Statement of Principles


What is archival description and what should it do?

Archival description exists to facilitate the use of archives by people in order to understand the past through traces in records. Its efficacy can be measured by how well it achieves that goal. Describing Archives: A Content Standard provides a set of principles for archivists to consider when conducting the work of a descriptive program, and a set of elements (and rules for creating these elements) for archivists to use when creating archival description.

Archival description enables archivists to distill masses of information about records into a small set of characteristics describing aggregations of records. Archivists do this work because it would often be impractical to fully represent the entirety of each record in a repository and because it would be difficult for a user to make sense of masses of records without a guide to what they are, what they mean and the historical process by which they were created and maintained.1 For this distillation to be intelligible, archivists must understand the evidence of people, places, ideas and activities provided by records so that they can adequately represent the records to users and communicate their nature, value, and significance. Good archival description cannot just depict the physical and intellectual characteristics of documents. It must communicate how the accumulation of documents in a collection represents and provides evidence of the major functions of an organization or individual. This contextual description is key to meaning-making and gives users the tools necessary to effectively evaluate the value of records as evidence and information.

Archivists describe information about the lifecycle and administration of records that may not be present in the records themselves. Information about appraisal, custodial history, administrative interventions, restrictions, reformatting, or any other activity that has the power to change users’ understanding of records’ content or context should be faithfully documented and presented to the user. Without this information, the user may not be able to make a reliable determination about the historical events, ideas, places, and people that records document. Descriptive work should document a program of archival administration that maintains the authenticity, integrity, and reliability of records.

User-centered archival description

Because it facilitates use, archival description is a user-centered product and process. This approach to archival description helps archivists remain connected to communities of users throughout the entire lifecycle of archives administration, dynamically and iteratively adjusting to new understanding of users and their needs.

Uses for and users of records should be considered comprehensively, and will vary from repository to repository. Users include not only those outside the repository, but the repository’s own staff. It is imperative that repositories identify, engage, and seek to understand the motivations and needs of their users, which may include but are not limited to scholarly production, collection care and control, institutional knowledge, connection to family ties, artistic endeavors, government accountability, justice-seeking endeavors, and symbolic purposes of holding records.

Identifying aggregations of records

When describing archives, archivists provide a sensemaking function – they help the user understand, at deepening levels of granularity, what these records are, who created them, what events they represent, and what they mean.

In order to do this, they must first identify aggregations of records. This is a core added value of archival labor – the ability to explain masses of information to users in a manner that is both insightful and succinct.2 It is also a site of archives power, where the archivist has the opportunity to declare what is important and what is not.3

Archival theory and tradition privileges description of the relationship between creators of records and the traces they leave behind as a result of events and activities in their lives. Records are often produced and kept according to these qualities, and where common aggregations are discovered, it is useful to maintain them. It is less useful for an archivist to aggregate resources by their common subject, particularly because doing so often results in the loss of information about how and by whom records were created.

Describing aggregations of records

Once an archivist has identified a meaningful aggregation of records, they may avail themselves of any relevant elements within the DACS element set in order to describe characteristics particular and appropriate to that aggregation. As described in Chapter 1, in the section on Requirements for Multilevel Descriptions, descriptions of a particular aggregation may (implicitly or explicitly) inherit characteristics from the more general aggregation of which it is a part. Furthermore, each aggregation should include all DACS single-level minimum elements, either described explicitly at that aggregation or inherited from associated archival description.


To achieve the goal of faithfully documenting and maintaining information about how individuals and groups created and maintained records, archival practice has relied on the guidance of respect des fonds for more than 150 years.4 Keeping the records of a given creator separate from other records (physically, intellectually, and in descriptive systems) has been an excellent mechanism to ensure that contexts of creation and maintenance are maintained.

However, the application of respect des fonds can often flatten existing complexity by obscuring the ways in which human inter-connections, disruptions, false starts, and confusing circumstances produced records in the first place. Users benefit from understanding the ways that records are created, collected, and distributed by multiple agents, beyond the bare details of their shared provenance.

All records within a fonds rarely come from the same creator, even if they are from the same collector and share provenance. In modern organizations, while it is undoubtedly useful to document the person or organization who brought together the group of records given to a repository, it would be even more useful to document the web of activities by which records are collected and created, and by whom, from within and outside of the organization and how structures of power and control brought records into existence. Because information systems have the power to document relationships and contexts between and across records and creators, respect des fonds should be considered one articulation of a method for documenting archival content and context, rather than a principle of archival description. One could imagine technical mechanisms by which this web of contexts, records, and creators could be represented in the entirety of its complexity, beyond the directive toward administrative separation that respect des fonds demands.

