What is a Subject File?

by Erica Rice

If you are a close reader of the local or state retention schedules, you may have seen the term “subject file” appear in the descriptions of some of your favorite records series. Subject files are defined in the local schedules as “collections of correspondence, memos and printed materials on various individuals, activities, and topics.”

There are dedicated records series for subject files on the Texas State University Records Retention Schedule (see RSINs 11.1.013 & 11.1.014), and subject files are included in the title and description for all correspondence series on Local Schedule GR (see record number GR1000-26a/b/c).

GR1000-26bCORRESPONDENCE,  INTERNAL MEMORANDA, AND SUBJECT FILES    General – Incoming/outgoing and internal correspondence pertaining to the regular operation of the policies, programs, services, or projects of a local government. May also include subject files, which are collections of correspondence, memos and printed materials on various individuals, activities, and topics.
Illustration of Alphabetical Filing Folders

The term “subject file” originates from filing systems that use an alphabetic ordering of records according to topical subjects—as opposed to systems that arrange records by name, geographical area, numeric identifiers, etc.1 Subject filing systems are the logical choice when users expect to search for records with a broad range of topics.

Correspondence

If you often struggle to find and access all the files you need concerning a specific topic, consider adding the subject files to your own classification schemes and storage folder structures.

For example, if I were asked to compile all the letters I’ve ever sent or received regarding library records, or if I need to look over old letters on this topic to answer a newly received question about them, I am going to have a tough time finding all these records if I do not already have my consulting correspondence organized by subject. If my letters are organized by recipient, I would need to recall whom I have corresponded with about library records, and search through scattered recipient files to find any relevant records on this subject.

However, if you are also living in the 21st century, you may be asking yourself, “When is the last time I wrote an actual letter?” This is a valid question. Subject filing makes a lot of sense for paper records; it is less essential for electronic records, where we can now search thousands of emails and files instantly with subject keyword searches. Consider, though, that instant keyword searching may not always be as useful as you think. If I were to search my Outlook folders for the term “library,” it would return virtually every email I have ever written—my email signature always contains this keyword: “Texas State Library and Archives Commission.” If I committed to organizing my emails with subject folders, I could easily browse my correspondence regarding library records, police records, court records, etc.

Beyond Correspondence

Vertical Filing Cabinet with Top Drawer Open

The use of subject files is not limited to correspondence. Subject files can gather a wide variety of record types on a single subject—they can be highly focused on a specific project, or they can be passive collections of reference materials, research data, or historical information.2

Subject files can be created at the record series level, and they can contain records from one or multiple records series. For example, an executive assistant might maintain a subject file on projects completed by his agency. Most of the correspondence surrounding planning records will fall under Administrative Correspondence (GR1000-26a for local governments and RSIN 1.1.007 for state agencies), but the final plan reports will be classified elsewhere—perhaps as a permanent planning report for local governments (GR1000-41a), or a planning study for state agencies (1.1.024). In this example, a project subject file will contain records with different retention periods and trigger dates, making it more difficult to calculate disposition dates. The usefulness of subject files ultimately depends on how records are requested and accessed, and which records series are contained in the subject file. When multiple records series are included in a subject file, it can be helpful to create a subject index and add cross-references to folder labels. Keep in mind that a subject arrangement of records will require the file retriever to be deeply familiar with the topics commonly dealt with in your office. Auto-classification can be explored as a method to help users keep up with the task of assigning subject terms to records.

From an archival or historical perspective, subject files are often compiled to document internal or external coverage of a person, topic, event, or place; they often consist of records in a variety of formats3 and can include newspaper clippings and photographs. Archivists may arrange finding aids by subject to facilitate research access to an archival collection whose original order may not be intuitive. In the context of state and local government, historical subject files may consist of external documents or transitory photographs and videos that do not document any specific government business—they may be used solely for reference or research.

Illustration of 6 horizontal filing cabinets with half the drawers open

In the context of electronic records, subject files may not be deliberately compiled or curated over time. Subject files may be created ad hoc as the result of file searches with user-created terms or by a defined subject taxonomy. In this case, an electronic subject file may be an ephemeral database output that may exist only as long as needed for reference or research.

For those records managers who are proponents of bucketing, the subject file may seem like a very similar concept. “Big buckets” are broad, large records series that aggregate multiple related series of records with similar retention periods; big buckets are created for ease of classification, retention, and disposition. Subject files can also ease the process of classification, but their major benefit is related to ease of access and research. Additionally, subject files often contain non-records and reference materials, while big bucket records series typically contain records that document specific government business.

Consider the subject file when coming up with your own classification schemes and storage folder structures.

Further Reading

For an in-depth guide on how to organize your files, see “Filing Crash Course: Classification Schemes.”

Endnotes

  1. Judith Read and Mary Lea Ginn, Records Management, Eighth Edition (Mason, OH: Thomson South-Western, 2007), 216.
  2. William Saffady, Records and Information Management: Fundamentals of Professional Practice, Third Edition (Overland Park, KS: ARMA International, 2016), 211.
  3. Dictionary of Archives Terminology, s.v. “subject file,” accessed February 14, 2022, https://dictionary.archivists.org/entry/subject-file.html.

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One thought on “What is a Subject File?

  1. Good stuff, Erica.

    One of my favorite examples of subject filing occurs right there in TSLAC. Go to the Reference Desk and ask to see the “vertical file” on Sissy Spacek. For the longest time ARIS collected news clippings on various Texas topics, including Ms. Spacek. My understanding is that the now defunct Genealogy Reading room used to have files for various surnames that patrons could browse and contribute to.

    Lastly, a few years ago I heard a breathless young man speaking at NAGARA on an adjacent topic, but he did broach this topic with one indelible phrase: https://youtu.be/j7SlKHZAkYI?t=2704

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