Filing Systems – Part 1: The History of Filing Systems

The History of Filing Systems

history-of-filing-systems-medical-files-blogA filing system is one of the first and most fundamental systems a company should establish. Filing systems are not new; they have been around for millennia. Throughout the history of filing systems, the scribes and librarians always faced two decisions: (1) on which medium to collect or record the information; and (2) at which location to store the collected information. While the medium, recording methods and storage locations have all evolved, the essential filing challenges have remained the same.

In this Part 1, we review the basic progression of filing systems through the ages leading up to present day. Even with all the advancements in technology over the past five millennia, three key filing issues continue to challenge us today: (1) the volume of information; (2) the ability to retrieve information after it’s been stored; and (3) long term protection against loss. 

Clay Tablets, Sticks and Animal Hides

history-of-filing-systems-clay-tablet-cuneiform-blogLet’s travel back in time, over 5,000 years ago, when Cuneiform emerged as one of the earliest written language systems. The Sumerians used a stylus to write Cuneiform on clay tablets to record important information like weather data, crop yields and business transactions. They would store these clay tablets in libraries, where each library was a filing system. About 2,500 years ago, the Chinese were writing “books” using ink on bamboo strips connected together into scrolls. These scrolls were stored in vaults and libraries. About 2,300 years ago, Greek scribes wrote books and made copies using ink on papyrus and on parchment, a thin material made from animal hides. Scrolls were stored in “libraries” such as the Library at Alexandria, which contained hundreds of thousands of scrolls. For the next 2,000 years, as the history of filing systems continued to evolve, the primary information storage mechanism was hand-scribed ink on parchment or paper. Within a book, the Table of Contents and the Index were “filing systems”, which helped us find and retrieve information from the book. However, first we had to find the book!

Paper Based Information

history-of-filing-systems-index-file-drawers-blogFast-forward several thousand years to the 1600s, when the printing press emerged as a powerful tool. Suddenly, it became economical to produce many duplicate copies of flyers, newspapers and books by printing on paper. Information storage became very compact and cost effective. Individual documents, like legal contracts and letters were still hand written on paper. Fast-forward another few hundred years to the mid-1900s, when typists could quickly generate multiple copies using carbon paper. Filing systems had evolved to the point where paper documents were stored in filing folders and filing cabinets. Index cards, stored in index card boxes with little separator tabs allowing for alphabetical or numerical filing, emerged as “compact memory” to facilitate storing and retrieving information. Libraries had card catalog systems where information relating to books and their locations were recorded on little index cards in little wood drawers. Each book in the library was numerically encoded. The books were stored in specific locations, on shelves, for quick, easy access and retrieval. 

Bulky Information

history-of-filing-systems-bamboo-book-blogThroughout the history of filing systems, storing information has not changed much. The standard practice was to record information on a physical medium, such as clay tablets, knotted strings, papyrus, bamboo strips and many years later, paper and then storing the media. Even printing on paper is a relatively modern development. Until about 200 years ago, it was unusual for the common person to own even one book. No matter the system of recording and storage, eventually the sheer physical bulk of information becomes overwhelming. At some point, even the indexing system becomes overwhelmingly large. Quickly and accurately finding stored information has always been and continues to be the primary challenge. Until recently, storing massive amounts of information has remained the domain of the public library, the large corporation or the wealthy who could afford their own libraries. Historically, storage and retrieval mechanisms have always needed a substantial staff, all specially trained people, to manage the information storage and retrieval systems. Throughout most of the history of filing systems, the common person could not store or retrieve very much information. Well, all that has certainly changed!

Fragile, Perishable Information

history-of-filing-systems-sachsenspiegel-blog-200xClay tablets can break. Water, rot, fungus and fire can damage or destroy papyrus, bamboo and paper. Short of carving the information into stone, any individual document is perishable and easily lost. In fact, the history of filing systems has taught us one thing for certain; almost all information ever recorded and stored has been lost forever. Today, replication and multiple storage locations are the only protection against total loss. In our modern digital age, where 99.99% of the information is electronic, the bits and bytes are just as easily lost or corrupted. Think of an old VHS video tape or a 5 ¼” floppy disk, where the recorded information is now almost impossible to retrieve. Although water and fire are obvious threats, black ink on acid-free paper is surprisingly durable and still considered a high-quality archival storage medium today.

Information Storage for the Common Man

We now live in an age where even an individual of the most modest means can afford to buy and maintain the storage to hold a staggering amount of information. As we learned in our recently published article on The Remarkable Properties of Information, information wants to replicate itself. When we begin to multiply the amounts of information we process every day, both on a personal level and at work, it doesn’t take very long for the volume to become overwhelming. We then quickly realize the need to begin organizing all the information we want and/or need to keep for future reference. This is both a blessing and a curse. The blessing is: most people are able to store enormous amounts of information. The curse is: without a system in place for storing our important information, it becomes difficult, if not impossible to retrieve the information. If our information is irretrievable, all the effort we put into storing it becomes wasted time. 

Without the Computer We are Lost

history-of-filing-systems-computer-file-storage-blogA sheet of paper covered in writing is human readable. A microchip, CD or flash drive containing binary code is a digital file and can only be deciphered using a machine, the computer, containing the appropriate software. Without the correct machine containing the correct software, the file is unreadable and thus useless. In modern filing systems, the file and machine are inextricably linked. Either one is useless without the other. One person can easily store over 100,000 documents on their own personal computer. The information is accessible only if the machine is in working order, so keeping the data alive requires keeping the machine alive. However, finding the document continues to be the historical, pressing challenge. The machine helps us seek the file but only if the file name or file contains vital keywords.

Every culture, in every era, has experienced the same difficulties with adequate, safe information storage and quick, easy information retrieval. From recording weather data on clay tablets 5,000 years ago, to inputting massive amounts of data into a computer today, the history of filing systems continues to repeat itself. Designing effective solutions for reliable, safe and secure filing systems is just as challenging today as it was thousands of years ago.

In the upcoming articles on Filing Systems, we dive deeper into different methods of filing for retrievability, ease of search and paper-based versus paperless filing systems.

Andy Pattantyus, CPIM is president of Strategic Modularity, Inc., a systems engineering consulting firm that works with clients on process oriented Lean Transformation projects, including initiatives to improve administrative workflows. Andy is also an active member of APICS-SFV an The ACA Group. If you would like to get in touch with Strategic Modularity, Inc., contact Andy here

Image References

  1. Cuneiform:
  2. Bamboo Books:
  3. Books on Parchment:
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