Statement of Principles for the CUSTARD Project

The following document is a statement of principles for the CUSTARD project (Canadian-U.S. Task Force on ARchival Description), an NEH-funded project that will reconcile APPM, the Canadian Rules for Archival Description (RAD), and the General International Standard Archival Description (ISAD(G)) to create a set of descriptive rules that can be used with EAD and MARC21.


The nature of archival description

The U.S. Working Group on Standards for Archival Description defined archival description as "the process of capturing, collating, analyzing, organizing, and recording information that serves to identify, manage, locate, and explain the holdings of archival institutions and the contexts and records systems from which those holdings were selected". Clearly, archival description is a complex matter, consisting of a number of inter-related activities required to manage archival materials throughout their existence. The International Council on Archives Commission on Descriptive Standards recognized that descriptive information is required at all stages of the management of archival materials, but narrowed its definition of archival description to cover "the creation of an accurate representation of the archival material by the process of capturing, collating, analyzing, and organizing any information that serves to identify archival material and explain the context and records systems which produced it". It is this aspect of archival description, i.e., "the definitive representation of the archival material … required to establish intellectual control over it and promote access to the information which it contains" which is the focus of these rules. Other aspects of description are covered in other standards, professional manuals, and institutional policies and practices.

The purpose of archival description

These definitions imply that archival description serves a number of purposes, i.e., "to identify, manage, locate, and explain" archival holdings, and "to establish intellectual control … and promote access…", but these purposes need to be more clearly articulated. The Bentley research group identified three main purposes of archival description, and the methods by which these purposes are achieved. These purposes are:

  • to provide access to archival materials by means of a description that is retrievable, at a minimum, by provenance,
  • to promote the understanding of such materials by documenting their context, content, and structure, and
  • to establish their authenticity by documenting their chain of custody, their arrangement, and the circumstances of their creation and use.

Standards for archival description

The purposes of archival description are clear, but it is not immediately obvious that standards for description are required. As long as exchanging information about an institution's holdings consisted of sending photocopies of finding aids through the mail, it was often argued that the unique nature of archival holdings made it neither possible nor necessary to develop and apply common standards for the description of archival holdings. Under such circumstances, each institution could make its own rules for description with little regard for what others were doing. However, the widespread use of computers changed that. Since the 1980s, archivists have realized the importance of standards for description in order to avoid repeatedly re-inventing the descriptive wheel in each institution, and in order to present a consistent product to the users of archival materials, whether they be staff colleagues, the staff of other institutions, or researchers. Furthermore, the ubiquity of computers, combined with the rapid development of communications technology has made it possible to exchange electronic information cheaply and quickly. Agreement about the elements of archival description and a consistent way of forming them is an essential pre-requisite for information exchange at the national and international levels.

The need for descriptive standards is no longer a subject of debate, and the discussion has turned to the role and nature of such standards. The ICA Statement of Principles summarized four purposes of archival descriptive standards:

a) to ensure the creation of consistent, appropriate, and self explanatory descriptions,
b) to facilitate the retrieval and exchange of information about archival material,
c) to enable the sharing of authority data, and
d) to make possible the integration of descriptions from different locations into a unified information system.

As the archival community explored and enlarged its understanding of the role and nature of descriptive standards, it became clear that there are different types of standards. The WGSAD identified two particular types of standards, i.e., data structure standards, and data content standards. Data structure standards identify the elements of information required for archival description. For example, in order to describe archival material, the following elements are required: a Title element which names the entity, an Extent element which states how much there is, and a Date element which indicates when the material was created. Data structure standards for archival description are well-developed and widely used, e.g., MARC, EAD. However data structure standards do not stand alone. While they enable the exchange of information, they do not provide any guidance on exactly how to enter information in any particular element. Without corresponding data content standards, information is presented inconsistently.

