Alphabetic filing rules

Alphabetic filing rules – Fundamentals for records managers

Wilson, Patricia I

We are living in a society in which information is a critical and essential resource that must be managed. We depend on information on a daily basis to make decisions about what to wear (temperature), the best routes to take to work (traffic control), how to invest our money (stockbrokers), how our children are doing in school (report cards), what is happening in the world (newspapers, radios, televisions), etc. Information is useless, however, if it is unavailable or cannot be located when needed.


Because of this thirst for information, the records (or information) manager becomes a very important person in the management chain of an organization. Records managers track and manage records from creation to disposition. To assist in the creation of records, records managers oversee the development and publication of manuals which outline not only the procedures for using records, but also the procedures for how records are created. After a record is created, it is stored in an efficient, logical order with strictest regard for safety and security so that when it is needed it is available.


Records take many forms–paper, electronic, microforms, and magnetic media. At one time, the records manager was only concerned with paper records. The need to conserve space because of the massive amount of paper to be filed shifted the focus of the records manager to microforms, a miniaturized medium for storing records. Even though paper records still consume the majority of the time of a records manager today, projections for the future indicate that a great deal of information will be in the form of magnetic or other computerized media. The introduction of the personal computer workstation for each employee in the office has greatly increased not only the paper output but also the magnetic media output in the form of tapes and diskettes. Computer applications (word processing, spreadsheets, databases, graphics, etc.) contribute to the additional amount of paper that must be stored and also to the additional number of diskettes, computer tapes, and CD-ROMs that must be stored.

Many of today’s advertisements are produced on videotapes. Instructions for using everything from software packages to exercise equipment are sent on videotapes. Optical disk storage is making an impact on the market as well. Records managers see this form of storage as possibly replacing microforms. Magnetic media storage presents a challenge to the records manager because of the need to modify the procedures and facilities that are used for paper records. In order to manage magnetic media efficiently, basic principles of managing paper media must be firmly established to allow for a smooth transition.

As many companies, both large and small, are converting their paper records to automated records, it is necessary that a smooth transition be effected to merge these two systems.


One way of establishing a smooth transition from a manual system to an automated system has been addressed by ARMA International in the simplification and standardization of alphabetic filing rules. A well-defined manual system for alphabetic filing will aid in converting records to automated systems.

The key elements in making alphabetic filing rules effective are consistency and documentation. Consistency means that rules are constant; that is, they remain the same from day to day and from person to person. Consistency is violated when several people using the same records use different rules or procedures. Anyone who has experienced the trauma of training a new secretary can appreciate the idea of consistency. Usually, after a new secretary settles into the office one of the first tasks performed is the reorganization of the files. Each secretary has his/her own unique methods of filing that often make some records virtually impossible for others to find.

Documentation is the second element in making alphabetic filing rules effective. Documentation is the written rules that clearly state how, where, and when something is filed. One of the considerations in purchasing a computer program, for example, is how easy the documentation is to understand, that is, the instructions for operating the program. If everyone is following the same system and sufficient documentation is available, which outlines the rules, a more efficient operation is the result. Documentation also provides a means of communicating the rules and procedures to everyone who has access to the records.

Alphabetic filing rules are the basis for all manual filing methods. Numerical filing methods use an alphabetic index; geographic and subject filing methods use alphabetic rules. The principles used in electronic databases are closely aligned with alphabetic filing rules in the way data is stored.

In a manual filing system records are indexed (put in order) unit by unit. A filing unit may be a number, a letter, a word, or combination of these. One or more filing units is a filing segment, that is, the complete name, subject, or number which is being used for filing purposes. For example, to file the name of an individual each part of the name is a unit-first name, middle initial, and last name. The complete name of the individual is a filing segment.

In comparison, an automated database uses fields, which are similar to filing units, and records, which are similar to filing segments. The name of an individual, for example, may comprise three fields–last name, first name, middle initial. The name of the individual is one record. Instructions for how the name is to be entered in the database would be noted, i.e. last name, first name, middle initial. This designation of order is comparable to the unit by unit indexing method used in a manual system. A working knowledge of alphabetic filing rules helps make the conversion from a paper system to an automated system smoother.

