Introduction to Archival Authority Records

The structure and content of archival materials cannot be completely understood without some knowledge of the context in which they were created. It is insufficient for the archivist simply to include the name of the creator in the title of the description of the materials. Additional information is required regarding the corporate bodies, persons, and families responsible for the creation, assembly, accumulation, and/or maintenance and use of the archival materials being described. Part II describes the information that is required to establish this context. It is the logical outcome of Principle 4 in the Statement of Principles: that the creators of archival materials, as well as the materials themselves, must be described.

Definition of Terms

  • Corporate body: an organization or group of people identified by a name and that acts, or may act, as a unit, or an institutional position held by a person

  • Person: an individual of the human species

  • Family: two or more people related through marriage, birth, adoption, or other legal manner, or who present themselves as a family

These definitions disallow the creation of headings for personas, bibliographic identities, and animals but otherwise would not create significant divergence from library authority file structures.

There are three steps in the process of creating the documentation that establishes archival context.

  • The archivist must first identify the corporate bodies, individuals, and families that played a significant role in the creation of the materials.

Element 2.6, Name of Creator(s), provides specific guidance as to which of these entities need to be associated with the description of the materials, based on their role in the creation, assembly, accumulation, and/or maintenance and use of the records.

  • The archivist must assemble biographical information about these individuals and families or data about the history, structure, functions, and relationships of the relevant organization.

Element 2.7, Administrative/Biographical History, provides guidance on recording biographical data or administrative histories.

  • Finally, the names of these entities must be rendered in a standardized form using standardized vocabularies (e.g., Library of Congress Authorities) or with rules for formulating standardized names such as those found in AACR2, ISAAR(CPF), or RDA to facilitate the retrieval of information across descriptions, systems, and institutions.

Once formulated, this information may be presented to the user in either of two ways. Traditionally, archivists have incorporated the names of creators and contextual information about them directly into archival descriptions, both in catalog records and in finding aids. Such information, created according to DACS rules, may certainly continue to be employed in this manner.

However, DACS also provides an alternative: information about creators of archival materials can be captured and maintained in a separate system of archival authority records that are linked to the archival descriptions rather than being embedded within them. This approach reflects the model created by the International Council on Archives where the General International Standard for Archival Description (ISAD[G]) provides rules on description and the International Standard Archival Authority Record for Corporate Bodies, Persons and Families (ISAAR[CPF]) governs the creation of information about creators. Chapters 9 through 14 provide guidance on the construction of archival authority records based on the structure of ISAAR(CPF).

Separating the capture and maintenance of contextual information has a number of advantages. The ability to link a description of a creating entity to several descriptions of records from the same creator held within the same repository eliminates the need to duplicate the administrative/biographical history in each description. Furthermore, the practice enables the linking of descriptions of creating entities to descriptions of records from the same creator(s) held by more than one repository, as well as to descriptions of related library and museum materials, websites, and so on. Relationships between creating entities also can be documented in authority records. Finally, certain functions can be efficiently performed in authority records, such as maintaining a record of variant and related terms, which cannot be done well (or at all) within descriptions.

Where several repositories hold records of the same provenance, they can share or exchange contextual information about the creator more easily if it has been maintained in a standardized manner. Archival authority records do not merely record contextual information, they also provide a means of standardizing access points and the contextual information. They are similar to library authority records in that both support the creation of standardized access points in descriptions. Such standardization has two aspects: consistency and uniqueness. Consistency requires that the name of a creator be identical each time it is used as an access point in the descriptive system. This is achieved by implementing rules that establish an authorized form of the name where different forms exist. Uniqueness requires that each person, family, or corporate body have a heading that applies to it alone. This is achieved by making additions to otherwise identical names in order to distinguish between them. Whenever possible, repositories should use the form of personal and corporate names found in the Library of Congress Authorities (formerly Library of Congress Name Authority File [LCNAF]) or use rules for formulating standardized names such as those found in AACR2, ISAAR(CPF), or RDA.

While archival authority records and the bibliographic authority records used in library systems are similar, they differ in significant ways. A bibliographic authority record consists of an authorized heading that standardizes the form of the name, as well as other information elements that describe the named entity or point to other authority records. Archival authority records contain the following elements similar to bibliographic authority records:

  • The authority entry (i.e., a standardized access point established by an archival agency uniquely identifying the corporate body, person, or family associated with the creation of the archival materials)
  • References to related names and variant names
  • Documentation of how the authority record was established and maintained

Beyond this, archival authority records support a much wider set of requirements than library authority records. These additional requirements derive from the importance of documenting the context of records creation in archival description and control systems. As such, archival authority records usually contain much more information than library authority records.

While archival authority records generally are distinguished from library authority records in that they focus on identifying and providing information about those associated in some way with the creation of archival materials, they do not include topical subjects, forms or genres, functions, or uniform titles. Archivists may also maintain authority files to control the terms used to provide access in these ways; however, such applications are beyond the scope of this standard.1

The two methods of presenting archival context information, i.e., within the description or in a separate authority file, are not mutually exclusive. Indeed, archives may quite reasonably maintain separate files of authority data for internal control purposes even when the names reflected in those records are embedded in descriptions. Archivists may also wish to describe some contextual information only in the Administrative/Biographical History Element (see Element 2.7) embedded in descriptions of archival materials.

Purpose and Scope

Part II provides rules on the creation of authority records based on the data elements found in ISAAR(CPF).


Instructions for describing the archival materials themselves are found in Part I.

Instructions for identifying creators are found in Part I, Element 2.6, and instructions for creating contextual information embedded in descriptions of archival materials are found in Part I, Element 2.7.

Instructions for formatting names of persons, families, or corporate bodies identified as creators using the rules in Element 2.6 are found in companion standards.

Structure and Numbering

Part II consists of six chapters. Chapter 9 provides general rules for creating authority records for repositories that wish to maintain separate authority systems. Chapters 10 through 14 provide rules for the different areas of archival authority records.

Descriptive Outputs

The rules provide for data input but do not prescribe particular outputs or display. Presentation of this information to the user, including the way that the authority information is linked to the descriptions of the materials, will be determined by institutional policy within each repository’s descriptive system.


The examples in Part II are illustrative, not prescriptive. They illustrate only the application of the rule to which they are appended. Furthermore, the presentation of the examples is intended only to assist in understanding how to use the rules and does not imply a prescribed layout, typography, or output.

[1] DACS does not provide rules for the construction and maintenance of subject authorities. However, a corporate body, person, or family can also be the subject of a unit of description, and an archival authority record that conforms to DACS may also serve to control the form of name and identity of a corporate body, person, or family named in a subject access point. See Appendix B, Companion Standards.