Data content standards provide the rules which state exactly how to enter information in each element of the data structure, e.g., for the Extent element, a data content standard will indicate whether to express the extent of the archival material in terms of number of items, linear feet or metres of shelf space, or some other measurement. The development of data content standards has taken place along national lines (e.g., Archives, Personal Papers and Manuscripts (APPM) in the US, Rules for Archival Description (RAD) in Canada, Manual of Archival Description (MAD) in Britain, and the Australian Common Practice Manual) with very different results. As the means of international information exchange became more readily available, the benefits of agreed-upon international standards became clear. High-level international standards (ISAD(G): General International Standard Archival Description and ISAAR(CPF): International Standard Archival Authority Record for Corporate Bodies, Persons, and Families) were developed by the ICA, but they still required more detailed rules to make them useful. These CUSTARD rules are a robust data content standard for the description of archival materials based on a harmonization of APPM and RAD within the framework of ISAD(G), and are fully compatible with the existing data structure standards.

Principles Forming the Basis of These Rules


This statement of principles was developed to serve as the basis for the rules in this standard. Thus, it is more than a statement of archival principles generally, and is based not only on fundamental archival theory, but also on a variety of other sources, including earlier statements about description and descriptive standards found in the reports of working groups commissioned to investigate aspects of archival description, national rules for description, and statements of the ICA Committee on Descriptive Standards. In recognizing the disparate nature of archival holdings, the statement is also grounded in accepted professional practice in Canada and the U.S.

Principle 1: The principle of respect des fonds is the basis of archival arrangement and description.

This principle states that the records created, accumulated and/or maintained and used by an organization or individual must be kept together in their original order if it exists or has been maintained, and not be mixed or combined with the records of another individual or corporate body. Inherent in the overarching principle of respect des fonds are two sub-principles -- provenance and original order. The principle of provenance means that the records created, accumulated and/or maintained by an organization or individual must be represented together, distinguishable from the records of any other organization or individual. The principle of original order means that the order of the records which was established by the creator should be retained whenever possible in order to preserve existing relationships between the documents and the evidential value inherent in their order. Together, these principles form the basis of archival arrangement and description.

In the context of this standard, the principle of provenance requires further elaboration. The statement that the records of one creator must be represented together does not mean that it is necessary (or even possible) to keep the records of one creator physically separate from those of other creators. It does, however, mean that the provenance of the records must be clearly reflected in the description, that the description must enable retrieval by provenance, and a descriptive system must be capable of representing together all the records of a single creator held by a single repository. Principles 3.1, 3.3, and 5 in this document provide the foundation for the rules regarding the representation of provenance in archival descriptions.

The Relationship between Arrangement and Description

If the archival functions of arrangement and description are based on the principle of respect des fonds, what is the relationship between arrangement and description? While the two are intimately intertwined, it is possible to distinguish between them in the following way. Arrangement is the intellectual and/or physical processes and the results of organizing documents in accordance with accepted archival principles. Description is the creation of an accurate representation of the archival material by the process of capturing, collating, analyzing, and organizing information that serves to identify archival material and explain the context and records systems which produced it. Broadly speaking then, arrangement is dealing with the records; description is dealing with information about the records.

Principle 2: Description reflects arrangement.

Inherent in the statement that description reflects arrangement are three underlying principles, i.e., that archival material is arranged according to a hierarchical system of levels, that the levels of arrangement determine the levels of description, and that description takes place after arrangement is completed. Each of these principles is elaborated below.

Principle 2.1: Archival arrangement is based on a system of hierarchical levels.

Traditionally, archival material has been arranged in a hierarchy of levels which reflect the intellectual and/or physical ordering of the records. The exact number of levels of arrangement has been the subject of debate in the profession, and will depend on both the provenance and nature of the material itself, as well as the management needs of the institution preserving it. For the purposes of description, this standard recognizes four levels of arrangement: the fonds, the series, the file, and the item. These four levels are related in the sense that the lower levels constitute parts of the whole. However, it is also recognized that not all levels are required. When arranging a given aggregation of archival material, a number of combinations are possible, depending on the provenance and nature of the material itself. Conversely, it is also recognized that in some situations additional levels may be required, and that the fonds and series levels may require further sub-divisions, depending on the provenance and nature of the material being described. For example, a fonds can be divided into sub-fonds, and a series can be divided into sub-series or even sub-sub-series as required. Figure 1 [include Appendix A-1 from ISAD(G)] illustrates just some of the possible combinations.

