Monday, December 01, 2014

"Modern filing"

It's time to go back to a classic: Modern filing : a textbook on office systems. Yes, I used quotation marks in the title to indicate irony. Apologies.

The book was printed in 1916 and published by the Yamwan and Erbe manfuacturing company. It was basically a sales catalogue. To put things in perspective, in 1916 a filing cabinet was still a relatively new-fangled thing, Scientific Management was near its apogee, and the United States had not yet entered the Great War. Ypres and the Somme had perhaps already distracted Canadians from recognizing the importance of modern filing... but that's a different discussion.

The table of contents gives us an overview of various systems: the loose sheet, the Shannon file, vertical filing, numerical filing, direct name system, geographical filing, subject filing, etc. The introduction is paean to the wonders of improved office management and gives us some insight into the conditions of the day:

"In many large business organizations there are chief filing clerks who have from two to thirty assistants who do nothing but look up and file correspondence. There are thousands of business houses throughout the country that require from eight to fifty people to take care of their filing. Expert librarians have been hired by business houses to supervise filing at salaries running as high as $50.00 a week. So you can see the subject is worthy of the utmost attention." (p. iix)

We no longer have this level of commitment to filing but we have the same problems:

"Frequently it will be found that business houses are struggling with filing methods they have far outgrown, or that are not adpated to their requirements. The results are not what they would like, yet they cannot see any  way to improve the methods they are using." (p. ix)

In fairness, the introduction alludes to other problems that are completely unintelligible to modern readers -- the difficulties of putting correspondence into a "transfer case" or negotiating with printers over the need to change card stock sizes.

The first chapter is about the "loose sheet system". It started with a basic box to contain letters. It evolved to cabinets of drawers where one could essentially put stacks of paper. The problem with this system is that some drawers fill up more quickly than others, requiring the use of aforementioned "transfer cases". These cases then go into longer term storage. We then end up with a retrieval issue since some drawers will contain years of correspondence while others will have only a few months with older correspondence in the transfer cases.

We move on to the Shannon File, which "like the Loose Sheet, is termed a Small Drawer system to distinguish it from the Vertical or Large Drawer method." A Shannon file really seems to be a clipboard type of arrangement with a manilla index or overlay. The key innovation seems to be the tabs that give rapid access to various letters of the alphabet. There are also Shannon Drawers, which are essentially clipboards that can be stored in a cabinet. The advantage of the Shannon system is that pages can be lost from the top rings. There is still, of course, the transfer case problem. NOTE: the form factor of the transfer case seems to live on as those boxes that store current journals or magazines in libraries before they are bound.

Then we get to vertical filing, or what we would call just filing. The system seems largely unchanged in almost 100 years and the book's illustrations are immediately recognizable. We are told that things are filed chronologically, most recent on top. A name-based filing system seems to be the default classification approach.

The book then launches into "Methods of Indexing and Alphabetical Filing". No surprisingly, we see the same list of approaches: alphabetical, by name; geographical; and subject. And of course, a hybrid approach (or in the terged text of the day: "Sometimes it is found convenient to use all of them."). In alphabetical filing we also have the transfer issue, etc.

Two things fascinate me about this description of filing. The scope of the paper problem is comparatively miniscule. Managers apparently worried about the need to scale up from four-drawer vertical files! The other issue is the nature of the business. Everything seems to so personal. The assumption is that everything can be tracked by name. It is all about correspondence between individuals. How times have changed...

The book goes on to reference the Numerical System and notes that it is the oldest form of vertical filing (perhaps a hat tip to Dewey's Library Bureau?). The numerical system makes certain things easier (like cross indexing) but introduces the need for some kind of index and surrogate. In this manner we can provision folders in a FIFO manner or by accession number and then manage reference through the surrogate. It's basically the classic library problem of optimizing both the user's ability to find a book and the library's need to shelve them!

One version of the Numerical System is the Direct Number system with Dewey-esque guides for the 10s, 100s, etc. This system still echoes in functional classifications with three primary levels of granularity.

Concerns with numerical systems include the general clunkiness of doing lookups, the waste of folders (because every concern needs a folder), etc. We are told that for "best results" we should separate correspondance by years and provide capacity for two years before transfer. That's probably good advice that could apply to any filing system such as email, etc.

The system "rapidly taking the place of other methods" is the Direct name system... unfortunately, the description is a bit opaque. Basically, you maintain the numbering system but also list the name on the folders and then separate frequently used folders (which might have monthly subfolders).

It's interesting that a manilla folder is optimized to hold no more than 50 pages of paper... could a similar threshold exist for email folders?

The Location Method holds few surprises: manage correspondence by state; when you exceed a particular threshold, use cities; etc. What is interesting is the implication of this system. The amount of correspondence indicates the size of the potential market in that area! It's like proto-BI. Of course, we then get into the mysteries of transfer tracking, etc. which really no longer seem relevant.

Now, on to Subject Filing, that subject that seems to give all of us so much grief. Thankfully, the text notes that to "index a subject file so that its contents are accesible is not generally difficult." (p.43) It continues by noting that subject filing for correspondence is only used in large companies but that it is most appropriat e for managing data files... which, at the time, was apparently a pretty rare thing. It also, however, notes that subject filing in purchasing may be valuable for documents related to current projects but that for permanent storage an alphabetical or numerical approach should be applied.

And that's it... nuts. We don't really get a lot of guidance on how to actually create a subject index!

Next, we get special cases such as the "Follow-Up" file, also known as a:

  • Tickler
  • Jogger
  • Calendar
  • Every Day File
  • Pending File
  • Dates Ahead File

There are variations on the approach but most people will be familiar with the concept from either their document management system or the Getting Things Done productivity technique.

We then get into some fascinating discussion of how to copy paper via letter press, rapid rollers, carbon paper, etc.  Thank goodness for technology!

Chapter XI introduces a "Card Record System": "The business man who is his own manager, book-keeper and office boy uses card systems." (p.59) The cards can serve as an index but they can also serve as a record for things like quotations, real estate records, etc. We then start to see odd work-arounds like the use of coloured metal tabs to use for follow-up, etc.

The book then gets into some mysterious details of how to deal with things like mortgages and legal documents, the use of cards for managing accounts and inventory, etc. Finally, we get the stamped due date record. The book was borrowed once, in January 1933.

Have I learned anything from this? Yes. Filing alphabetically is important. Folders are important.

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