The underlying theme of the seven simplified rules developed by ARMA International is to file “as written.” The file “as written” rule applies to names of businesses, government agencies, and nicknames of individuals, as well as the inclusion of articles and symbols as filing units. Symbols would be indexed as if spelled in full. Business names pose a problem in how to file them because they are not as easily divided into units as are people’s names. Business names that are based on people’s names may contain the full name of an individual, the full name of several individuals, or only the last name of an individual or individuals. They may also contain symbols, numbers, and/or other words. According to the ARMA International simplified rules, names of businesses are filed “as written.” For example, business names with the full name of an individual or individuals are filed as follows: Ethan Allen Galleries is filed behind the “E” guide, Allen Keith and Associates is filed behind the “A” guide, and Betty Gruber Plumbing Company is filed behind the “B” guide. Barge Waggoner Sumner and Cannon. is filed behind the “B” guide. B & B Gifts Limited is indexed B and B Gifts Limited is filed behind the “B” guide. The “&” symbol is indexed as if spelled out (and).

The simplified rules state that business and organization names are filed “as written” using the business letterhead or trademark as a guide. Each complete English word in a business name is considered as a separate indexing unit. Prepositions, conjunctions, symbols and articles are considered as filing unit.

The compilers of telephone directories saw the need for simpler filing rules as relates to finding telephone numbers for government agencies, for example, and put them in a special section of the phone book. Here they are separated by federal, state, or local government and the agencies are listed by the common names of the agencies. For someone unfamiliar with filing rules, to locate a government agency in an earlier edition of the phone book may have taken quite a long time, if they found it at all.

The ARMA International simplified rules makes files easier to find, also, by filing according to the most commonly used name or title. A cross reference would be made under other names or titles which might be used in an information request. Abbreviated given names are considered “as written” (Thos., Chas., Wm.); nicknames and shortened forms of given names are considered “as written” (Pat, Bob, Jack, Liz). The nickname Pat, for example, could be short for Patricia, Patrice, or Patrick.

Acronyms are a part of our language and can also present problems when alphabetizing. The question is whether to alphabetize according to the way the acronym is written or to consider it as the words which the acronym represents. According to the ARMA International simplified rules, acronyms are filed “as written” with the complete acronym representing one unit. As an example ARA would be filed as one unit. Along the same lines, radio and television station call letters are also filed “as written” rather than being indexed according to radio station or television station. The call letters follow the same rule as acronyms and are indexed as one unit.

All punctuation is disregarded when indexing personal and business names. Commas, periods, hyphens, and apostrophes are disregarded, and names are indexed “as written.” Since hyphens are also disregarded, hyphenated names are considered as one unit. Mrs. Joan King-Holt becomes KingHolt, Joan Mrs. for filing purposes.


Once a sound basis for alphabetic filing rules has been established, conversion to an automated system can be considered. The automated system should run parallel to the manual system to prevent a great deal of unlearning on the part of the staff. The first and probably most important step in the conversion is to identify a person in the organization who understands both the software and the hardware that will be used. Establish a good communication base and working relationship with this person so that the program can be efficiently developed to fit the specific needs of the business. Select software that meets the needs of the business and will run parallel to the manual system.

One of the things that an automated program is able to do is to sort according to a predetermined number of variables. The name of a business, for example, might be sorted according to the business name, the street name, the city name, the zip code, etc. The variables on which to sort would depend on how the file might be retrieved in the future. For example, will the file be used to print mailing labels, bill clients, or serve as a database for locating information about clients such as telephone numbers, place of employment, addresses, or social security numbers? In a manual system cross references are used when a file might be requested by a different name than where it is stored. The computer expands this search procedure by being able to search on specific fields for information.

After the computer program is selected and communication is established, the composition of the alphabetic file can be conveyed. The records manager communicates what alphabetic filing rules will be used and how files should be sorted. Some questions that need to be answered in relation to the specific alphabetic rules are:

1. When inverting personal names, should prefixes be included with the surname? Prefixes such as D’, Da, De, La, Las, Mc, Mac, Van, Von, St., etc. ARMA International simplified rules state that the prefix is considered as part of the surname and should be filed as one unit. Confusion with this rule is that it does not group similarly spelled names together. In some filing methods, all names that begin with the prefix mac, no matter how it is spelled, would be grouped together. According to the simplified rules Mac will be dispersed throughout the m’s in the file.

2. If prefixes are included with the surname, will the computer read/sort those with spaces between the prefix and the following name differently than those without spaces? Computers generally read spaces as the end of a unit or field. Using the ARMA International simplified rules, names with prefixes should be input as one unit without a space. For example, Las Vegas would be written as “LasVegas” with no space between Las and Vegas.