The four levels are defined as follows:

Fonds: The whole of the documents regardless of form or medium, organically created and/or accumulated and used by a particular person, family, or corporate body in the course of that creator's activities and functions.

Series: Documents arranged in accordance with a filing system or maintained as a unit because they result from the same accumulation or filing process, the same function, or the same activity; have a particular form or subject, or because of some other relationship arising out of their creation, receipt, or use.

File: An organized unit of documents grouped together either for current use by the creator or in the process of archival arrangement because they relate to the same subject, activity, or transaction.

Item: The smallest intellectual archival unit.

Principle 2.2: Levels of description are determined by levels of arrangement.

Levels of description are determined by levels of arrangement, and each of the four levels of arrangement recognized by this standard has a corresponding level of description, i.e., the fonds, the series, the file, and the item. This standard provides rules for description at each of these levels. However, because arrangement determines description, and because not all levels of arrangement are required or possible in all cases, it follows that not all levels of description are required. Where additional levels are required, i.e., sub-divisions of the fonds and/or series levels, the rules for description at the fonds level may be used to describe sub-fonds; similarly the rules for description at the series level may be used to describe sub-series.

Principle 2.3: Description takes place after arrangement is completed.

Description follows arrangement in the chronological sense that description cannot take place until the material has been arranged. Increasingly, however, it is understood that description is an iterative and dynamic process, that is, descriptive information is recorded, reused, and enhanced at many stages in the management of archival holdings. For example, basic descriptive information is recorded when incoming material is accessioned, well before the material is arranged. Furthermore, arrangement can change, particularly where an archives receives regular accruals of records from an ongoing organization. In that situation, the arrangement will not be complete until the organization ceases to exist. Thus it is more appropriate to say that description reflects the current state of arrangement (whatever that may be), and can (and does) change as a result of further arrangement activities. These rules are intended for the description of archival material after it has been selected for ongoing retention because of its enduring value; nonetheless they can be applied at earlier stages in the life of archival materials.

Principle 3: Archival description is based on the principles of multilevel description.

The principle that there are levels of description corresponding to levels of arrangement implies that it is possible to describe not only a fonds, but also its parts. The four levels of description are related in that the lower levels constitute parts of the whole, and an understanding of the lower levels is often possible only in relation to their place within the higher level. The technique of multilevel description, i.e., "the preparation of descriptions that are related to one another in a part-to-whole relationship and that need complete identification of both parts and the comprehensive whole in multiple descriptive records", requires some precepts regarding the order in which descriptions are presented and the relationships between description(s) of the parts and the description of the whole.

Principle 3.1: Descriptions are presented from the general to the specific.

While the actual work of arrangement and description can proceed in any order that makes sense to the archivist, the presentation of the descriptive record(s) must be available in the descriptive system at the highest level before proceeding to the next level, and so on. In other words, a description at the file or item level cannot be presented without the description of the larger aggregation(s) of which each forms a part. For the purposes of this standard, the highest level of description is the fonds, and description would normally start there. However, as long as the provenance is represented in accordance with Principles 1, 3.1, 3.3, and 5 in this document, these rules accommodate descriptions which begin at a lower level.

Principle 3.2: The information provided at each level of description must be appropriate to that level of description.

The second principle of multilevel description requires that information provided at each level of description must be relevant to that level of description. This means that it is inappropriate to provide detailed information about the contents of files in a description of the fonds or the series. Similarly, if the records in a series were created by a branch or division within a department, at the series level, provide only an administrative history of that branch or division at the series level; the administrative history of the entire department belongs at the fonds level. The principle that the information provided must be relevant to its level of description also implies that it is undesirable to repeat information given at higher levels of description. To avoid needless repetition, provide information that is common to the component parts at the highest appropriate level.

