Managing Flat File Storage Needs: A Case Study

By: Brad Barrett


For the manager of the Building Records unit at a major west coast public University, the document storage problems were critical. The problem wasn’t justifying budget for more space. There was no more space to be had.

The Facilities Management Department must preserve and keep accessible more than 40,000 original plans and drawings. Many of the documents date from the University’s founding and were hand drawn by Architects and Engineers long gone. These include architectural, structural, civil, mechanical, plumbing, electrical and other drawings for site development, infrastructure, landscape, utilities, buildings, additions and renovations.

The 3,300-cubic-foot room holding the essentially irreplaceable documents was crammed seven feet high with flat files whose more than 150 drawers were filled to the top with originals. Clamped “sacrificials”—copies used to protect originals—are in a second room. Large E-size drawings were the most difficult to store and retrieve. Since the drawers had run out of space and the University was still adding buildings and completing renovation projects, rolls of drawings were stacked everywhere.

The lowest files directly on the floor; bending and lifting risked minor injuries. Leaving bottom drawers open presented a tripping hazard. Top drawers were stacked so high that staff could not see into them without stools or short ladders. And the aging drawers required frequent repairs.
The manager said: “Our filing structure had evolved over time and had no rhyme or reason,” so documents were prone to misfiling or not being filed. But the manager’s biggest concern was document longevity. “Every use of an original abrades its clarity,” he points out. “Even sitting unused, drawings lying flat in the drawings rub each other when a truck shakes the building.”
Electronic Storage Costly and Uncertain:

The manager was unconvinced about fully electronic storage. “Nobody’s going to provide more than $4 million to convert these documents to AutoCAD at $100 apiece,” he observes. “And you can’t predict which documents can be in cheaper graphics files versus those that must be in AutoCAD because you’ll someday need to manipulate them.”

“No electronic medium is as permanent and accessible as a document. Today, you can’t play your old 8-track audiotapes. In a few years, you won’t find VCRs. And I’ve seen my CDs and DVDs wear. Every ten years, a new storage method will take over, so you’ll migrate your documents several times during your career. Each conversion costs money and opens the door to losing files or corrupted data.

“Properly stored, high-quality ink on Mylar has a functionally unlimited lifespan,” he points out. “Yet they’re subject to abrasion, misfiling, fire, and water. You need physical safety for your documents and electronic storage.”

“A new physical storage system had to let us grow, protect these documents far better, and offer a logical filing structure,” says the manager. In 17 years with other units within the University, he has developed cost-based methods of justifying projects. “We selected a vertical file storage system because it met our criteria at an affordable price. It was easy to work with, conversion was do-able, and it would eliminate injury dangers. Transitioning to a new filing system also provided an opportunity to implement a logical numbering system that the staff had developed but had not yet implemented".

“We calculated that vertical file storage systems were three times more cost-effective than flat files,” says the manager. “We save space, our drawings hang without touching, finding documents is intuitive, and re-filing is easy so it gets done more regularly.”

The University projects faster document retrievals during renovation projects and especially during an emergency. "Over-sized drawings were a pain," the University manager says, "but now we maintain them in vertical file storage systems. One pleasant surprise was that, even fully loaded, staff can easily push the cabinets around on the carpeted floor, enabling fast cabinet rearrangement as needs change”.

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Author Biography: Brad Barrett is President of Easi File, the storage and filing systems company based in Irvine, California. Easi File manufacturers and sells vertical steel filing cabinets for storing engineering and architectural blueprints, documents, maps, film, printed circuit artwork and tape-ups. Various styles are available from sizes 11 inches up through 6 feet with all supplies to meet individual needs in industrial, commercial, and federal government applications. Easi File is a qua

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