ISAD(G): General International Standard Archival Description

I. Introduction


This standard provides general guidance for the preparation of archival descriptions. It is to be used in conjunction with existing national standards or as the basis for the development of national standards.


The purpose of archival description is to identify and explain the context and content of archival material in order to promote its accessibility. This is achieved by creating accurate and appropriate representations and by organizing them in accordance with predetermined models. Description-related processes may begin at or before records creation and continue throughout the life of the records. These processes make it possible to institute the intellectual controls necessary for reliable, authentic, meaningful and accessible descriptive records to be carried forward through time.


Specific elements of information about archival materials are recorded at every phase of their management (e.g., creation, appraisal, accessioning, conservation, arrangement) if the material is to be on the one hand securely preserved and controlled, and on the other hand made accessible at the proper time to all who have a right to consult it. Archival description in the widest sense of the term covers every element of information no matter at what stage of management it is identified or established. At every stage the information about the material remains dynamic and may be subject to amendment in the light of further knowledge of its content or the context of its creation. Computerized information systems in particular may serve to integrate or select elements of information as required, and to update or amend them. While the focus of these rules is the description of archival materials after the point at which they have been selected for preservation, they may also be applied at earlier phases.


This standard contains general rules for archival description that may be applied irrespective of the form or medium of the archival material. The rules contained in this standard do not give guidance on the description of special materials such as seals, sound recordings, or maps. Manuals setting out descriptive rules for such materials already exist. This standard should be used in conjunction with these manuals to enable appropriate description of special materials.


This set of general rules for archival description is part of a process that will

  1. ensure the creation of consistent, appropriate, and self explanatory descriptions;
  2. facilitate the retrieval and exchange of information about archival material;
  3. enable the sharing of authority data; and
  4. make possible the integration of descriptions from different locations in to a unified information system.


The rules accomplish these purposes by identifying and defining twenty-six (26) elements that may be combined to constitute the description of an archival entity. The structure and content of the information in each of these elements should be formulated in accordance with applicable national rules. As general rules, these are intended to be broadly applicable to descriptions of archives regardless of the nature or extent of the unit of description. However, the standard does not define output formats, or the ways in which these elements are presented, for example, in inventories, catalogues, lists, etc.


Archival descriptive standards are based on accepted theoretical principles. For example, the principle that archival description proceeds from the general to the specific is the practicalconsequenceoftheprincipleofrespectdesfonds.1 Thisprinciplemustbearticulated if a generally applicable structure and system of archival description is to be built which is not dependent on the finding aids of any given repository, whether in a manual or automated environment.


In Appendix A-1 one may find a hierarchical model of the levels of arrangement for the fonds and its constituent parts. There are levels of description, with differing degrees of detail, appropriate to each level of arrangement. For example, a fonds may be described as a whole in a single description or represented as a whole and in its parts at various levels of description. The fonds forms the broadest level of description; the parts form subsequent levels, whose description is often only meaningful when seen in the context of the description of the whole of the fonds. Thus, there may be a fonds-level description, a series-level description, a file-level description and/or an item-level description. Intermediate levels, such as a sub-fonds or sub-series, may be expected. Each of these levels may be further subdivided according to the complexity of the administrative structure and/or functions of the organization which generated the archival material and the organization of the material. In Appendix A-2 the model represents the complex relationships between creator(s) and the units of description, regardless of level, as expressed in the boxes representing authority records according to ISAAR(CPF) and the links between them and the boxes representing the units of description of the fonds and its parts. Appendix B shows full examples of archival descriptions and some of its parts.


Each rule consists of:

  1. the name of the element of description governed by the rule;
  2. a statement of the purpose of incorporating the element in a description;
  3. a statement of the general rule (or rules) applicable to the element; and
  4. where applicable, examples illustrating implementation of the rule(s).


Paragraphs are numbered and are given for citation purposes only. These numbers should not be used to designate elements of description.


