changes were made. For high-risk functions this may be very important. If you have an electronic records management system, this information can be captured and maintained by the system. For paper-based systems, a file movement sheet (doc, 38kb) is the traditional method of capturing this information.

Tip: Access and security
Tracking is important for maintaining appropriate access and security controls, an important function of records management. It is important that the records control system indicates what level of access restriction applies to the file.
This is easy to apply in an electronic records management system where user logon profiles can be used to indicate what access rights they have and the process of restricting access to electronic records can be automated.
With a paper-based filing system, files to which access is restricted must be kept securely, e.g. in a safe or locked filing cabinet. Note the level of restriction clearly on the file cover.
If you want to find out more about access and security, see Doing DIRKS to manage record access and security in the DIRKS Manual.

Appendix A: File creation process

The table below sets out the process for creating a new official file. The steps may involve a number of staff according to the way your public office is organised.

Step Action
1 Create OR receive record

Note: Don't create files in anticipation of action.  This can lead to expensive waste of time and effort.
2 Check whether relevant files exists

If NO – go to Step 3
If YES – go to Step 8
3 Request new file

Note: See model file request form (doc, 20kb). This can be paper, email or web-based. The request form, whether paper or electronic, should be the first record attached to the file. If necessary, print and file.
4 Decide the appropriate file title based on the function and activity being documented.

Note: Consult tools for titling, e.g. thesaurus or file list to help you determine the right file title.
5 Allocate file number
6 Construct new physical file (if necessary)
7 Register new file in records control system
8 Check location of file
9 Request or retrieve file

Note: Don't forget to update the records control system to show the new location of the file.
10 Attach record to file

Who should create files

If possible, create and register official files centrally – this reduces the risk of duplicating files. If this would not work in your organisation, keep the number of people in business units creating official files to a minimum. Make sure they are disciplined about registering new files in the control system so that files don't get duplicated.

When do you close files?

Close files when they become too thick (paper) or when they contain a quantity of records that is making finding the right record difficult (electronic). State Records recommends a file should be no more than 2.5cm thick and no more than 200 electronic records should be added to a file. This advice should be used pragmatically – close the file at a convenient point, i.e. not in the middle of a transaction.

Note: Where it is useful to manage records annually or by some other date range, then include the dates in the file title and open a new file once this date range has expired, e.g. STRATEGIC MANAGEMENT– Planning – Corporate Plan 2003-5, open a new file for STRATEGIC MANAGEMENT– Planning – Corporate Plan 2006-8.

How do you link closed files to new files or new parts?

Use your records control system to document this information and manage the parts. Don't use part numbers as this can be confusing. Give each part a new number, e.g. the first part of the file is 02/4521, the second part of the file is 03/7895. Use the file title to indicate that there are parts to the file, e.g.:

File number File title
02/4521 Personnel - Allowances - Higher duties
03/7895 Personnel - Allowances - Higher duties Part 2

The relationship is shown in the control system by recording the number of any previous files when you register a new file, and by updating the registration information of the closed file with a note of the subsequent file number. This makes it easier for users to find the whole story on a particular business activity. 

See the model records control spreadsheet (xls, 16kb) for a simple example.

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© State of New South Wales through the State Records Authority, 2004.
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