About This Standard

The Society of American Archivists adopted Describing Archives: A Content Standard (DACS) as the official content standard of the U.S. archival community in 2005. DACS was designed to be used to create a variety of archival descriptions, including finding aids and catalog records. It replaced Archives, Personal Papers, and Manuscripts,1 which had served the U.S. archival community for more than two decades.

In 2013, following a call from the Council of the Society of American Archivists and after soliciting feedback from the community, DACS underwent a major revision. The revisions addressed the growing convergence between archival, museum, and library descriptive standards—particularly the promulgation and adoption of RDA.2 Another significant issue was the development and adoption of Encoded Archival Context3 and the need to provide guidance on the creation of archival authority records.

Continuous Revision Cycle

In 2013, DACS was moved to a continuous revision cycle; this means that DACS may be revised as needs from the community arise. The most current version of DACS (and a history of revisions) can be found on the TS-DACS GitHub site.4

The subcommittee continues to monitor the development of other descriptive standards, particularly Records in Contexts (RiC)5 and RDA, to ensure compatibility and reduce duplication where necessary.

Ecosystem of Interrelated Standards for Providing Access to Archives

As a content standard, DACS is part of an ecosystem of interrelated and, in some cases, interdependent standards which support the process of archival description. Sometimes referred to as “companion standards,” these include structure standards, other content standards, and communication standards.

Relationship to Other Descriptive Standards


DACS relies on two international content standards for archival description: International Standard Archival Description-General (ISAD(G))6 and the International Standard Archival Authority Record for Corporate Bodies, Persons, and Families (ISAAR(CPF)).7 All of the data elements of ISAD(G) and ISAAR(CPF) are incorporated into DACS—in some cases, virtually verbatim. Part I of DACS was initially developed to mirror the components of ISAD(G) and Part II was designed to mirror ISAAR(CPF). This structure and concordance is maintained in the revised version of DACS.

The review of the ICA descriptive standards and the development and adoption of the Encoded Archival Context encoding standard by the Society of American Archivists led TS-DACS to heavily revise Part II of DACS in 2013. Part II of DACS contains rules for the creation of archival authority records and is broken into six chapters to align with ISAAR(CPF).8

Records in Contexts (RiC)

Following the draft release of its conceptual model in 2016, DACS and Records in Contexts (RiC) are now entering a period of coevolution. Much of the 2018 revision of the Statement of Principles on Archival Description attempts to bring DACS in closer alignment with RiC. Of particular importance is the structuring of Principle 4, which outlines three entities that must be described: records, agents, and activities, as well as the relationships between them. This structure allows archivists to create more complex and networked representation of records, including both their content and context(s). As opposed to archival description represented as hierarchy, this network of linked entities and the relationships between them will allow for deeper understanding and discovery of records and their creators.

Other Companion Standards

Archivists should look to DACS for guidance about how to describe the qualities of archives as records – their creation, provenance, maintenance, and relationship to other records and creators. Archivists should consult companion standards for guidance on creating authorized forms of names and portraying the particular artifactual characteristics of specialized materials (like music, archived websites, or any example of the vast variety of other materials that may be found in an archive’s holdings).9

Implementation Neutrality

DACS is implementation-neutral and can be expressed in any data format that maps to its record structure. It has been most closely implemented by, and co-evolved with, the Encoded Archival Description (EAD)10 suite of XML schemata but can equally be encoded in MARC21,11 RDF,12 a database-backed archives management system, or any other communication standard. Whereas DACS primarily serves a U.S. audience, the stakeholders of many encoding standards represent an international community rooted in sometimes diverging descriptive practices. This has necessitated encoding implementations that err on the side of permissiveness, and practitioners may opt to strengthen the alignment between the respective encoding standard of their choice and DACS by producing a narrower implementation of the chosen encoding standard at the local level.

The Relationship between the Principles and the Rules

Describing Archives: A Content Standard provides a set of principles and elements (with rules for formulating elements) that unite archival professionals in the United States with common understanding and practice toward the creation of descriptions of archival holdings.

Principles are fundamental propositions that support and shape the practices of a profession and reflect its basic values. One key value shared by archivists is their responsibility to provide maximum access to the holdings in their custody.13 An essential precondition for providing access is the sufficient and effective description of their holdings. The eleven principles that precede DACS represent the fundamental propositions that, if collectively adhered to, can help ensure the success of archival description in promoting user access. The elements and rules of DACS, in turn, elaborate on those principles, providing the practical instructions required to produce archival description that realizes the sense and purpose of the principles.

Collectively, the principles, elements, and rules of DACS provide a framework to guide practitioners through a range of activities from concrete descriptive tasks to the development of repository-wide descriptive programs. Adherence to DACS promotes consistency for users, ensures interoperability with systems for maintenance and display, and helps to maintain the authenticity and integrity of records. The inherent flexibility of DACS requires practitioners to use their professional judgment and expertise when writing principled, standards-compliant description. Local implementation guidelines remain integral to the success of Describing Archives: A Content Standard.

[1]: Steven Hensen, comp., Archives, Personal Papers, and Manuscripts, 2nd ed. (Chicago: Society of American Archivists, 1989). The first edition was published in 1983.

[2]: RDA: Resource Description and Access (RDA Steering Committee),

[3]: Encoded Archival Context—Corporate Bodies, Persons, and Families (Society of American Archivists, Technical Subcommittee on Encoded Archival Standards),


[5]: Records in Contexts: A Conceptual Model for Archival Description (International Council on Archives, September 2016), Consultation Draft v0.1,

[6]: ISAD(G): General International Standard Archival Description, 2nd ed. (Ottawa: International Council on Archives, 2000),

[7]: ISAAR(CPF): International Standard Archival Authority Record for Corporate Bodies, Persons and Families, 2nd ed. (International Council on Archives, 2004),

[8]: Between 2010-2013, a careful review of the descriptive rules in DACS Part III revealed that much duplication existed with AACR2 rules for forming names with minor variations such as additional rules for forming family names. With the release of RDA (which incorporates additional rules better-suited to archival description), along with a growing convergence of goals (consistent, reusable, and clear description whether bibliographic or archival) amongst libraries, archives, and museums, it seemed prudent for the archival community to rely on bibliographic standards rather than support two parallel but slightly divergent content standards. This led to the most obvious change from DACS 2004—the removal of Part III.

[9]: See Appendix B: Companion Standards.

[10]: Encoded Archival Description (Society of American Archivists),

[11]: MARC 21 (Library of Congress),

[12]: Resource Description Framework (RDF) 1.1 (W3C, 2014),

[13]: International Council on Archives. Committee on Best Practices and Standards Working Group on Access, “Principles of Access to Archives,” August 24, 2012,