Principle 3.3: Relationships between levels of description must be clearly indicated.

The third principle of multilevel description requires that the relationships between levels of description must be clearly indicated. The description of the whole and its parts must be represented in a hierarchical structure which indicates the relationship between them. For each unit being described, the level of description must be identified, and linked in some way with the next higher unit being described. A descriptive system must be able to identify and maintain the relationships between levels of description.

The Nature of Archival Holdings

Archival holdings are infinitely varied in their nature and provenance. If they are to be described consistently within an institutional or regional or national descriptive system, the rules must apply to a variety of formats and media created by, and acquired from, a variety of sources.

Principle 4: Description applies to all archival materials regardless of form or medium.

Inherent in the principle of provenance, i.e., that the records created, accumulated and/or maintained and used by an organization or individual must be kept together, is the assumption that no records are excluded from the description because of their particular form or medium. Different media will of course require different rules to describe their particular characteristics, e.g., sound recordings require some indication of playing speed, and photographs require some indication of polarity and colour. It is acknowledged that archival material comes in a variety of forms and media, and rules for archival description must accommodate all media (and the relationships between them) within the body of records of one creator.

Principle 5: The principles of archival description apply equally to records created by corporate bodies and by individuals or families.

The documents which are the product of the functions and activities of organizations may differ in extent, arrangement, subject matter, etc. from those which result from the activities of individuals or families. While there may be valid reasons to distinguish between them for administrative or other purposes, the principles of archival arrangement and description can be applied equally to materials created by individuals or organizations.

Principle 6: This standard can also be used to describe collections and discrete items.

Archival material has traditionally been understood to consist of the documents automatically and organically created and/or accumulated and used by a person or organization in the course of the conduct of affairs, and preserved because of their continuing value. However many institutions also hold materials which fall outside the scope of this definition, in that they are not the unselfconscious products of a function or activity, but instead are groupings of documents that have been consciously assembled or collected without regard for their provenance or origin because they reflect some common characteristic, e.g., a particular subject or theme or form. Such collections are part of the holdings in many institutions, and must be described in a way that is consistent with the rest of the holdings. Archival institutions also hold individual items which are without context, i.e., which are not part of a fonds. Such items must also be treated consistently within the institution's descriptive system.

For the purposes of description, while most of the rules for archival description in this standard can be applied to the description of artificial collections or discrete items, there are some cases where collections require special rules, e.g., title, dates, and access point(s). Where appropriate, this standard includes rules for the description of collections within these particular elements.

The Creators of Archival Material

Previous principles relate to the description of the structure and content of the archival materials. Equally important to their understanding is the description of the context in which they were created.

Principle 7: The creators of archival materials, as well as the materials themselves, must be described.

If the principle of provenance is fundamental to the arrangement and description of archival materials, it follows that the provenance, or the creator(s), of archival materials must be described too. Translated into practice, this principle means that the creator (or the provenance) of the materials must be identified and included in (or linked to) the description of the materials. Moreover, the activities and functions of the creator(s) which produced the archival materials must be described as well. Finally, standardized access points must be provided which indicate not just the primary creator but also the relationships between successive creators, e.g., parts of a corporate body which has undergone reorganization(s). This standard includes rules for providing all this information in a consistent way.


Producing standards of any sort is not an easy task, and producing a new standard for archival description by harmonizing or blending two different sets of rules has its own particular challenges. The process may not be entirely harmonious, and disagreements are bound to occur. As a means of resolving the inevitable disputes about particular rules, the group felt that it would be useful to have a statement of principles to serve as a reference point to assist in resolving areas of contention. The development of these principles was not without vigorous debate, but the process was valuable in the short term as a means of identifying the many points of agreement, as well as a constructive resolution of areas of difference. In the long term, it is hoped that the statement of principles will serve as a strong foundation for the rules which follow.