There are several decisions that need to be made when you're setting up your records management program. One of the hardest decisions, and sometimes the most controversial, is whether or not your records should be "centralized" or "decentralized."

There are several issues to consider when making the decision on where your records should be located. One of the best ways to approach it is to review the advantages and disadvantages of each system and choose the one, or combination, that has the most advantages for your situation.

Centralized System

A centralized filing system is:

  • One in which the records for several people or units are located in one, central location; and,
  • Generally, under the control of a records staff person or in the case of large centralized filing systems, several people.


  • Responsibility is easily placed.
  • Effective use of equipment, supplies and space.
  • All related data kept together.
  • Reduces duplication.
  • Uniform service provided to all users.
  • Improved security.


  • Records may be too distant from staff for adequate service.
  • Can result in increased personal filing systems.
  • Requires full-time staffing.
  • May require investment in more efficient filing equipment and/or automation.

Decentralized System

A decentralized filing system is:

  • One in which the files are located throughout the office, generally at individual work stations; and,
  • Usually controlled by the person who creates and/or receives them.


  • Records located near staff creating and using them.
  • Does not require "extra" space needed for centralized files.
  • Does not require full-time staffing.
  • Staff feels more comfortable knowing they are in control of their own filing and retrieving.


  • Confusion as to where information can be found, especially if staff member is absent.
  • Can result in "fragmented" documentation - information related to the same topic or subject filed in multiple places.
  • Individual staff members may not know how to properly maintain their files.
  • Lack of uniformity or consistency.

Combination System

There are also ways to structure your program using a combination, or centralized/decentralized system, of these two approaches. Centralized control is established through a "records liaison" or "records manager" who is the centralized point of contact for records management in the office and who has responsibility for maintaining the office file plan and ensuring established procedures are followed.

Here are some examples where specific types of records are maintained in a central location while the rest of the records are maintained at individual work stations:

  • A centralized reference collection of documents;
  • A file room for files which are inactive but which are not ready to be sent to the Federal Records Center (FRC);
  • A public reference room for files which are accessed by the public.

Those records which are maintained at individual work stations are also part of the organization's filing system and included in the office file plan so that everyone in the office knows where the records are located and who is responsible for maintaining them.

The Bottom Line

The bottom line is, you need to understand the recordkeeping needs of your office and choose the system which best fits those needs.