The rules are organized into seven areas of descriptive information:

  1. Identity Statement Area (where essential information is conveyed to identify the unit of description)
  2. Context Area (where information is conveyed about the origin and custody of the unit of description)
  3. Content and Structure Area (where information is conveyed about the subject matter and arrangement of the unit of description)
  4. Condition of Access and Use Area (where information is conveyed about the availability of the unit of description)
  5. Allied Materials Area (where information is conveyed about materials having an important relationship to the unit of description)
  6. Note Area (where specialized information and information that cannot be accommodated in any of the other areas may be conveyed).
  7. Description Control Area (where information is conveyed on how, when and by whom the archival description was prepared).


All 26 elements covered by these general rules are available for use, but only a subset need be used in any given description. A very few elements are considered essential for international exchange of descriptive information:

  1. reference code;
  2. title;
  3. creator;
  4. date(s);
  5. extent of the unit of description; and
  6. level of description.

Examples throughout the text of ISAD(G) are illustrative and not prescriptive. They illuminate the provisions of the rules to which they are attached, rather than extend those provisions. Do not take the examples, or the form in which they are presented as instructions. To clarify the context, each example is followed by an indication of the level of description to which it pertains in italic and in parentheses. On the next line, the name of the institution that holds the material which the example illustrates and/or supplied the example is indicated, also in italic. Further explanatory note(s) may follow, also in italic, preceded by the word Note:. Do not confuse the indication of the level of description, the source of the example, and any notes with the example itself.


The extent to which a given archival description will incorporate more than the essential elements of information will vary depending on the nature of the unit of description.


Access points are based upon the elements of description. The value of access points is enhanced through authority control. Because of the importance of access points for retrieval, a separate ICA standard, International Standard Archival Authority Record for Corporate Bodies, Persons and Families: ISAAR(CPF), has been developed. ISAAR(CPF) gives general rules for the establishment of archival authority records that describe the corporate bodies, persons, and families that may be named as creators in descriptions of archival documents. (See Appendix A-2 for a schematic illustration of the relationship between descriptive and authority records.) Vocabularies and conventions to be used with other access points should be developed nationally, or separately for each language. The following ISO standards are useful when developing and maintaining controlled vocabularies: ISO 5963 Documentation — Methods for examining documents, determining their subject, and selecting indexing terms, ISO 2788 Documentation — Guidelines for the establishment and development of monolingual thesauri and ISO 999 Information and documentation — Guidelines for the content, organization and presentation of indexes.


In citing a published source in any element of description, follow the latest version of ISO 690 Documentation — Bibliographic references — Content, form and structure.

0. Glossary of terms associated with the general rules


The ability to make use of material from a fonds, usually subject to rules and conditions. Access point. A name, term, keyword, phrase or code that may be used to search, identify and locate an archival description.


An acquisition additional to a unit of description already held by a repository. Appraisal. The process of determining the retention period of records.

Archival description.

The creation of an accurate representation of a unit of description and its component parts,if any, by capturing, analyzing, organizing and recording information that serves to identify, manage, locate and explain archival materials and the context and records systems which produced it. This term also describes the products of the process.


The intellectual and physical processes and results of analyzing and organizing documents in accordance with archival principles.


The individual or corporate body responsible for the intellectual content of a document. Not to be confused with creators of records.

Authority control.

See the Glossary of ISAAR(CPF).


An artificial assemblage of documents accumulated on the basis of some common characteristic without regard to the provenance of those documents. Not to be confused with an archival fonds.

Corporate body.

An organization or group of persons that is identified by a particular name and that acts, or may act, as an entity.


The corporate body, family or person that created, accumulated and/or maintained records in the conduct of personal or corporate activity. Not be confused with collector.


The responsibility for the care of documents based on their physical possession. Custody does not always include legal ownership or the right to control access to records.


Recorded information regardless of medium or characteristics. (See also Record.)


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. A file is usually the basic unit within a record series.

Finding aid.

The broadest term to cover any description or means of reference made or received by an archives service in the course of establishing administrative or intellectual control over archival material.


The whole of the records, regardless of form or medium, organically created and/or accumulatedandusedbyaparticularperson,family,orcorporatebodyinthecourseofthat creator's activities and functions.


