5 Librarian-Approved Tips for Getting Organized

April is Records Management Month and a great time to clean out physical and e-files. Here are five librarian-approved tips for whipping your collection into shape.

1. Know what you need to keep. There are some documents that even if you want to get rid of them, you can’t—like tax returns. The IRS statute of limitations for auditing is three years. However, the Michigan statute of limitations is six years, so that’s how long you should keep those documents.

There are a variety of good references out there for recommendations of what to keep, and for how long, like Forbes Advisor’s Financial Documents: What to Save and What You Can Throw Away and the IRS’s Topic No. 305, Recordkeeping. If you have a particular type of file or area you want to tidy, we can always help you look for best practices.

2. Set some criteria for yourself. Alright, that’s the easy stuff. What about everything else? It is faster and less painful to sort through documents if you make some rules of thumb, so that you can spend less time evaluating each document on its merits.

Some common criteria include type of document, its age, and when you last used it. For example, if it’s more than a year or two old, or you haven’t used it since then, do you still need it? How long do you keep newsletters from your HOA?

3. Make it automatic. Email is great for this, but it works for physical files too. Most email providers let you set up email rules that can automatically put emails from certain addresses or with certain subject lines into a designated folder for you. Then you can go directly to the folder to read them when you have time, without having to sort through them every time you are looking for something.

Once you have an email folder set up, whether you move messages there automatically or manually, you can set up rules to automatically archive/delete items that are a certain number of months or years old. This way you don’t even need to think about it or make the decision. Here’s a guide for setting up your own auto-archiving rules in MS Outlook and here is a guide for Gmail.

For physical files, put documents in a folder/envelope and write a “retain until” date. When that date arrives, just toss it.

4. Use email tools to help filter. Using features like statuses (read/unread), flags, and folders can give you more options for how to filter through files, and let you more easily identify groups of items that you want to delete.

5. Set a schedule—and make it bite-size. Find a specific day/week/month which is less busy (the end of the year is generally a good time) to go through files and purge, both electronic and physical. Records and Information Management Month is in April if you need an actual observation to motivate you.

It can also help to break it into bite-size chunks. Some photo platforms, for example, can show you everything taken or saved on that date, regardless of the year. If your photo folder is overwhelming, this can be a handy way to right-size the problem by just taking it a day at a time. Look at today’s date and choose what to keep and what to delete.

And a bonus tip: make it physical. The cloud is wonderful, and it can make space for additional files seem limitless. One way to make sure you aren’t accidentally burying emails/files you need, or deleting them, is to download and save or print them. Check out this handy guide for how to download an email from Outlook.

What’s your best tip? Add it in the comments below.