National Description Policy

March 2008

1.2, July 2011

1. Executive summary

The main purpose of the National Archives of Australia‘s descriptive work is to facilitate public access to the archival records it holds.

The main mechanism for facilitating access is the entry of data about record items onto the collection management system, RecordSearch. This enables researchers to search directly for the person, event or place they are interested in.

Archives staff also create and update agency, person and series registrations on RecordSearch to enhance understanding and control of the Archives‘ holdings and to improve access to them.

While the greater part of the Archives’ holdings comprises significant records, because of the quantity involved, it is not possible to describe the entire holdings at the agency, person, series and item levels in the foreseeable future. The Archives therefore describes only those records that are highly significant and/or are likely to be heavily used by the public. In some situations where descriptive work is required to enable urgent preservation treatment, records that are not as highly significant and not as likely to be as heavily used by the public as other records that do not require urgent preservation treatment, may be described.

The Archives measures the descriptive work by the number of items, series, agency and person registrations that have been created or enhanced in accordance with descriptive standards.

2. Purpose and scope

The policy is intended to inform planning for, and guide staff engaged in, description work across the Archives.

3. What does the policy apply to?

The policy applies to descriptive work comprising enhancement or creation of agency, person, series and item registrations in RecordSearch.

4. Policy statement

The National Archives identifies, describes, preserves and makes accessible those records created by Australian Government agencies and by significant individuals associated with the Commonwealth Government that form the archival resources of the nation. It describes records using the Commonwealth Record Series (CRS) system of archival control. A fundamental policy of CRS is that all records in the Archives‘ custody must be linked to a series1.

The Archives describes records for two reasons:

  • to establish control over the records and establish when, how, why and by whom the records were created; and
  • to facilitate access to them.

Records descriptions are the basis of RecordSearch which can be searched online at the Archives website,

By describing the records it holds, the Archives ensures that Australians have access to a national archival collection that assists them to understand their heritage and democracy.

5. Policy context

The Archives has registered more than 9600 Commonwealth agencies, 750 Commonwealth Persons, and 98,000 series. This means that its entire holdings, occupying more than 370 kilometres of shelf space, are controlled – that is, it is known when, how, why and by whom the records were created.

Some of the agencies, persons and series that have been registered require further descriptive work to enhance their registrations. While all registrations have the basic mandatory registration requirements, some require enhancement in order to provide a comprehensive description of the agency, person or series. Such enhanced registrations will facilitate a better understanding of the Archives’ holdings.

At the item level, the Archives created entries in RecordSearch for approximately 23 per cent of its holdings, and a considerable amount of descriptive work remains to be done to enhance control of its holdings at this level significantly.

Entry of item registrations is one of the main ways the Archives facilitates access to the records it holds. It enables researchers to search directly for the person, event, place or topic that they are interested in. The growing demand for online access to the Archives’ holdings also necessitates that item registrations as an item can only be digitised if it has been registered and described.

6. Mechanisms for implementation

Given the extent of the Archives’ holdings, and the amount of descriptive work that is required, identifying the ‘best’ records to describe is a priority. The best records will be those records that enable the Archives to fulfil to the greatest extent its role of facilitating access.

The priorities for description are those records that best meet the following five criteria:

  1. The records are confirmed as having a status of ‘Retain as National Archives’.
  2. The records are either in the open period (available for public access) or due to enter the open period or otherwise available for public access.
  3. The records are either heavily used or have the potential to be heavily used by the public.
  4. The records are highly significant. They relate to either a key historical event or person, or illustrate the workings of Australian democracy.
  5. The records require descriptive work to enable either preservation treatment or digitisation.
  6. 6.1 Confirmed as ‘Retain as National Archives’

    In 2000, the Archives changed its approach to appraisal, introducing a new disposal status of ‘Retain as National Archives’ (RNA). Records that now have this status have been either sentenced as RNA under a records authority issued since 2000; or otherwise confirmed as RNA2.

    Only records with this disposal status are suitable for descriptive work as this disposal status indicates that the records are of archival value and should be retained permanently.

    6.2 Records are in the open period

    Generally, records are available for public access after 20 years (this known as the 'open period'). As a primary objective of descriptive work is to facilitate public access to the records, only those records that are either in the open period (or very close to it) or are otherwise available for public access are described. This maximises the extent to which accessibility is increased.

    6.3 Heavy use

    The Archives is responsible for providing access to its collection to the Australian public. To maximise accessibility, the Archives describes records that are heavily used (which can be measured) or have the potential to be heavily used by the public.

    6.4 Highly significant records

    The Archives is responsible for ensuring that 'Australians have access to a national archival collection that assists them to understand their heritage and democracy'. The Archives therefore describes those records that document highly significant historical events and persons, and that illustrate the workings of democracy in Australia.

    Examples of highly significant records include Cabinet records, records of Royal Commissions and Inquiries, and the central correspondence files of the major policy agencies.

    6.5 Descriptive work required for other processes

    Descriptive work is often required before other archival work, especially preservation and digitisation, can be undertaken. For example, for control purposes the Archives’ digital preservation process requires that records are described and entered at item level on RecordSearch before their preservation.

    The type and extent of descriptive work – the combination of agency, person and series registrations and item-level entry – performed on a specific set of records will depend upon the nature of the records, how those records meet the criteria for description and the resources available to perform the work. For some records, only enhanced agency and series descriptions may be suitable. In other cases, only series enhancement and item entry may be suitable.

Appendix 1


The CRS system comprises four main entities – Commonwealth Agency, Commonwealth Person, Series and Items.

Agencies are distinct and recognisable bodies that have responsibility for carrying out administrative functions. They create records to document those functions. Agencies can be head, state or local offices of Commonwealth government departments, statutory authorities, courts, or tribunals. The Archives registers agencies with a CA (Commonwealth Agency) number.

Commonwealth Persons are significant individuals who have had a close association with the Commonwealth, such as prime ministers, senior public servants, and governors-general. These people create records in the same way as an agency. The Archives registers persons with a CP (Commonwealth Person) number.

Commonwealth Agencies and Commonwealth Persons create records in a series. A series is a group of records that has resulted from the same filing or accumulation process (with the same numerical, alphabetical, chronological or other identifiable sequence) or which has a similar format or information content. A series can comprise a single item or many items. The Archives identifies series with a series number. The series number is usually in the form of a letter prefix followed by a number, such as A1.

Items are the individual files, volumes, maps, photographs, films or any other units that make up a series. In most cases the Archives identifies each item by the number or symbol that the agency used when it created the item.

Performance measures

There will be two performance measures that will indicate the success of the Archives’ descriptive work:

  • the number of new and enhanced item registrations entered onto RecordSearch in accordance with the Archives’ descriptive standards, and
  • the number of new and enhanced agencies, persons, and series entered onto RecordSearch in accordance with Archives’ descriptive standards.


1 Commonwealth Record Series:

2 Since July 2000 records authorities have been developed by considering the core business of the agency. What were previously known as records disposal authorities had been developed from appraisal of the value of groups of records themselves (rather than the functions or business they documented, as now).

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