A class of documents distinguished on the basis of common physical (e.g., water colour, drawing) and/or intellectual (e.g., diary, journal, day book, minute book) characteristics of a document.

Formal title.

A title which appears prominently on or in the archival material being described. Item. The smallest intellectually indivisible archival unit, e.g., a letter, memorandum, report, photograph, sound recording.

Level of description.

The position of the unit of description in the hierarchy of the fonds.


The physical material, container, and/or carrier in or on which information is recorded (i.e., clay tablet, papyrus, paper, parchment, film, magnetic tape).


The relationship between records and the organizations or individuals that created, accumulated and/or maintained and used them in the conduct of personal or corporate activity.


Recorded information in any form or medium, created or received and maintained, by an organization or person in the transaction of business or the conduct of affairs.


Documents arranged in accordance with a filing system or maintained as a unit because they result from the same accumulation or filing process, or the same activity; have a particular form; or because of some other relationship arising out of their creation, receipt, or use. A series is also known as a records series.


A subdivision of a fonds containing a body of related records corresponding to administrative subdivisions in the originating agency or organization or, when that is not possible, to geographical, chronological, functional, or similar groupings of the material itself. When the creating body has a complex hierarchical structure, each sub-fonds has as many subordinate sub-fonds as are necessary to reflect the levels of the hierarchical structure of the primary subordinate administrative unit.

Supplied title.

A title supplied by the archivist for a unit of description which has no formal title.


A word, phrase, character, or group of characters that names a unit of description.

Unit of description.

A document or set of documents in any physical form, treated as an entity, and as such, forming the basis of a single description.

1. Multilevel description

1.1 Introduction

If the fonds as a whole is being described, it should be represented in one description, using the elements of description as outlined below in section 3 of this document. If description of the parts is required, they may be described separately also using the appropriate elements from section 3. The sum total of all descriptions thus obtained, linked in a hierarchy, as outlined in the model in the Appendix A-1, represents the fonds and those parts for which descriptions were made. For the purposes of these rules, this technique of description is called multilevel description.

Four fundamental rules apply when establishing a hierarchy of descriptions. They are set out in rules 2.1 to 2.4.

2. Multilevel description rules

2.1 Description from the general to the specific

To represent the context and the hierarchical structure of the fonds and its parts.
At the fonds level give information for the fonds as a whole. At the next and subsequent levels give information for the parts being described. Present the resulting descriptions in a hierarchical part-to-whole relationship proceeding from the broadest (fonds) to the more specific.

2.2 Information relevant to the level of description

To represent accurately the context and content of the unit of description.
Provide only such information as is appropriate to the level being described. For example, do not provide detailed file content information if the unit of description is a fonds; do not provide an administrative history for an entire department if the creator of a unit of description is a division or a branch.

2.3 Linking of descriptions

To make explicit the position of the unit of description in the hierarchy.
Link each description to its next higher unit of description, if applicable, and identify the level of description. (See 3.1.4.)

2.4 Non-repetition of information

To avoid redundancy of information in hierarchically related archival descriptions.
At the highest appropriate level, give information that is common to the component parts. Do not repeat information at a lower level of description that has already been given at a higher level.

3. Elements of description

3.1 Identity statement area

3.1.1. Referencecode(s)

To identify uniquely the unit of description and to provide a link to the description that represents it.
Record, as necessary for unique identification, the following elements:

  • the country code in accordance with the latest version of ISO 3166 Codes for the representation of names of countries;
  • the repository code in accordance with the national repository code standard or other unique location identifier;
  • a specific local reference code, control number, or other unique identifier.

All three elements must be present for the purpose of information exchange at the international level.

EAD tag:

3.1.2. Title

To name the unit of description.
Provide either a formal title or a concise supplied title in accordance with the rules of multilevel description and national conventions.

If appropriate, abridge a long formal title, but only if this can be done without loss of essential information.

