The National Archives Catalog

Archival Materials and Related Elements


How the Archival Materials Elements Work

These elements are used to describe many different hierarchical levels of archival materials from record groups to items as well as all formats of archival materials from paper to electronic records to artifacts. In addition, there are elements for archival creators and for digital objects.

When describing records, you will associate descriptions of archival materials with their creators to put the archival materials in context. Every series description must be placed in a record group or collection, and must also link to a creator. Creator descriptions can link to multiple record descriptions. Every item or file unit description must link up to a series description. These linkages will allow us to maintain the hierarchy and provenance of records.

When digital objects, such as digital reproductions of photographs, are included, they also are linked to the archival description. One archival item or file unit can have many digital objects. For example, each scanned page of a letter would be a digital object, and each would be attached to the archival description.

Archival Materials Elements

The elements used to describe archival materials are divided into three categories:

  • the intellectual elements
  • the physical occurrence elements
  • the media occurrence elements

Intellectual Elements

The intellectual elements describe the content of the archival materials, including the title, arrangement, function and use, scope and content, dates, control numbers, access and use restrictions, and other access points such as geography, language, subject, and record types. According to A Glossary for Archivists, Manuscript Curators, and Records Managers (Society of American Archivists [SAA] Glossary), an access point is "a name, term, phrase, or code that is used to search, identify, or locate a record, file, or document."

Physical Occurrence Elements

The physical occurrence elements describe the physical characteristics for each copy or version of the archival materials, including the amount, containers, location, and reference unit. The physical characteristics also include the purpose behind each copy or version: e.g., is it used for preservation, reproduction, or reference.

Media Occurrence Elements

Within each physical occurrence, the characteristics of the physical media also may be described. If the archival materials consist of a variety of physical media, each medium is described in its own media occurrence. The media occurrence elements include the media type, color, dimensions, piece count, and reproduction count, as well as the format and processes used to make the media itself.

A key concept here is that a particular physical occurrence can have many media occurrences. If a physical occurrence includes multiple media types, or if the media types come in different sizes, exist on more than one base, or were produced by more than one process, etc., then all media occurrence elements must be repeated as a group to capture the different media occurrences. For example, a physical occurrence of a series of records may contain a preservation set of photographs and paper records. The photographs are one media occurrence and the paper records are another. This same series may have a duplicate set of photographs and paper records used for reference -- a second physical occurrence. The photographs and paper records of the second physical occurrence would also have separate media occurrence descriptions.

Archival Creator Elements

Separate sets of elements are used to describe archival creators. The records creators can be individuals or organizations (agencies or units within an agency.) The individual creator elements include names, birth and death dates, and biography. The organizational creator elements include names, administrative history, establish and abolish dates, function, and jurisdiction. Each series description will identify a creator or creators of the archival materials and this identification will provide the link to the creator description.

For the elements used to describe organizational creators, the guidance indicates how to form names, write histories, and index them via access points. What is not apparent from the element guidance is that although an organization may undergo a reorganization that results in a name change, it remains essentially the same organization. When this is the case, the Organization Names that represent the organization share an Administrative History Note and are considered "minor" predecessor/successors of each other. However, when a transfer of functions to an entirely new organization occurs, that successor organization will require a new Administrative History Note.

The following general rules will help you decide when Organization Names should be linked to the same history and when a successor should link to a new Administrative History Note. Organization Names will share the same history when:

  • An organization's hierarchical placement changes due to a reorganization, but the functions and name remain relatively intact; or,
  • An organization's name changes without an accompanying significant adjustment of its functions.

However, when an organization is abolished and its functions are transferred to an existing or new organization, the new Organization Name should not be linked to the existing Administrative History Note and a new note should be written.

Levels of Archival Description

Archival records are described at various levels of aggregation:

  • Record Group/Collection
  • Series
  • File Unit
  • Item

Record Group/Collection

The highest grouping of archival materials will be a record group or collection. At NARA, both function as a means for facilitating administrative control of holdings.

The SAA Glossary defines a record group as "A body of organizationally related records established on the basis of provenance by an archives for control purposes." NARA has defined a record group as "a major archival unit that comprises the records of a large organization, such as a Government bureau or independent agency."

The SAA Glossary defines a collection as "An artificial accumulation of documents brought together on the basis of some characteristic (e.g. means of acquisition, creator, subject, language, medium, form, name of collector) without regard to the provenance of the documents." The Presidential libraries often organize their archival materials by collections, which primarily fall into three categories: donated historical materials (relating to all Presidencies, Hoover-Bush), Presidential records (applying to Presidencies since Reagan), and Presidential historical materials (Nixon.)


The next highest grouping of archival materials is the series level. The SAA Glossary defines a series as "file units or documents arranged in accordance with a filing system or maintained as a unit because they result from the same accumulation or filing process, the same function, or the same activity; have a particular form; or because of some other relationship arising out of their creation, receipt, or use."

