The CRS System – the Basis for Descriptive Work in the National Archives

January 2004

1.2, July 2011

1. Executive summary

The National Archives of Australia organises its holdings and makes them accessible and known through the Commonwealth Record Series (CRS) system, the archival control system that classifies and controls Commonwealth records. The system offers a structured approach to gathering and presenting information about the records and their context. It allows staff and researchers to identify, retrieve and use records in the Archives collection. It makes it possible to establish whether or not a record exists in the collection and to locate and provide access to it, regardless of its nature or perceived importance. A system such as CRS, with its data structures, the links between all its elements, and its basis in administrative and recordkeeping practice, enables searching of collection data with breadth and precision.

The CRS system allows the Archives to manage disposal, transfer, lending, access, storage and preservation.

2. The CRS system and administrative change

The CRS system provides a way of applying the archival principles of respect for provenance and the original order of records even though complex and ongoing administrative change may affect the agencies controlling the records. Administrative change is the term that describes the process of creating, splitting, amalgamating and abolishing agencies, and of transferring functions between them, a routine occurrence within the Australian government. Administrative change results in ‘records following functions’ when the latter are transferred from agency to agency (or agencies).

The CRS system allows the Archives and its users to keep track of Australian government agencies, when and how they change, the records series they produce, and individual items in those series. It does this by registering and describing each of these elements in the Archives’ collection management system, RecordSearch.

3. Elements of the CRS system

There are five primary elements in the CRS system:

  • organisations
  • agencies
  • persons
  • series
  • items.

The first three elements provide provenance, or the administrative context, and the last two the records context. The system is designed around the record series. In the CRS system the series is the basic unit of control. It is the basis for the identification, arrangement, control, description and analysis of records. A series can be either one record or thousands, can comprise all types and formats of records, and be from one or many agencies.

A series is a group of records created and kept in the same order, resulting from the same filing or accumulation process and/or documenting a similar function, format or informational content. In structured records environments, a series equates to a group of records created and controlled using a particular control sequence or particular multiple control sequences. Being based upon the record series, the CRS system is consistent with the principle of original order. And because records in a series have been created or accumulated together by the same agency or agencies, it is consistent with the principle of respect for provenance or multi-provenance.

Given the high rate of administrative change in the Australian government, the series is the most stable element of its recordkeeping regime, and the element to which all the other key elements of the system can and should be connected. Whereas agencies can be created and later abolished, series often continue to exist and the items in them continue to accumulate despite these changes. The CRS system is a response to the challenges posed by the dynamic relationships between series and agencies and, indirectly, the organisations which created them.

4. The relationships between the CRS elements

The value of the CRS system (and similar series-based systems) lies in the fact that, unlike other archival systems, it keeps information about series quite separately from information about the agencies or people which create them. But, crucially, it records the administrative context of record creation through the links between its elements, most importantly between the records and their provenance, such as the links between series and their creating or recording agency (or agencies), or between series and persons.

The system is designed to show the complex provenance of series which have been created by a succession of agencies or by more than one agency at the same time. It can show which agency created records in a series, and when. It also lists all the series recorded by a particular agency, and when each began and ended. In many cases this will show that series have been created by multiple agencies. The system also identifies which agency owns and controls a series at any time, regardless of whether or not it has ever actually added to the series as a recording agency. The CRS system is therefore capable of representing a complex web of relationships.

As well as linking a series to its recording agencies, the CRS system can be used to record more detailed administrative context covering the activities and subjects documented by each series. It can equally document a series’ recordkeeping context. For example, it provides links between series and their previous and subsequent series, controlling and controlled series, and related series and items.

Through this web of links it can help locate records even if they are not registered on RecordSearch at the item level. It is also capable of describing records wherever they exist, including current records in agencies, without affecting the recordkeeping system they are part of. So the system is applicable to all Australian government records, regardless of their location.

As a scheme offering a structured and systematic approach to gathering and presenting information about records and their context in the form of metadata, the CRS system complements other metadata schemes. For example, elements in the Recordkeeping Metadata Standard for Commonwealth Agencies can be sourced from CRS metadata elements, and vice versa.

5. Use of the CRS system – the importance of context

Why are the system elements, the metadata and the links between them, so important? First, for anyone – Archives staff or the public – to understand a record fully, knowledge of the context in which it was created and used is needed. Knowing which agency or person created a record, when and why it was created, and what other records relate to it or were created in the same sequence, enables users to know what the record is really about, determine its relevance to any subject, and decide how accurate and complete it is. Some or all of this information may not actually be apparent in the record itself, but can be established through the interlinked components of the CRS system.

Second, this contextual information is an aid to finding records in the Archives collection. All the information gathered about Commonwealth records and their context is held in, and can be retrieved from, RecordSearch. This has great benefits for both the Archives itself and for researchers using the collection.

Using the CRS framework in RecordSearch, searchers can move hierarchically, laterally and/or chronologically from a piece of information known to them to details of items in the collection relevant to their interests. The system provides a range of search pathways. Searches can be for series and items, series and provenance (agency) and any other combination of RecordSearch metadata elements, including dates, location and control numbers (of agencies, persons, series or items), as well as keywords. RecordSearch enables researchers to navigate between items, series and their provenance without needing to understand the full complexity of the CRS system. Structured searches which use the features of the system as their framework can provide precise results, when searching by keywords, which may not correspond to the terms used by the original record creators to describe their records, fails.

6. The National Archives’ endorsement of the CRS system

The CRS system is an indispensable tool for the achievement of the Archives’ objectives, and it continues to endorse, use and maintain the system as the basis for the archival descriptive work it undertakes. At the same time the Archives is open to the development and adaptation of the system in response to changing circumstances and requirements (such as the challenges posed by digital recordkeeping). The CRS system is widely recognised within the profession, nationally and internationally, as a highly effective descriptive methodology capable of the flexibility required and compatible with archival best practice.

Copyright National Archives of Australia 2019