3. What happens with name suffixes such as Jr., Sr., Ph.D., M.D., etc.? For the name Glenn E. Kearns, Jr., will the output read: Kearns, Jr. Glenn E. or Kearns, Glenn E. Jr.?

4. Does the computer program have a table to which converts abbreviations to the full name, i.e. Wm. to William? Chas to Charles? According the ARMA International simplified rules, names are transposed to read “surname, given name, middle initial” and then indexed “as written.” If a nickname or an abbreviation is used, it should be indexed as such.

5. What happens when the computer sorts punctuation marks (hyphens, apostrophes, spaces, periods, etc.) and diacritical marks? Will the result throw the alphabetic sequence out of order? Simplified rules suggest that all punctuation be ignored and hyphenated words be considered as one unit.

6. Does the computer sort all Arabic numbers first? Arabic and Roman numbers are filed sequentially before alphabetic characters. All Arabic numbers precede all Roman numerals. For example, 123 would come before Roman numeral IX. The computer sorts Roman numerals as letters of the alphabet rather than numbers. In order to sort Arabic numbers in sequential order, leading zeros should be used; the computer adds zeros after the number. For example, to sort in correct sequential order the numbers 234, 5, 60, and 1, put leading zeros in front of 5, 60, and 1 (001, 005, 060, 234). All numbers must have the same number of digits.

7. How does the computer program sort capital and lower case letters? Computer programs should be written so there is no distinction between capital letters and lower case letters as the computer normally sorts these differently. Names with prefixes and acronyms, for example, will then be in alphabetical order.

8. How are symbols sorted? According to ARMA International simplified rules, symbols should be sorted as they would be spelled out.

9. If prepositions, articles and conjunctions are not to be used as filing units, does the system have a “stop list” which allows the words to be ignored? ARMA International simplified rules emphasize the “as written” rule which means that prepositions, articles, and conjunctions would be included as filing units thereby eliminating the need for a stop list.

10. Is there a limited field size? Prewritten database programs very often have a limited field size. Long personal names or business names are truncated to fit within each field. If there is a limited field size, decide on satisfactory abbreviations for longer names or titles such as government agencies and business names.

11. Is it advisable to provide two separate name fields for each record: (1) a field for the indexed name to be used primarily for alphabetic sorting and (2) a field for the name as written to be used for printouts on correspondence, directories, labels, etc.?


The primary concern of most records managers today is still paper records. As more records are being automated, however, records managers are increasingly concerned about the compatibility of manual systems with automated systems. The main ingredients in any filing system, whether manual or computerized, are CONSISTENCY and DOCUMENTATION. Be consistent in the rules that are made and provide sufficient documentation to ensure that everyone in the organization is using the same rules. Choose a database program that fits your needs and will run parallel to your manual system.

Patricia I. Wilson is an Associate Professor in the school of Business at Alabama A & M University in Normal, Alabama. She teaches courses in the Office Systems Management Department including records management and office systems management. Prior to coming to Alabama A & M in 1992, Dr. Wilson was Assistant Professor in the College of Education at the University of Kentucky in Lexington, Kentucky.

Dr. Wilson has been active in ARMA at the local level since 1986. She served as president of the Bluegrass chapter in Kentucky in 1988. She is currently a member of the Huntsville, Alabama Chapter ARMA where she is chairperson of the Seminar committee. Dr. Wilson has been a speaker at local ARMA chapter meetings in Kentucky and Alabama and also presented at the Fall seminar in Kentucky in 1992. Dr. Wilson presented a workshop on Active Listening at the 1990 ARMA International Conference.

Dr. Wilson is also active in the National Business Education Association, Delta Pi Epsilon, and the Southern Business Education Association. She has published articles in business and education journals.

Dr. Wilson holds a Bachelors degree in Business Education from North Carolina A & T State University, Greensboro, North Carolina, and a Masters and EdD degree in Vocational Education from the University of Kentucky, Lexington, Kentucky.


ARMA Standards Program ASN: 2-1986. Alphabetic Filing Rules. Association of Records Managers and Administrators, Inc. Prairie Village, KS, 1986.

Copyright Association of Records Managers Administrators Inc. Jan 1994

Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning Company. All rights Reserved