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Standard descriptions

Most professionally-managed archive collections are catalogued to the (General) International Standard of Archival Description, or ISAD(G). You don't need to know too much about ISAD(G), other than it allows archivists across the world to catalogue collections to a common standard, which means catalogues can easily be shared.

ISAD(G) lists sets of information known as 'fields'. Together, the fields make up a catalogue entry that describes a collection, series, file or item. 

When a field is completed for a particular level, that information applies to every level lower than that, unless otherwise stated. For example, you may fill in the ‘creator’ field at collection level, so that researchers know who created the collection, but you would not need to fill this in at any of the lower levels.

Compulsory fields

Although there are many different fields you can use, you only need 6 compulsory fields to make your records comply with ISAD(G).

Reference number

This is a number that reflects each level at which the record is catalogued. For example, ‘HS/1/1/2’ - ‘HS’ is the collection, then each number after that represents a series, a file and an item. For more about catalogue levels, read the cataloguing process page.


This is the name of the record, taken either from the record itself or assigned by the cataloguer. Keep the title short but meaningful.


This is the level of description being referred to. This could be ‘collection’, ‘series’, ‘file’ or ‘item’. For more about catalogue levels, read the cataloguing process page.


This is the date or estimated date when the record was created. Use the exact date if you know it (eg 23 April 1985), otherwise enter:

  • The year (1985)
  • An estimated date range of up to five years (c.1983–1987)
  • A decade (1980s)
  • A time period (early 20th century)


This field describes how much physical or digital material there is eg:

  • 1 box
  • 2 folders
  • 1 photograph
  • 4.3 mb file


The creator is the person or organisation that created the item. Use the first name and surname, eg ‘Helen Smith’. You may only need this field for the collection level catalogue entry.

Other useful fields


A good description helps the researcher decide whether the record is going to be useful for their research. It should be a short piece of text (2-3 sentences) that describes the content and significance of the record. Use neutral language, and avoid words like ‘interesting’ or ‘important’.

For example: 'A hardback A5 notebook, containing handwritten notes on the history of notable buildings and landmarks in the village of Market Langthwaite. Entries are dated from 2nd March 1986 to 14th January 1987.’

Copyright holder

This is usually the name of the person who originally held copyright of the item (eg the original photographer). If you don't know it leave the copyright field blank or write ‘unknown’. See the Copyright page.


This indicates whether a collection or part of a collection is ‘open’ or ‘closed’ to researchers. If a collection is closed, record the date it was closed and how long it should be closed for.

You should mark any material containing personal information about living people as ‘closed’. Donors may also ask for a collection to be temporarily closed.

File name

Use a file name for identifying digital records. Record the full file name plus the file format, eg Oral_history_recording_24.WAV.


This refers to a shelf location in your storage area. This field is for your use only - researchers do not need to know locations. Give each shelf a unique code or reference.

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