This should not be taken as permission for archivists to create their own physical or intellectual order by subject, genre, form, or other facet – doing so often destroys context. Instead, archivists should embrace the best information technologies available to them to document and represent records over time as they are understood to the archivist.

Original order and arrangement as archival context

The concept of original order has long been privileged in archival description as representing a state of arrangement with special significance in revealing the context underlying the creation of records. The principle of respect for original order derives from this interpretation. Recent theory and practice have shown this to be much more complex.5 For instance, there are many arrangements by which a creator may have maintained and used records over time. The order in which records are received by a repository may not match the order in which they were last used or maintained by their creator(s), further complicating the very concept of “originality” and the narrative of authenticity it supports. Similarly, electronic records complicate the idea of a fixed, canonical order because they are commonly moved and maintained in a file system over the course of their life cycles.6

Rather than a privileged physical sequence of records, original order is best thought of as an intellectual construct that communicates important activities and relationships inhering in records through identifying key groupings that reflect the main activities and functions of the record creators.7

The principle of original order advises archivists to determine and preserve those groupings, and then to describe records, agents, activities, and the relationships between them in a way that illuminates how creators kept their records and how they were sent to the archives. They should never disrupt or obscure evidence of recordkeeping practices through their own interventions; for instance, it is inadvisable to alter the received order of collection material without a compelling, user-driven need to do so.

By not elevating original order to the place of descriptive principle, DACS acknowledges that arrangement consists of a multitude of intellectual and physical relationships over time, and that arrangement itself is but one among many instances of archival context(s) to be documented.

Principles of Archival Description

1. Archival description expresses professional ethics and values.

Professional values and ethics drive archival work, including descriptive practice.8 Archival description is an iterative, ethical practice that requires continual engagement with core values. Rooting standards in values helps archivists enact these values consistently and makes them explicit to our user communities.

Archival description that is rooted in ethics will produce a richer researcher experience because it:

  • produces trust in and between users, archivists, and repositories
  • encourages a diverse archival record
  • promotes responsible and responsive descriptive practices
  • holds archivists accountable to users and to each other
  • privileges equitable access and accessibility

2. Users are the fundamental reason for archival description.

Archivists make descriptive choices that impact how users find, identify, select, and use archival records. To make wise choices about descriptive practices, archivists must develop and maintain an awareness of user needs and behaviors.

3. Because archival description privileges intellectual content in context, descriptive rules apply equally to all records, regardless of format or carrier type.

Descriptive standards must recognize that not all cultures and communities document in the same ways, and our descriptive standards must be flexible enough to accommodate all the ways that human experience is recorded.

Archivists must adapt and respond to changing recordkeeping practices and technologies. Applying a common set of descriptive rules allows archivists to create consistent descriptions. It encourages confidence in professional judgment and gives archivists the flexibility to apply standards judiciously and thoughtfully.

Consistent description across formats:

  • supports broad description and access
  • lowers cognitive load for users
  • maintains records’ contexts as well as intellectual content

4. Records, agents, activities, and the relationships between them are the four fundamental concepts that constitute archival description.

Meaning in archival records is revealed through their contexts as much as through their contents. Archivists expose contextual significance by describing records, agents, activities, and the relationships between them.

  • Records must be described in aggregate and may be described in parts.

The whole gives meaning and coherence to the parts. Description of the aggregate is therefore an indispensable component of establishing context and must be provided before proceeding with the description of component parts. Archival description must be appropriate, relevant, and specific to a particular aggregation of records.

  • Record creators and other agents must be described sufficiently to understand the meaning of records.

Agents act on records or interact with other agents across time. Agents may be human or machine.

A category of agents, those responsible for the creation, compilation, and maintenance of the records is particularly important and must be described. Describing these agents requires archivists to document agents’ roles, functions, occupations, and activities.

Archivists must be transparent about the sources of their description and recognize that agents have the right to define their identities, which may change over time.

  • Activities that are essential to understanding records must be described.

Activities, whether biographical, historical, or administrative, provide important contextual information. Describing biographical and historical activities adds information that may be absent from the records themselves. Describing administrative activities helps users understand how the records were affected over time by the actions of various agents following their creation.

  • The relationships among records, agents, and activities are essential to understanding archives and must be described.

Relationships, which connect agents, records, and activities, convey meaning that may not be apparent from the contents of records alone. Relationships may be simple or may comprise a complex network of interactions among multiple records, agents, and activities.

5. Archival description must be clear about what archivists know, what they don’t know, and how they know it.

Archivists must always provide honest description that mitigates human bias and limitations through open reference to their sources of knowledge. Citation in archival description builds a culture of accountability and trust.

