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The Commonwealth Record Series (CRS) Manual

3.  Overview of the CRS System

On this page:

3.1.  Background
3.1.1  Purpose of an archival control system
3.1.2  The Accession System - an earlier  archival control system
3.2.  The CRS System
3.2.1  Archival principles
3.2.2  Structure
3.2.3.  Definitions  Organisation  Agency  Person  Series  Item  Other terms
3.2.4.  Registration and description  Relationships
3.2.5  Major contextual links in the CRS System
3.2.6.  Accessioning  Accession records   
3.2.7.  Finding aids  Revision, updating and cancellation of registrations  Availability of information
3.3 Last updated

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3.1.  Background

3.1.1.  Purpose of an archival control system

Any archives needs a control system to help manage, locate, retrieve, describe and make accessible the records with which it deals. An archival control system, therefore, performs a number of important functions both from an internal management perspective and from a researcher's perspective.

The National Archives, under s.6 of The Archives Act 1983, has powers to:

These and other activities benefit from the application of a consistent, integrated, and systematic approach to archival control.

The broad aims of the National Archives in its choice of archival control system are to have a system that:

3.1.2.  The Accession System - an earlier archival control system

Before the mid 1960s, the Archives and its predecessors generally used a control system called the Accession System. The Accession System was first introduced in the 1940s. From the mid 1960s, it was gradually replaced by the Commonwealth Record Series (CRS) System and was finally superseded in 1984 when the New South Wales, Queensland and Western Australian offices adopted the CRS System for all incoming transfers of records.

Although the CRS System has been used since 1984 for all new registration, transfer, arrangement and description work, as at 1999 about half of the records in the Archives' custody were still controlled under the Accession System.

The methodology used to control records under the Accession System is quite different from that used under the CRS System, so an understanding of the characteristics of both systems is necessary for effective exploitation of the Archive's national finding aids and control documentation.

The approach used in the Accession System was to allocate an accession number to an accumulation of records (known as an accession) transferred by an agency at the one time. An accession could comprise one or more whole series or portions of series, each of which was treated as an 'Accession series' and numbered separately within the accession. Under the Accession System it was possible for parts of the same series to be transferred at different times by different agencies, with each part being allocated a different and unrelated control number. Relating the different parts of a series was achieved through cross-referencing.

Under the CRS System, the record series is the basis for the arrangement, control, description and analysis of records. Each series is registered and controlled as a separate entity with links to its provenance: that is, its recording and controlling agencies or persons. The series number is applied to all parts of a series in the Archives custody, even if transferred at different times. Moreover, a series may be identified and registered without any records from it necessarily being in the Archives' custody.

Early policies of the Archives required the intellectual and physical conversion of records from the Accession System (and several experimental systems) to the CRS System. In many instances during the transitional phase, Accession series were converted to CRS System series on paper only, without any physical reorganisation of the records concerned or change in physical control. In other cases, both intellectual and physical conversions were achieved.

Since the comprehensive automation of finding aids and control documentation in the mid 1980s, there has been a concerted effort to make the documentation for records still controlled under the Accession System conform to standards designed for the CRS System. This has provided consistent access points for all records, regardless of the control system used, and reduced the need for intellectual and physical conversion. While Accession System series have not been rearranged to conform to the CRS System, nevertheless accessibility has significantly improved for records still controlled under the Accession System.

For more detail on the Accession System see: Mark Wagland, The Australian Archives Technical Training Scheme - Archival Control Systems, Open Learning Institute, Charles Sturt University, Bathurst, NSW, 1992.

3.2.  The CRS System

The Commonwealth Record Series (CRS) System is the archival control system the Archives has used since the early 1960s to classify and control Commonwealth records. As a metadata scheme, it offers a structured and systematic approach to gathering and presenting information about records and their context. The CRS System facilitates both intellectual and physical control.

3.2.1.  Archival principles

The CRS System, like the control systems or archival metadata schemes of most archival institutions, is based on the application of two related archival principles. The first, respect for provenance, stresses the need for archivists to establish and document the administrative or biographical context in which records were created and maintained. The second, respect for original order, stresses the need to maintain records in the order of their creation and storage in active use. Even within electronic recordkeeping systems, it is important to maintain the data that governs the accumulation of records for evidential purposes.