File Unit

The third grouping is the file unit level. The SAA Glossary defines a file unit as "an organized unit (folder, volume, etc.) of documents grouped together either for current use or in the process of archival arrangement." For NARA's descriptive practices, the file unit is the intellectual handling of the record item, which may or may not be the physical handling. In other words, a folder does not necessarily equal a file unit. For example, a case file may be in several physical folders, but is described as one file unit. For electronic records, the definition of a file unit level may be difficult. A file does not necessarily refer to a tape or to a particular data file.


The lowest grouping in the hierarchy is the item level, which is an individual item or a specific record. The SAA Glossary defines an item as "the smallest indivisible archival unit (e.g. a letter, memorandum, report, leaflet, or photograph." NARA would add that it is the smallest intellectually indivisible item. For example, a book or record album would be described as an item, but the individual chapters of the book or the discs or songs that make up the album would not be described as items.

Digital Objects Elements

There are separate elements for describing digital objects. Digital objects are copies of NARA's archival holdings, such as textual records, still pictures, artifacts, and moving images, that have been digitized and made available online. Digital objects are linked to archival descriptions at the item or file unit level. Each archival item or file unit can have one or more digital objects, and each of these objects can be associated with the description of the archival item or file unit. For example, a double-sided one-page letter would have two digital objects; each digital object would be linked to the item level description of that letter.

Currently, standards have been developed for digital images only. Other formats, such as sound and moving image files, will be addressed in the future. All NARA imaging projects should adhere to the policies established by the directive NARA 816, Digitizing Activities for Enhanced Access.

The Framework

The framework for each element consists of three things:

  • a table of characteristics
  • definition, purpose, relationship, and guidance statements
  • examples, when appropriate

The table of characteristics contains information about the data structure of the element and the rules that affect how it can be used. The definition, purpose, relationship, and guidance statements explain what the element is, what it does, how it relates to other elements, and how to use it. References to elements are in bold. Examples are shown in gray-shaded boxes and are included to illustrate how information should be entered.

The Characteristics

The characteristics of each element may include:

  • whether or not the element is mandatory
  • whether or not the element is repeatable
  • the data type and length for the element
  • whether or not an authority source is used to enter information in the element
  • the level(s) at which the element is available
  • the type of digital object the element applies to
  • whether or not the element is for audiovisual records only
  • whether or not the element can be available to the public

What is Mandatory?

Mandatory means information must be entered in the element for a description to be considered complete. The mandatory elements are the minimum description for archival materials. Some elements are mandatory at certain levels of description but not at others. Some elements have relationships that require them to be used with other elements; those requirements are described in the relationship statements, not in the mandatory section of the table of characteristics.

What is Repeatable?

Repeatable means information may be entered more than once in one intellectual description, physical occurrence, or media occurence. For example, because a series can have more than one Former Record Group or Topical Subject Reference, these are repeatable elements. Because a series can have only one Record Group Number or Title, these are non-repeatable elements.

What is a Data Type?

There are four primary data types:

  • variable character length
  • long
  • numeric
  • date

Variable character length means the information can be any kind of character, number or symbol. Long means the character length can be up to 2 gigabytes. Numeric means the information can only be numbers. Commas cannot be used in numeric elements. The identifier "NW-338-99-005" could not be entered in a numeric data type element because it contains both letters and symbols. Date means the information can only be in a date format (mm/dd/yyyy). Where appropriate, field length limitations are shown in parentheses after the data type.

What is an Authority Source?

In some elements information cannot be entered as free-text, but must be selected from an authority source, such as an authority file, authority list, or thesaurus. Authority sources are used to ensure information is entered into an element consistently to facilitate sorting or searching. Some of the authority sources are well-known, highly reputable products from the cataloging field, such as the Getty Thesaurus of Geographic Names® (TGN) or the Library of Congress Name Authority File (LCNAF). Some of the authority sources are lists that have been developed by NARA to specifically meet our needs, such as the Specific Access Restriction Authority List or Reference Unit Authority List.

What is Level Available?

Level available indicates the hierarchical level of description for which the element may be used: the record group or collection, series, file unit, or item. If a level is not named, then the element may not be used to describe archival materials at that level.

What is Type?

Type indicates what digital object type (e.g. image, sound, moving image) the element can be applied to.

What is Audiovisual Only?

"A/V Only" means the element may only be used to describe audiovisual materials. Audiovisual materials are moving images and sound recordings. Moving images are defined as: "A sequence of images that presents the illusion of motion or movement as they are advanced. Examples include motion pictures, videos, and other theatrical releases, shorts, news footage (including television newscasts and theatrical newsreels), trailers, outtakes, screen tests, training films, educational material, commercials, spot announcements, home movies, amateur footage, television broadcasts, and unedited footage. These may be in electronic form."

Sound recordings are defined as: "Digital or analog recordings for audio purposes only. Examples include radio broadcasts, public service or advertising spot announcements, recordings of meetings, oral histories, and speeches." "A/V only" elements can not be used for maps, charts, and photographs.

What is Public Element?

Public Element indicates whether or not the element and its contents can be made available to the general public. A small number of the elements are not appropriate for public display because they are used only for administrative purposes.