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
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
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
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,
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
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
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
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
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.