Respect for provenance is based on the belief that records can only be understood properly if the administrative context in which they were created, maintained and used is known. One of the major tasks of the CRS System, therefore, is to link series to the agencies or persons which created those records. In many cases, a succession of agencies have participated in the creation of a body of records over a number of years. This fact - known as multiple provenance - is reflected in CRS System documentation.

The documentation of provenance provides information about the context within which records have been (and continue to be) created, and the context through which records can be understood and retrieved. Information on provenance enables a user to identify, in the light of administrative history, the particular agencies which are likely to have dealt with the matters relevant to their inquiry.

Respect for original order involves an attempt by archival institutions to replicate the way in which records were assembled by the creating agency or person. The original order of the records can be the key to an intelligent appreciation of a body of records by both staff and users. Maintaining original order can be of considerable importance in preserving the evidential value of archival records.

In earlier days, the National Archives tried to physically locate all the items within a series in their order of creation. When additional items were transferred into archival custody, extensive reshelving (known as intersorting) was often required to physically maintain original order. Shelf space needed to be set aside to allow for additional transfers. The current approach is to ensure that information about original order is preserved, thereby allowing that order to be restored as and when required, without necessarily storing the record series together, thereby providing the flexibility to maximise storage efficiency.

Variations in the disposal status and security classification of the items within a series, and the need for special storage conditions for various record formats, such as photographs, films, sound recordings or computer tapes all contribute to the physical scattering of a series in archival custody. But as long the original order can be reconstructed on paper, or on computer, the original order will still be respected.

A key assumption underpinning the CRS System is that knowledge of the recordkeeping and administrative contexts from which records emerged is vital for the proper interpretation, authentication and evaluation of records and the evidence and information they contain. To obtain and record such knowledge simply and efficiently, the CRS System was designed as a system that could be superimposed on an existing records regime without unduly disturbing or obscuring that existing regime.

Considerable emphasis is placed on documenting the source of records within the recordkeeping systems of agencies and persons, and the contemporary mechanisms they used for control and retrieval. Emphasis is also given to documenting, by way of brief administrative histories, the particular agencies or persons that recorded or kept the records, and those that have continuing responsibility for them.

The series, as defined in the CRS System, has its basis in, and is a natural product of, the creator's recordkeeping system. The creator's own recordkeeping metadata, such as record identifiers, titles, finding aids and control records, are retained for archival purposes. This can be important for verifying the authenticity of particular records by pointing to other, contemporaneous records in which they are referenced. It also allows the original recordkeeping context to be preserved, to some degree, and permits records to be viewed and appreciated, today, as they might have been by a person at the time the records were in active use.

3.2.2.  Structure

The CRS System is based on the identification and documentation of several records and administrative entities. These are:


For administrative context and provenance control Organisation
For records control Series
For management of groups of items
within a series in custody
Series accession


The basic structure of the CRS System can be represented hierarchically as follows.

CRS Structure

3.2.3.  Definitions

The following definitions are used in the CRS System.  Organisation

An organisation is a whole government, learned society, church or company that is independent (or broadly autonomous), for example, the Commonwealth of Australia.

Organisations are a means of representing the high level administrative context of agencies. The business and functions of an organisation are regarded as being exercised through the agencies it controls.

Each organisation is identified by a control number, eg

CO 1,  Commonwealth of Australia, 1901-

CO 31,  Colony of Norfolk Island, 1856-1914

CO 91,  Australian Constitutional Convention, 1973-1983  Agency

An agency is a distinct and recognisable body, which has responsibility for carrying out administrative functions.

An agency will usually have:

Each agency is identified by a control number, eg

CA 12,  Prime Minister's Department, 1911-1971

CA 3167,  Overseas Internees Investigation Board, 1944-1949

CA 2641,  Royal Commission on Television, 1953-1954  Person

A person is someone who created or accumulated records during their association with the Commonwealth, but whose records were not maintained in the recordkeeping systems of the associated agencies.

A person is usually registered in the CRS System when their personal records are transferred to the Archives.

Each person is identified by a control number, eg

CP 23,  Rt Hon Viscount Stanley Melbourne BRUCE, PC, CH, MC, 1883-1967

CP 555,  The Hon James MUIRHEAD, QC, 1925-  Series

A series is a group of records created or maintained by an agency or person that, regardless of currency, value or present custody:

Similarity of format is secondary to the accumulation process, as the same accumulation or system of arrangement and control can produce unique electronic and paper-based records.

For control system purposes, a series may consist of a single item, eg a diary, register or file, if it is one of a kind.

