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.

Relationship to Other Standards

DACS is related to other standards. Descriptions created according to DACS are shared electronically using encoding standards, such as MAchine-Readable Cataloging (MARC 21), Encoded Archival Description (EAD), and Encoded Archival Context (EAC). There are also close connections with Resource Description and Access (RDA) and with standards promulgated by the International Council on Archives (ICA), including International Standard Archival Description—General (ISAD[G]), the International Standard Archival Authority Record for Corporate Bodies, Persons, and Families (ISAAR[CPF]), and the International Standard for Describing Functions (ISDF).

In particular, DACS largely conforms to the standards created by the ICA: ISAD(G) and ISAAR(CPF). All of the data elements of ISAD(G) and ISAAR(CPF) are incorporated into DACS—in some cases, virtually word for word. The exception is the exclusion of the Level of Description element from ISAD(G). It is hoped that these close ties will allow U.S. archivists to readily share information about their collections around the world. This revision continues to rely heavily on the ICA standards while recognizing that there is a growing convergence between museum, library, and archival practice.

This growing convergence and the removal of a glossary from DACS make it important to carefully define the entities described in DACS. Here, the following terms rely on the definitions shown:

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.

Revision Decisions

As a descriptive standard of the Society of American Archivists, DACS was placed on a periodic revision cycle. With the release of Resource Description and Access (RDA)2 in 2010, the Council of the Society of American Archivists asked the Technical Subcommittee on Describing Archives: A Content Standard (TS-DACS) to initiate a revision of DACS. TS-DACS was asked to pay particular attention to how DACS and RDA could be brought into closer alignment. TS-DACS was also charged with looking at the relationship between DACS and the archival standards developed by the International Council on Archives.

In the fall of 2010, TS-DACS began soliciting feedback from the U.S. archival community about how DACS could better meet the needs of that community. Subcommittee members carefully reviewed that feedback and prioritized the recommended changes. Early on, it was recognized that one of the most important issues for the revision was to confront the growing convergence between archival, museum, and library descriptive standards—particularly the promulgation and adoption of RDA. Another significant issue was the need to align DACS with the descriptive standards developed and supported by the International Council on Archives. A final issue was the development of Encoded Archival Context and the Society of American Archivists’ adoption of it as an encoding standard and the need to provide guidance on the creation of archival authority records. 

Resource Description and Access (RDA)

A careful review of the descriptive rules in DACS and comparison with the descriptive rules contained in RDA quickly demonstrated that many of the rules in Part III of DACS had been superseded by RDA and that important archival rules (particularly those related to the creation of family names) had been included in RDA. This led to the most obvious change from DACS 2004—the removal of Part III.

RDA rules for titles provided by archivists (“devised titles”) were in closer agreement with archival practices. DACS 2004 had used the term supplied for these titles, in alignment with ISAD(G). Recognizing the growing convergence between library, museum, and archival descriptive standards, and the predominant use of the term devised by companion archival standards to DACS, as well as the greater clarity of the term, the subcommittee has chosen to change the term supplied to devised.

Finally, the subcommittee considers it important that the U.S. archival community continue to monitor the development of RDA. Its reliance on entities and their linkages provides promise for informing the developing archival conceptual model and for greater cooperation between archives and libraries in the future.

Standards of the International Council on Archives

Part I of DACS was initially developed to mirror the components of the General International Standard Archival Description (ISAD[G]) developed by the International Council on Archives (ICA). Part II was designed to mirror the International Standard Archival Authority Record For Corporate Bodies, Persons and Families (ISAAR[CPF]). This structure and concordance is maintained in the revised version of DACS.

ICA has also developed standards for describing functions (International Standard for Describing Functions [ISDF]) and archival institutions (International Standard for Describing Institutions with Archival Holdings [ISDIAH]). These standards are not currently addressed by DACS.