For supplied titles, at the higher level, include the name of the creator of the records. At lower levels one may include, for example, the name of the author of the document and a term indicating the form of the material comprising the unit of description and, where appropriate, a phrase reflecting function, activity, subject, location, or theme.

Distinguish between formal and supplied titles according to national or language conventions.

EAD tag:
/ead/archdesc/did/unittitle[@label="Title of the Fonds"]

3.1.3. Date(s)

To identify and record the date(s) of the unit of description.
Record at least one of the following types of dates for the unit of description, as appropriate to the materials and the level of description:

  • Date(s) when records were accumulated in the transaction of business or the conduct of affairs;
  • Date(s) when documents were created. This includes the dates of copies, editions, or versions of, attachments to, or originals of items generated prior to their accumulation as records.

Identify the type of date(s) given. Other dates may be supplied and identified in accordance with national conventions.

Record as a single date or a range of dates as appropriate. A range of dates should always be inclusive unless the unit of description is a record-keeping system (or part thereof) in active use.

3.1.4. Level of description

To identify the level of arrangement of the unit of description.
Record the level of this unit of description.

3.1.5. Extent and medium of the unit of description (quantity, bulk, or size)

To identify and describe:

  1. the physical or logical extent and
  2. the medium of the unit of description.

Record the extent of the unit of description by giving the number of physical or logical units in arabic numerals and the unit of measurement. Give the specific medium (media) of the unit of description.

Alternatively, give the linear shelf space or cubic storage space of the unit of description. If the statement of extent for a unit of description is given in linear terms and additional information is desirable, add the additional information in parentheses.

EAD tag:

3.2 Context area

3.2.1. Name of creator(s)

To identify the creator (or creators) of the unit of description.
Record the name of the organization(s) or the individual(s) responsible for the creation, accumulation and maintenance of the records in the unit of description. The name should given in the standardized form as prescribed by international or national conventions in accordance with the principles of ISAAR(CPF).

EAD tag:

3.2.2. Administrative / Biographical history

To provide an administrative history of, or biographical details on, the creator (or creators) of the unit of description to place the material in context and make it better understood.
Record concisely any significant information on the origin, progress, development and work of the organization (or organizations) or on the life and work of the individual (or individuals)responsibleforthecreationoftheunitofdescription. Ifadditionalinformation is available in a published source, cite the source.

The Information Areas of ISAAR(CPF) suggest specific informational elements that may be included in this element.

For persons or families record information such as full names and titles, dates of birth and death, place of birth, successive places of domicile, activities, occupation or offices, original and any other names, significant accomplishments, and place of death.

For corporate bodies record information such as the official name, the dates of existence, enabling legislation, functions, purpose and development of the body, its administrative hierarchy, and earlier, variant or successive names.

3.2.3. Archival history

To provide information on the history of the unit of description that is significant for its authenticity, integrity and interpretation.
Record the successive transfers of ownership, responsibility and/or custody of the unit of description and indicate those actions, such as history of the arrangement, production of contemporary finding aids, re-use of the records for other purposes or software migrations, that have contributed to its present structure and arrangement. Give the dates of these actions, insofar as they can be ascertained. If the archival history is unknown, record that information.

Optionally, when the unit of description is acquired directly from the creator, do not record an archival history but rather, record this information as the Immediate source of acquisition. (See 3.2.4)

EAD tag:

3.2.4. Immediate source of acquisition or transfer

To identify the immediate source of acquisition or transfer.
Record the source from which the unit of description was acquired and the date and/or method of acquisition if any or all of this information is not confidential. If the source is unknown, record that information. Optionally, add accession numbers or codes.

EAD tag:

3.3 Content and Structure area

3.3.1. Scope and content

To enable users to judge the potential relevance of the unit of description.
Give a summary of the scope (such as, time periods, geography) and content, (such as documentary forms, subject matter, administrative processes) of the unit of description, appropriate to the level of description.

EAD tag:

3.3.2. Appraisal, destruction and scheduling information

To provide information on any appraisal, destruction and scheduling action.
Record appraisal, destruction and scheduling actions taken on or planned for the unit of description, especially if they may affect the interpretation of the material.