Honest description:

  • acknowledges archivists’ expertise in records, recordkeeping systems, and documentary forms
  • delineates the limitations of archivists’ knowledge and authority
  • acknowledges that archivists are people, and people are biased

6. Archivists must document and make discoverable the actions they take on records.

Archivists and archival repositories are agents whose actions affect records and the ways that all users can access and interact with those records.

Archivists have an obligation based in professional values of accountability and responsible custody to thoroughly and transparently describe their own interventions in the course of their work. These interventions may potentially affect users’ understandings of records and are an essential part of archival description.

7. Archival description is accessible.

Users of archives encounter barriers to accessing archival description. Typical barriers may be physical, technological, linguistic or geographic. Archivists must limit or remove these barriers to finding and interacting with description.

Accessible archival description engages creators and communities being documented to reflect their complexity, nuance, and fluidity. Archivists must be respectful of the knowledge they hold in trust and the norms of the communities from which they collect, particularly when collecting from communities that have been historically marginalized.

Accessible and respectful description builds trust between archives, users of archives, and those being documented.

8. Archival description should be easy to use, re-use, and share.

Archival description is a form of data, consisting of discrete data elements that can be expressed in a variety of useful outputs.

Users are best able to use, re-use, and share archival description when:

  • it is discoverable
  • it is structured
  • it is machine-readable
  • it is machine-actionable
  • it is available under an open license

Archivists must understand the ways that their data can be consumed by a broad range of users, including people and machines.

9. Each collection within a repository must have an archival description.

The absence of archival description is a barrier to users and good stewardship. In order to access archival collections, users must know which collections a repository holds. No matter how basic a description may be, it is more advantageous to users than no description at all.

Creating these archival descriptions helps archivists meet stewardship needs. This results in:

  • access to a better, broader sense of the scope of our holdings
  • the ability for archivists to gather information about how collections are used
  • guidance for future appraisal and acquisition choices

Archival repositories must deploy their resources in a way that permits them to describe all of their collections as part of their normal business operations.

10. Archivists must have a user-driven reason to enhance existing archival description.

When deciding how comprehensively to describe a collection, the goal should be to maximize the availability of all collection materials to users.

Once all collections in a repository have been described at a minimum level,9 archivists may choose to add more description. This choice must be based on demonstrated user needs or the mission of the repository.

11. Archival description is a continuous intellectual endeavor.

Description must be iterative. It continually reflects deeper understandings of agents, records, activities, and the relationships between them. It is responsive to users. It is flexible, reflecting changes in knowledge, practice, and values.

[1]: For a literary example of the nature of representation and modelling see Jorge Luis Borges, “On Exactitude in Science,” in Collected Fictions, trans. Andrew Hurley (Penguin, 2000).

[2]: As Jennifer Meehan notes, this kind of sensemaking is only as good as the archivist’s judgment, and is itself an act of research and use. Jennifer Meehan, “Making the Leap from Parts to Whole: Evidence and Inference in Archival Arrangement and Description,” The American Archivist 72, no. 1 (April 1, 2009): 72–90,

[3]: As the anthropologist Michel-Rolph Trouillot noted, we all make meaning of historical events through our observation of them and the power and background we bring to our work. We must acknowledge our power and biases as archivists and never pretend to be impartial stenographers of records. Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (Beacon Press, 1995). Rand Jimerson makes a similar (and domain-specific) argument in Archives Power. Randall C. Jimerson, Archives Power: Memory, Accountability, and Social Justice (Society of American Archivists Chicago, 2009).

[4]: Nancy Bartlett, “Respect Des Fonds: The Origins of the Modern Archival Principle of Provenance,” Primary Sources & Original Works 1, no. 1–2 (1992): 107–115.

[5]: Terry Cook, “What is Past is Prologue: A History of Archival Ideas Since 1898, and the Future Paradigm Shift,” Archivaria 43 (Spring 1997), 17-63.

[6]: Jefferson Bailey, “Disrespect des Fonds: Rethinking Arrangement and Description in Born-Digital Archives,” Archive Journal (June 2013),

[7]: Jennifer Meehan, “Rethinking Original Order and Personal Records,” Archivaria 70 (Fall 2010), 27. As Terry Eastwood insists, “archival arrangement is essentially a process of identifying relationships, not a process of physically ordering and storing documents” Terry Eastwood, “Putting the Parts of the Whole Together: Systematic Arrangement of Archives,” Archivaria 50 (Fall 2000): 93–94.

[8]: In the United States context, archivists are guided by the Society of American Archivists’ Core Values Statement and Code of Ethics. Archivists are also encouraged to consult and follow affiliated ethics and principles statements, including the Protocols for Native American Archival Materials, the International Council on Archives’ Principles for Access to Archives and Code of Ethics.

[9]: Chapter 1 of DACS, Levels of Description, provides guidance on which elements must be included for description to meet minimum requirements.