DACS Describing Archives: A Content Standard

If you are cataloging a book, the information is given to you by the book.  The title, author, and publisher are all predetermined and generated before the book is published.  If you are cataloging in an archive, it is not that simple.  The archivist is given a collection.  The collection may have multiple contributors, topics, languages, assorted types of media etc.  The collection may have a theme, but it may not.  The archivist sorts, protects, gives order and context to the collection.  This process has many different facets.  The hard part is that two different archivists may look at the same collection and describe the collection in two different ways.  In a field that thrives on standard organization, this type of disorder is not acceptable.

In short, DACS (Describing Archives: A Content Standard) is a supplementary material.  If MARC (Machine Readable Cataloging) is the template for describing an archived collection, DACS is the manual that helps determine what information should be placed in that template.

In 1983, Steve L. Hensen created APPM “Archives, Personal Papers, and Manuscripts.”  This was the first manual for archivist to use when describing their collections and it served the archive community for about 20 years. (Hensen, 1989)  However, with the advent of the internet , APPM began to lose its effectiveness.  APPM was not designed to accommodate HTML or XML files, nor did it properly address files that were born digital.  In 1996 EAD was introduced and APPM was not designed to accommodate this either. (SAA, 2007)

In 2001, the archive communities in Canada and the United States attempted to create one international archiving standard.  In 2003, they determined that their systems had too many individual needs to combine.  Canada went forward with creating RAD2 and the United States created DACS.  (CCA, n.d.) & (SAA, 2007)

DACS maintained all of the information found in APPM but included the necessary additions.  DACS also highlights eight principles of archiving.  These principles are the bases from which DACS was created and you can see their influence throughout the manual.

  1. Records in archives possess unique characteristics.
  2. The principle of respect de fonds is the basis of archival arrangement and description.
  3. Arrangement involves the identification of groupings within the material.
  4. Description reflects arrangement.
  5. The rules of description apply to all archival materials regardless of form or medium.
  6. The principles of archival description apply equally to records created by corporate bodies, individuals, or families.
  7. Archival descriptions may be presented at varying levels of detail to produces a variety of outputs. 7.1)  Levels of description correspond to levels of arrangement. 7.2)  Relationships between levels of description must be clearly indicated. 7.3 Information provided at each level of description must be appropriate to that level.
  8. The creators of archival materials, as well as the materials themselves, must be described.  (SAA, 2007)

DACS principles have a strong impact the DACS manual.  Consider principle eight.  Principal eight requires the archivist to describe the creator.  DACS manual provides detailed instructions on how and why the creators’ description must be included.  Biographies give context and value to collections.  Without context, collections would be meaningless.  For example: a collection of a random students’ primary school records is meaningless, but if that student was Barack Hussein Obama II,  the collection would take on a significantly new meaning and value.  Principle eight exists to direct the DACS manual to provide instructions on how to give archived collections context and value.  The DACS manual guidelines tell us how create biographical information to enhance archived collections.  The principles are used to direct the manuals’ guidelines.

The DACS manual is split into three parts:  Part 1) Describing Archival Material, Part 2) Describing creators and Part 3) Forms of Names.  Part 1 is designed to “ensure the creation of consistent, appropriate, and self-explanatory descriptions of archival material.” (SAA, 2007)  Part one is intended to provide guidance in describing the collection as a whole and the main parts of the collection, not individual items like a single photograph.  For information on describing the individual aspects of a collection, the archivist must review the DACS appendix.

DACS: Part 1 contains information on the 25 elements of archival description.  Part 1 is the first place an archivist goes when describing their collection.  Currently, I am working on a collection at the FSC McKay Archive.  After arranging and preserving the collection I went to the elements listed in DACS to see how I should start describing the collection.

Title is one of the 25 elements.  The collection I am working on is for a man named A.P. Bolton who owned many companies and was a pillar of the community; but what should the title be?  The title element in DACS advises us that titles are either supplied or formal.  Supplied titles are created by the archivist.  A formal title is a title that appears prominently in the collection. (SAA, 2007)  Mr. Bolton’s name appears prominently in the collection, his name is given to some of his companies, and his name is given to a current paving award.  Mr. Bolton’s name serves as the formal title.

But since a name is being used as a title, how should the name appear?  Should the title indicate his proper name: Andrew Patterson Bolton or his common name: A.P. “Pat” Bolton?  His name also appears as A.P. Bolton, and he was nick named “The Asphalt Man.” Title element guidelines indicate that “formal titles are recorded exactly as to wording order and spelling…” (SAA, 2007)  Titles should also represent the collection well into the future.  The spelling and order of Mr. Bolton’s name that appeared most frequently in the collection was A.P. “Pat” Bolton.  Currently, there is a paving award named after Mr. Bolton: the A.P. “Pat” Bolton award for excellence in paving.  People in the community know Mr. Bolton as A.P. “Pat” Bolton.  Therefore, the title of the collection should be: A.P. “Pat” Bolton.

The second two parts of DACS are Describing creators (Part 2) and Forms of Names (Part 3).  The defined purpose of Part 2 is to “provide rules for establishing a context for the archive and guidance for creating authority records.”  (SAA, 2007)  Describing creators also goes into detail about the creators’ biography.  As illustrated above, an unknown students’ school records is almost worthless, a collection of Barack Hussein Obama II school records has a significantly different value.  Biographical information is important.

Part 3: Forms of Names, demonstrates how names should be listed.  Is it A.P. Bolton, A.P. “Pat” Bolton, Andrew Patrick Bolton, or is it “The Asphalt Man”?  At this point it is important to note that the rules change depending on how you are using the name.  Part 3 describes the standard forms of name so long as the name is not being used as the title (if the name is used as the title, see the title element in Part 1) and if the name is not that of the creators’ (if the name is other than the creator’s, see Part 2).  Part 3 does discuss how the names of ancillary individuals and corporate bodies should be listed.

DACS helps determine how information should be placed in the cataloging template.  It demands that archivists give their collections context and form.  Finally, DACS enables archivist to give their collections a standard form when all they start with is a box of unknown items to sort.


  • Canadian Council of Archives.  (n.d.).  Canadian committee on archival description.  Retrieved from http://www.cdncouncilarchives.ca/rad2.html
  • Hensen, S.  (1989).  Archives, personal papers and manuscripts: A cataloging manual forarchival repositories, historical societies, and manuscript libraries.  Chicago, IL: Societyof American Archivists
  • Library of Congress.  (2002) EAD: Encoded archival description, version 2002 official site. Retrieved from http://www.loc.gov/ead/eaddev.html
  • SAA. (2007).  Describing archives: A content standard. Chicago, IL:Society of American Archivists.
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