Monday, August 22, 2011

Vertical files

Anderson, Cynthia. Vertical files. Book Report, Nov/Dec 2001, Vol. 20, Issue 3.
Okay, let’s face it. As library media specialists, we love vertical files – they’re in our blood. To clip or not to clip? What’s a gal or guy to do?

Have you looked in those vertical file (VF) drawers lately? Are the newspaper articles yellow and crumbly like Aunt Alice’s Apple Betty? Are the pamphlets staler than Grandma’s drop cakes? Count the stars on the flag in that picture. Are there only 48? It may be time to weed the vertical file. More shocking still, it may be time to disassemble the vertical file. You be the judge.

Why continue the vertical file? There are several well-reasoned arguments one could make for continuing to maintain the vertical file. Some of them are:

Ageless information. If you find yourself taking three or four brochures each time you visit a historic site, a new museum, or the local-interest brochure rack in a hotel lobby, you may have a genetic predisposition to maintain a vertical file. Some topics, such as information on state and national parks or historic sites, don’t age as quickly as others and could reside usefully in the vertical file for an extended period of time.

Local history. Information on state and local history isn’t plentiful on the Internet. Local-interest stories are more rare still. If your community sponsors an annual yodeling festival and yam-baking contest, chances are slim that the organizers have posted an informational Web page. Your “Yodeling-Yam-Baking” folder in the vertical file may be the best information source around. Did your town have a gala centennial or sesquicentennial celebration? If so, the supporting materials, pictures, etc. have probably earned a place of honor in your vertical file and may be helpful to the next big event planners.

District history. The latest school-district news, or information on the history of the school district, also usually can’t be found on the Internet. Few schools and districts have the people power or the computer-server space to offer an extensive history of the institution, including documents such as district annual reports and programs from past events. Storing those in your vertical file can be a sensible and serviceable way for your library media center to serve as school history center.

Primary sources. Primary source documents don’t grow on trees. If you have a collection of letters from the trenches in WWII, they’re treasures. The vertical file is the perfect coffer for sacred primary sources or facsimiles thereof. Every community has primary-source documents, and your school library media center can be an excellent repository for them.

Biographies of local heroes. Biographies of graduates, alumni, staff, and school families can be helpful documents to the school event planning and recognition community. If your community boasts a war hero, Pulitzer Prize winning author, or other dignitary, you may want to maintain biographical information on the local hero in your vertical file.

Teachers’ pet projects. Does one of your faculty members teach a special unit every year for which you have been collecting special brochures, pamphlets, and other resources since 1957? As long as that teacher teaches that unit, chances are excellent that students will be expected to use those old favorites from your vertical file and cite them in their bibliographies. Just thinking of tossing those treasures might be a dangerous threat to your library media center public relations plan.

Why discontinue the vertical file? On the other hand, some library media specialists are considering the possibility of eliminating the vertical file. Principle reasons include:

Internet access. Periodical database subscriptions offer more current information on most of the topics that can be found in even the best-maintained vertical file. For many of our budget-fortunate colleagues, the prevalence of online databases offers a viable replacement to much of the content in the vertical file. An Internet search can knock the informational socks off most our vertical files.

People power. There are too few remaining library media center volunteers, clerks, or student assistants who can assist with clipping, labeling, indexing, and filing the vertical-file ephemera. Done properly, the vertical file can be an extremely high-maintenance operation.

Changes in curriculum. Even curriculum changes over time. Current grade-level social studies curriculum is a much different chunk of content from that of the 1980s, for instance. The support material that you’ve safely harbored in the vertical file for so long may no longer be relevant or current. Curriculum changes can be subtle and occur over long periods of time. It may be time to take a look at the vertical file from the perspective of congruence to the curriculum.

Why not compromise? Why not consider taking some steps down both of the paths considered above – continuing to maintain a vertical file but making it a lean, mean, streamlined version? Weed some materials but save others. Some of us secretly want to get rid of the vertical file but aren’t ready to take that huge leap yet. Taking the compromise action of slimming the vertical file collection may be the best answer for those of us in this category.

How to weed the vertical file They say the best way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time. That’s probably the easiest and most efficient way to weed the vertical file, too.

Set a schedule. I like to set a weeding schedule for myself and put it in my planner or personal digital assistant (PDA). Make the schedule achievable. If you have three, three-drawer file cabinets, you could promise yourself to weed a drawer a month in the new school year. Or you could talk yourself into weeding the S’s, the E’s, the P’s, and the T’s, in September, the O’s, the C’s, and the T’s in October, etc. Whatever plan you set for yourself, write it down; make a commitment.

Break it down. Another method of bite-by-bite weeding is to pack one letter or section of the VF into a portable milk carton-type file box and take it home or to your workroom. Sort and organize as you watch a little public television or monitor the reading room. Toss dated material. Identify items you plan to give to teachers or students. Make another stack of items you wish to store in the newer, slimmer vertical files.

Shrink the vertical file. Once you’ve weeded the dated materials and significantly culled expendable items from the collection, you’re at the glorious spot where you’re ready to reduce your number of storage units. If you find that it’s possible to condense and streamline your vertical file, you can gain:
  1. Floor space;
  2. A spare file cabinet or two for the back room;
  3. Fewer chores (clipping, mounting, indexing).
Each of us has different needs in our school library media center and each of us holds different opinions about the value of maintaining a vertical file. Consider your options and make the choice to eliminate, reduce, or continue to maintain the vertical file based on your special needs and your professional judgment.

By Cynthia Anderson
Cynthia Anderson is Director Media Services at Indian Creek Technology Center in Shawnee Mission, Kansas, and can be reached at


Lori said...

Thanks for this great post! I'm in a public library, but working on slimming down our vertical files and making them relevant and user-friendly. Great advice, thanks.

Unknown said...

Over the summer, our two schools converted to one building. During the move, all of the vertical files were disposed of on accident. In previous years, I was a grade school library clerk and this is my first year as a district wide library clerk. I am looking for any and all help on re-building our files. Thank you for you time and this site! I am nervous on starting this huge task but also excited at the same time. Thank you so much!