Bates numbering is a practice where documents are stamped with identifying strings of characters in a sequential fashion to help keep track of them. Just numbers may be used, or an alphanumeric Bates numbering system may be applied. There is no set method for using this practice and people may develop their own codes and strings for internal use. Document collections with Bates numbering are easier to manage, as people can readily identify documents out of sequence and other issues.
This term is derived from a patented device, the Bates automatic numbering machine, once widely used for the eponymous procedure. This machine was a stamp with a set of rollers that would automatically advance after each impression, allowing people to stamp documents during processing with sequential numeric codes. People continue to use stamps for hand Bates numbering, and many computer programs also offer this functionality, creating a permanent record near the top or bottom of each document, whether it is generated in the program or scanned in from another source.
Doctors and legal professionals are most likely to use this technique. They often have large collections of papers pertaining to a single case and need a way to keep track of them. If documents are lost or concealed, it could compromise medical or legal cases. With Bates numbering, it is easy to tell when there is a problem with a collection of documents. Furthermore, the numbers can be used to create an index to make it easy to search the documents, as a list can be created with numeric references.
Some offices have internal codes they use as the basis for their Bates numbering to make it easy to track cases. They might use a hyphenated system, where each document starts with a string of numbers and letters to identify the case, followed by an individual Bates number. A law firm might use a code like 201112 to indicate that a case is the 12th accepted by the firm in 2011, followed by a Bates number to identify a specific document, as in 201112-1234, which would be followed in sequence by 201112-1235. Both of those numbers could also be listed in an index with information about the contents of the individual documents.
People other than doctors and lawyers can use Bates numbering and may find it helpful for organizing collections of documents and files. A consistent coding system is needed, and people can use anything from labelmakers to stamps to number documents.