Describing Archives: A Content Standard

Chicago: Society of American Archivists, 2004. xxi, 269 pp. Available from the Society of American Archivists, $35.00 members, $49.00 nonmembers. ISBN 1-931666-08-3.


Review essay published in American Archivist (Vol. 68, No.2, Fall/Winter 2005)


In February of 2005, the SAA Council approved Describing Archives: A Content Standard(DACS) as an official SAA standard, replacing the second edition of Archives, Personal Papers, and Manuscripts(APPM) as the nation’s content standard for archival description. DACS is the next logical step in the evolution of archival descriptive standards in the United States. It moves us away from a standard based on bibliographic rules and designed for creating catalog records and toward a truly archival standard that can be applied to full finding aids. The authors of DACS, leaders in the field of archival description, include APPM author Steve Hensen, Encoded Archival Description (EAD) experts Michael Fox and Kris Kiesling, and the other U.S. members of the Canadian-U.S. Task Force on Archival Description (CUSTARD), Lynn Holdzkom, Margit Kerwin, Bill Landis, and Lydia Reid (vi).

With DACS, they have developed a set of clearly written content guidelines for creating archival descriptions that can be expressed in EAD, MARC21, and other formats. They have also created a standard that is harmonious with the General International Standard Archival Description(ISAD(G)) and the International Standard Archival Authority Record for Corporate Bodies, Persons and Families (ISAAR(CPF)). Consistency with these standards is necessary to fulfill the potential for mechanisms such as EAD that allow us to easily share archival descriptions internationally.

Archivists using the standard should not pass over the volume’s introductory section. Kiesling’s preface provides valuable context for the experienced and novice archivist alike, reviewing the history of the CUSTARD project that generated DACS, the relationship of DACS to other standards, and a comparison of DACS and its predecessor, APPM. The Statement of Principles draws upon the findings of earlier groups that studied archival description, on existing national and international standards, and on an understanding of professional practice in the United States. The individual concepts presented in these principles are not new, but gathered together they provide a foundation for arrangement and description that processing archivists will want to revisit regularly. The Overview of Archival Description discusses access tools and access points, which archivists will need to use in conjunction with DACS when building access systems. The authors state that formalized access points should be included in all types of descriptions, but treatment of the subject is rather abbreviated. Although I agree with the authors that selection of access points is a matter of local practice, a consideration of the decisions faced in selecting access points or references to additional resources on the topic would be helpful.

The standard itself is organized into three parts that cover description of archival materials, description of creators, and forms of names. Part 1, Describing Archival Materials, begins by outlining use of the standard. A chapter on descriptive levels provides requirements for minimum, optimal, and added value descriptions for both single-level and multilevel descriptions. This flexible approach will support the needs of a variety of repositories and descriptive situations and ease the transition to a more standards-based approach than many archivists may be accustomed to. The bulk of this section delineates the standard’s twenty-five elements, including the purpose and scope, exclusions, sources of information, rules, and encoding examples for each. They are organized into seven sections: identity, content and structure, conditions of access and use, acquisition and appraisal, related materials, general notes, and description control.

Part 2, Describing Creators, includes guidelines for identifying and describing creators of archival materials. This section also contains a chapter on creating archival authority records based on ISAAR(CPF). Separating rules for describing materials and describing creators may seem unusual to many American archivists, but it brings DACS into accord with international standards and provides for more flexibility in recording and sharing information about records creators. The guidelines support both the traditional practice of including information about records creators directly in finding aids and the use of separate archival authority files for this contextual information. The authors introduce their audience to the concept of archival authority files and provide a concise enumeration of the potential advantages of this practice. Given the current efforts to develop Encoded Archival Context, a standard structure for exchanging information about the creators of archival materials, it is clear that there is interest in implementing archival authority records within the archival profession. Part II of DACS provides a content standard for those interested in creating such records.

Part 3, Forms of Names, includes chapters that detail the rules for formulating names of persons, families, corporate entities, and geographic entities that are part of corporate bodies. This is one area where, like APPM, the authors chose to closely follow the structure and rules of the corresponding chapters of the Anglo-American Cataloging Rules(AACR2).DACS does, however, provide rules for forming family names; AACR2 does not. It is appropriate that this section and all those dealing with records creators emphasize the need to use existing authority files such as the Library of Congress Authorities.

The appendices are invaluable references for those implementing DACS. They include a glossary, a list of companion standards, crosswalks, and encoded examples. The list of companion standards includes content standards for specialized formats, thesauri for access points, and data structure standards for encoding DACS-compliant descriptions. This is particularly useful for archivists interested in more specific rules for graphic materials, sound recordings, and the like, but there are no references here to general digital library standards that archivists are using more frequently as we publish our finding aids, encoded texts, and digitized images, sound, and video on-line. Metadata Encoding and Transmission Standard (METS) is mentioned in the text (p. 8) as one form of a single-level description, but is not listed as a companion standard.

Crosswalks between DACS and APPM,ISAD(G),ISAAR(CPF), EAD, and MARC will help archivists transition from APPM to DACS, understand the relationship of DACS to international standards, and make encoding decisions for their DACS-based finding aids. The encoding examples will also assist those interested in applying DACS in conjunction with EAD and MARC. They include finding aids and catalog records for a variety of collections, and each example includes references to the corresponding DACS rule alongside the encoded description. In addition, there is an example of an item-level MARC record.

For the most part, archivists adopting DACS will find the standard easy to use. The authors provide clear, detailed guidance on the content and application of each element. Examples, presented in both narrative and encoded form, also help to elucidate the rules. DACS elements are mutually exclusive, and the list of exclusions for various related elements will help archivists choose exactly where specific information should and should not be included. This will make it easier for researchers to find specific content, as it will eliminate elements that contain mixed or muddled information.

Users of APPM will find that the organization of DACS more closely follows an archival perspective and that the numbering of the rules is less confusing. Guidelines for each element are easy to read, since they follow a standardized format and use headings to clearly identify various sections. The guidelines in DACS are also more thorough than those presented in APPM, since they are designed to support full descriptions rather than abbreviated catalog records. In DACS, the authors also include encoded examples directly within the text at the end of each element, alleviating the need to flip between the text and appendices to view the application of a rule.

There is some room for improvement in DACS. First, the lack of an index can make use of the manual frustrating. The table of contents lists each element, but more specific rules within the individual elements have no easy access point. In particular, archivists will likely turn to the section on forms of names as a reference in very specialized situations, and an index would make this type of use much easier. Second, although the authors attempted to include thorough examples, a few small issues crop up here as well. Some sections include examples of a given element at various hierarchical levels (rather than simply at the collection level), but these could be more widespread. EAD examples included within the text don’t always correspond with the crosswalk or encoded examples found in the appendices. For example, <bibliography> and <prefercite> are given as examples within the text (pp. 76, 79), but are not listed in the crosswalk. An index would also make these examples easier to find.

Regardless of these few criticisms, the impact of DACS on archival descriptive practice in the United States cannot be underestimated. It will inform the work of those with established arrangement and description programs and provide needed instruction for those without a written processing manual. DACS is an essential resource for any repository and for archivists at all levels. It eliminates our dependence on a solely bibliographic model and moves us into harmony with international standards. Most importantly, although most of our researchers will likely be unaware of the existence of DACS, it will support their work by resulting in more consistent and therefore more easily usable archival descriptions.


Five Colleges, Inc.