ICA is currently in the process of developing “a single reference model for descriptive standards to enable archivists to describe different types of archival entities (archival materials, corporate bodies, persons, or families, and functions) and to document these entities in relationship to each other at particular points of time, or over time.”3 The purpose of this reference model is to bring the ICA descriptive standards into closer alignment with one another. The current revision of DACS recognizes the convergence of descriptive standards, and TS-DACS will continue to monitor developments in this area with the goal of keeping DACS aligned with ICA descriptive standards.

Encoded Archival Context and the Need for a Content Standard for Archival Authority Records

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. Part II of DACS has been reworked to contain rules for the creation of archival authority records. Part II is broken into six chapters to align with ISAAR(CPF).

The decision to make Part II into rules for archival authority records also necessitated moving Chapters 9 (Identifying Creators) and 10 (Administrative/Biographical History) into Part I as elements 2.6 and 2.7. Element 2.7 has been refocused on information necessary for understanding the collection in hand.

Digital Records

Perhaps the single area that received the most comments from community members was the need to make DACS more relevant to modern records, which increasingly include or consist exclusively of born-digital formats. Of particular concern were rules prescribing papers, records, and collections as the collective terms describing the nature of the archival unit. Commenters felt that these terms did not adequately convey the increasingly digital format of the records. However, there was no community consensus as to what terms should be used instead. Subcommittee members considered this issue in depth and decided to revise the corresponding rule in DACS to permit local practices for new collective terms (such as personal archives or personal records). TS-DACS recommends that this issue be readdressed during the next revision of DACS.

In response to community members’ requests for electronic records examples in DACS, a few such examples were added to Part I. These examples are meant to be illustrative of a growing presence of digital records in archival collections. They will be more widely represented on the companion website to DACS, which is described below.


Another recurring theme in the community feedback was the desire for more examples to be included in DACS. The subcommittee agreed that extensive and varied examples would be a valuable help in using DACS. However, several factors pushed the subcommittee’s response in a different direction. The DACS revision cycle is coinciding with that for EAD; MARC is undergoing revisions as a result of RDA implementation and will eventually be replaced; and EAC-CPF examples are just now becoming widely available. The subcommittee decided that the best way to respond to the desire for more examples would be to focus its efforts on improving and expanding DACS education offerings. The print edition of DACS retains text examples illustrating specific rules, and additional examples have been supplied as needed.

Comparison to DACS 2004

Those accustomed to using DACS 2004 will have little difficulty continuing to utilize the revised DACS. DACS is now divided into two parts: Part I, Describing Archival Materials, and Part II, Archival Authority Records. The numbering schema from DACS 2004 has remained unchanged in Part I and a similar numbering schema has been developed for the revised Part II

What’s New in DACS?

DACS 2013

DACS 2004



Minimum, Optimum, Added Value indicated with each element

Minimum, Optimum, Added Value indicated in Chapter 1

Encoding examples not embedded in text

Encoding examples embedded in text

Devised used to indicate titles created by an archivist

Supplied used to indicate titles created by an archivist

Acronyms should be spelled out at least once

No guidance on acronyms

Abbreviations discouraged

No guidance on abbreviations

Square brackets not prescribed

No guidance on square brackets

Papers, records, and collection not prescribed for titles

Papers, records, and collection prescribed for titles

Part II covers Archival Authority Records

Part II covers Describing Creators

Element 2.6 discusses Identifying Creators

Chapter 9 discusses Identifying Creators

Element 2.7 discusses Administrative/Biographical History

Chapter 10 discusses Administrative/Biographical History

Part III eliminated

Part III discusses Forms of Names

Preface to 2004 edition included as Appendix A

Preface to 2004 edition

Relies on the SAA Glossary at

Glossary included as Appendix A

The number of crosswalks in Appendix C has been reduced

Crosswalks in Appendix C

Appendix D removed in favor of expanded examples on the companion website

Appendix D included full encoding examples


[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] Joint Steering Committee for Development of RDA, Resource Description and Access (Chicago, IL: American Library Association, 2010).

[3] International Council on Archives, Committee on Best Practices and Standards, Progress Report for Revising and Harmonising ICA Descriptive Standards, July 4, 2012, accessed November 6, 2012,, p. 15.

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