Where appropriate, record the authority for the action.

EAD tag:

3.3.3. Accruals

To inform the user of foreseen additions to the unit of description.
Indicate if accruals are expected. Where appropriate, give an estimate of their quantity and frequency.

EAD tag:

3.3.4. System of arrangement

To provide information on the internal structure, the order and/or the system of classification of the unit of description.
Specify the internal structure, order and/or the system of classification of the unit of description. Note how these have been treated by the archivist. For electronic records, record or reference information on system design.

Alternatively, include any of this information in the Scope and Content element (3.3.1) according to national conventions.

EAD tag:

3.4 Conditions of Access and Use area

3.4.1. Conditions governing access

To provide information on the legal status or other regulations that restrict or affect access to the unit of description.
Specify the law or legal status, contract, regulation or policy that affects access to the unit of description. Indicate the extent of the period of closure and the date at which the material will open when appropriate.

EAD tag:

3.4.2. Conditions governing reproduction

To identify any restrictions on reproduction of the unit of description.
Give information about conditions, such as copyright, governing the reproduction of the unit of description after access has been provided. If the existence of such conditions is unknown, record this. If there are no conditions, no statement is necessary.

EAD tag:

3.4.3. Language/scripts of material

To identify the language(s), script(s) and symbol systems employed in the unit of description.
Record the language(s) and/or script(s) of the materials comprising the unit of description. Note any distinctive alphabets, scripts, symbol systems or abbreviations employed.

Optionally, also include the appropriate ISO codes for language(s) (ISO 639-1 and ISO 639- 2: International Standards for Language Codes) or script(s), (ISO 15924: International Standard for Names of Scripts).

EAD tag:
ead/archdesc[@level="fonds"]/did/langmaterial[@label="Taal van het materiaal"]/language

3.4.4. Physical characteristics and technical requirements

To provide information about any important physical characteristics or technical requirements that affect use of the unit of description.
Indicate any important physical conditions, such as preservation requirements, that affect the use of the unit of description. Note any software and/or hardware required to access the unit of description.

EAD tag:

3.4.5. Finding aids

To identify any finding aids to the unit of description.
Give information about any finding aids that the repository or records creator may have that provide information relating to the context and contents of the unit of description. If appropriate, include information on where to obtain a copy.

3.5 Allied materials area

3.5.1. Existence and location of originals

To indicate the existence, location, availability and/or destruction of originals where the unit of description consists of copies.
If the original of the unit of description is available (either in the institution or elsewhere) record its location, together with any significant control numbers. If the originals no longer exist, or their location is unknown, give that information.

EAD tag:

3.5.2. Existence and location of copies

To indicate the existence, location and availability of copies of the unit of description.
If the copy of the unit of description is available (either in the institution or elsewhere) record its location, together with any significant control numbers.

EAD tag:

3.5.3. Related units of description

To identify related units of description.
Record information about units of description in the same repository or elsewhere that are related by provenance or other association(s). Use appropriate introductory wording and explain the nature of the relationship . If the related unit of description is a finding aid, use the finding aids element of description (3.4.5) to make the reference to it.

EAD tag:

3.5.4. Publication note

To identify any publications that are about or are based on the use, study, or analysis of the unit of description.
Record a citation to, and/or information about a publication that is about or based on the use, study, or analysis of the unit of description. Include references to published facsimiles or transcriptions.

EAD tag:

3.6 Notes area

3.6.1. Note

To provide information that cannot be accommodated in any of the other areas.
Record specialized or other important information not accommodated by any of the defined elements of description.

EAD tag:

3.7 Description control area

3.7.1. Archivist's Note

To explain how the description was prepared and by whom.
Record notes on sources consulted in preparing the description and who prepared it.

EAD tag:

3.7.2. Rules or Conventions

To identify the protocols on which the description is based.
Record the international, national and/or local rules or conventions followed in preparing the description.

EAD tag:

3.7.3. Date(s) of descriptions

To indicate when this description was prepared and/or revised.
Record the date(s) the entry was prepared and/or revised.