The Advantages of Open Shelf vs. Lateral Files

Open-shelf filing systems are common in doctor's offices.
Open-shelf filing systems are common in doctor's offices. (Image: Medioimages/Photodisc/Digital Vision/Getty Images)

Records management is an essential part of owning a business. It ensures that the business has documentation to prove compliance with government regulations and store information to get in contact with its most loyal customers. It also helps it keep track of how well its business products and services are performing throughout the life of the product or service. Open shelf and lateral files are among the options available to business owners.


Lateral file drawers don’t allow for visual flexibility. You can search through open-shelf filing systems without having to open drawers. Tags for files are visible from the outside. Files are also more accessible because you can pull them directly from the open shelf. Lateral files require some digging and searching through drawers. Sometimes you have to pull other files out just to find your file. You can use color coding for faster access in open-shelf filing systems.

Density and Height

Lateral files leave unused space higher up. Open shelf units often are built with more density and height and utilize this open space. Files stored in lateral files often get lost and crushed underneath one another. According to Oregon State University researchers, “The open shelf file unit is the most economical of all available filing systems and can provide answers to problems originating from rising file costs, lack of office space, and file retrieval difficulties.”

Cost and Expense

Lateral files are generally more expensive than open-shelf filing systems. There is a higher cost for retrieval as well. Smead Organomics reports “A recent comparison of retail prices for storing 10,000 files in lateral file cabinets vs. open shelving showed that the lateral files were more than three times the cost of the open shelf units.” In lateral files, only one person can file or search for files at a time, costing you additional minutes in manpower, which add up to hours.

Space and Usage

Lateral files take up more space. It is harder to organize files that are not in traditional file folders. Several people can look through an open-shelf filing system to find different files at the same time. According to the University of Washington's records management department, "open shelving provides high density access to file folders while occupying significantly less floor space than a vertical or lateral cabinet. Open shelves are readily adaptable to the storage and management of paper records, magnetic media, microforms, and all other records formats.”

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