Filing System Shelving Comparison

Filing System Shelving Comparison

How do you figure out what kind of shelving will best suit your filing system needs?

Before looking at shelving do a study of what factors matter the most with your filing system. I published an article previously at EzineArticles that outlines what questions to ask your shelving vendor.

Now that you have figured out what your particular needs are how do you match those needs to a type of shelving? Below I have listed different storage solutions with advantages and disadvantages associated with each type of unit. I have only included units that have a finished look that is suitable for an office or records department. Units included in this comparison are: Vertical 4 drawer file cabinet, Lateral 4 drawer file cabinet, Stackable Open Shelving, L&T Open Shelving, Rotary File, Lateral Sliding Movable Shelving, and High Density Mobile Shelving. For simplicity purposes I based the calculations on letter size files (12″ deep shelves).

Industrial type shelving is not included in this comparison.

Vertical 4 Drawer File Cabinet

Vertical file cabinets are what most people think of when considering a filing unit. The records are positioned front to back in the drawers.

One filing cabinet measuring 16.62″ W x 53.75″ H x 27.56″ L

Floor space required (square feet) 5.9′(includes drawer extension)
Total filing inches provided: 100″


* Familiarity
* Unit can be locked
* Hides files, making the unit more decoratively attractive


* Expensive
* Very inefficient use of floor space
* Difficult to use with other media
* Uses hanging files which are expensive and break easily
* Need to reach down into files which increases

chance of cutting hands on files
* Difficult to reach top drawer
* Tips easily with top drawer open
* Difficult to color-code which causes more misfiling
* Not suitable for large filing systems

Lateral 4 Drawer File Cabinet

These units are basically vertical file cabinets with the drawers opening on the long dimension instead of the short dimension. The records are positioned side to side in the drawer. Choosing between lateral and vertical cabinets depends mainly on available floor space or preference for which way the files are positioned.

One filing cabinet measuring 32.18″ W x 56.18″ H x 21.18″ L

Floor space required (square feet) 9′(includes drawer extension)
Total filing inches provided: 133″

*Same Advantages and Disadvantages as Vertical File Cabinets except Lateral units require more floor space.

Stackable Open Shelving

Stackable shelving is basically metal boxes with the front open and stacked upon one another.

One shelving unit measuring 36″W x 74 9/16″H x 12 3/16″D

Floor space required (square feet): 3.2′
Total filing inches provided: 252″


* Somewhat efficient use of floor space
* Color-coding files efficient way to spot misfiling
* Versatile, can easily add additional cubes on top
* Less expensive than units with drawers
* Easier to access files
* Top shelf accessible
* Reference shelf can be used
* Height of unit is lower if ceiling clearance is an issue


* Contents cannot be locked without addition of some kind of door (adds to expense)
* Dividers are stationary so efficient use of space on each shelf is reduced
* Records are visible
* Difficult to use with other media, shelf spacing cannot be changed
* Not as durable as L&T shelving (see below), more difficult to convert to movable

4-Post Open Shelving (also called L&T Shelving)

This is my recommendation for an open shelving option. I have seen 20 year old units filled full with records that look as new as the day they were purchased. The tongue in groove and rolled steel construction contribute to excellent durability. The example listed is a single sided unit. L&T shelving is also available in double sided units so the files can be accessed from both sides of the shelves (brings down the “per filing inch” cost).

One shelving unit measuring 36″W x 76″H x 12″D

Floor space required (square feet): 3.2′
Total filing inches provided: 252″


* Somewhat efficient use of floor space
* Type of construction of this shelving makes it extremely durable
* Meets seismic requirements
* Suitable for conversion to movable shelving units
* Shelves are adjustable on 1-1/2″ increments
* Accommodate different types of media
* Suitable for color-coding which helps spot misfiles
* Less expensive than units with drawers
* Easy to adjust for use with other media
* Easy to access files
* Top usable shelf accessible
* Multiple people can access the files at the same time
* Reference shelf option
* Adjustable dividers for efficient use of shelf space
* Economical way to maximize filing inches
* Easy to assemble


* Contents cannot be locked without addition of some kind of door (adds to expense)
* Records are visible
* Cannot add to the height of the unit

Rotary File (also called Times Two)

The Rotary File is a cabinet that contains two file cabinets positioned back to back. The units spin to gain access to both sides of the shelves.

Two shelving units in cabinet measuring 36-1/2″W x 82″H x 25″D

Floor space required (square feet): 6.3′
Total filing inches provided: 434″


* Efficient use of floor space
* Unit can be closed and locked so files are not visible
* Often used for files located in an office, sometimes as a room divider
* Suitable for color-coding
* All the advantages of L&T shelving
* Additional units can be connected together or positioned back to back


* Not as efficient as other styles of mobile systems
* Cost per filing inch higher
* Actual shelving units need sized smaller to allow the shelves to spin
* Units often jam because of mechanism or files protruding

Lateral Sliding Movable Shelving

A lateral sliding shelving system uses stationary L&T single sided shelving units (stackable may also be used) positioned along a wall with units in front that slide back and forth to allow access to all the records. The comparison system used contains 2 back stationary units and 1 front movable unit.

Three shelving units in system measuring: 72″W x 78″H x 24.5″D

Floor space required (square feet): 15′
Total filing inches provided: 756″


* Efficient use of floor space
* Suitable for color-coding files
* Less expensive than units with drawers when total filing inches are considered
* All the advantages of L&T shelving
* Economical way to maximize filing inches


* Most of the files are exposed and unit cannot be locked
* Records are visible
* Difficult to add doors
* Cannot add to the height of the unit
* The movable shelves are not mechanically assisted
* More difficult to move than mechanically assisted high density shelving

High Density Mobile Filing System

This is the granddaddy of the types of available systems for utilization of space. Shelving units are mounted on movable carriages that glide on tracks thus providing access to all the rows of shelving. The system is available with mechanical assist (like gears on a bicycle) or can be an electric system. With the floating aisle on this unit type you are saving floor space by eliminating the need to have an access aisle between each row of shelving.

Although many types of open shelving and drawers are often used to accommodate different media, for this study I will stick to units designed for file folders. I highly recommend L&T shelving be used on the movable carriages because of durability. The movement of the unit causes torque which may cause stress fractures in less durable shelving.

The comparison system consists of one 36″ wide stationary single sided unit and two 36″ wide double sided movable units, all 7 shelves high.

System measuring 96″W x 78″H x 36″D

Floor space required (square feet): 24.5′
Total filing inches provided: 1,260″


* Excellent use of floor space, maximum filing efficiency
* Reduces need to use expensive square footage of facility for files
* Reduces need to use expensive offsite storage companies
* Saves retrieval time with readily accessible files
* Units can be locked
* All the advantages that come with L&T open shelving
* Mechanical assist means units are easier to move
* Suitable for color-coding files
* Convertible to accommodate other media
* Available with decorator end panes which makes the units visually pleasing


* Difficult for multiple people to access all the files at the same time
* More expensive than stationary units
* Floor must be able to hold the weight of a mobile file system (tracks will bend if floor is not rated to hold the weight)
* Segmented file room reduces the advantages of a high density file system
* Carriage and deck add to the height of the system (if ceiling clearance is an issue)
* Requires professional installation

The units described above all come in different widths and heights and with various amounts of shelving/drawers per unit. Also, this is a comparison of the most commonly used methods for filing and is not all inclusive.

Teresa Jackson has over 15 years filing system experience. She is President and Founder of Efficiency Solutions, a company that specializes in effective filing system solutions. She may be reached by email at For additional information visit: ( )

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