Each series is identified by a control number, eg

A461, Correspondence files, multiple number series (third system), 1934-1950

A29, Copies of speeches made by the Governor-General to Parliament, 1902-1917

AWM31, Troopship passenger lists, 1915-1920

J164, Quarantine roster, 1920-1937

The term `series' is also used loosely within the Archives to refer to collective units of description brought together under fundamentally different arrangement and control criteria, eg former Accession System series and unserialised accessions. The type of `series' under consideration can be distinguished by the types of archival control numbers, codes and descriptive information present. These distinctions and their underlying meanings will not be readily apparent to agency staff, public users and others who are unfamiliar with the Archives' control systems.

For a list of the prefixes used and their meanings see Series number or Mark Wagland, The Australian Archives Technical Training Scheme - Archival Control Systems, Open Learning Institute, Charles Sturt University, Bathurst, NSW, 1992.  Item

An item is a discrete recordkeeping unit within a series.

Generally, an item will consist of a document, eg a letter, memorandum, report, image or sound recording, or a group of documents, eg a file, that is treated as a unit for control and retrieval.

Each item is identified by its original control symbol or number or, if necessary, one imposed by the Archives:

Bundle 606,  HMAS Voyager, 1938-1938

5/1/2,  Control of Aliens in Australia, 1940-1942

1938/4661,  Majura School, 1922-1938

G323/1/5,  Trade with Siam, 1937-1949

An item may also have portions of itself that are described separately, for example a map attached to a correspondence file. The control symbol remains the same, but the format may vary and its physical location may vary.

An item may be stored and retrieved in an electronic recordkeeping system, but will still have the descriptive attributes of items that exist in a hard-copy form.

An item can have several different control symbols over time and may be part of one or more series over time.  However, at any specific time, an item may only have one control symbol and be a member of only one series.  Other terms

An accession (called a transfer job or consignment) is a part of a series consisting of items transferred into archival custody at the one time by an agency or person.  Accessions are usually distinguished from other accessions in the same series for reasons of specific disposal action, storage requirement or other collection management purpose.

Each accession is allocated a unique number and linked to a series number.  eg a transfer job number (from 2002 onwards) is an arbitrarily assigned annual single number which is linked to a series, for example, transfer job 2003/555333 of series A461; a consignment number (allocated pre 2002) is based on the series number itself, for example, A461/7 - the seventh consignment of items received into archival custody for series A461.  All consignment numbers have an equivalent transfer job number.

Most of the terms used in the CRS System are explained in the manual when they first occur or else in the definition part of the data element descriptions. A glossary containing terms commonly used in the Archives is included in the National Archives Style Guide. It should be remembered that the usage and meaning of terms is not necessarily consistent across archival institutions nor, sometimes, within institutions.

3.2.4.  Registration and description

Each organisation, agency, person and series that the Archives registers is allocated a unique control or registration number.

The registration numbers for organisations, agencies and persons are allocated from three separate national registers. The numbers have no meaning apart from denoting the type of registration, that is CO, CA or CP. Series numbers were initially allocated from registers of each of the Archives' major offices and several national registers for specific types of records, eg for personal, corporate and intergovernmental records. All registration numbers with an appropriate prefix are now allocated from a centralised automated register.

Under the CRS System, a registration number has no meaningful connection with any other registration number; that is, no relationships between agencies and series, or relationships between series, are conveyed through the composition of the registration numbers. This provides flexibility to show changes over time in relationships between entities (eg of an agency to other agencies, organisations, persons and series) by making cross-references rather than completely re-working existing documentation and control, as is sometimes necessary with classified control schemes.

Identifying and descriptive information for the items in each series is also gathered, principally relying on the original details, if any, used by the recording agencies or persons. Item numbers or control symbols are cited in conjunction with their respective series numbers. If in the Archives custody, the unique bar code number for an item may also be cited for precise location, reference and retrieval. Provenance information for items is available from references to the agencies and persons cited in the relevant series registrations and transfer documentation.

Employing each of the control levels, a basic identification statement for a record item in the Archives' custody can be built as follows:

Control level Identifying information CRS Control 
Organisation Commonwealth of Australia, 1901- CO 1
 Agency Prime Minister's Department, 1911-1971 CA 12
 Series Correspondence files, multiple number series (third system), 1934-1950 A461
Series accession items from series A461 transferred to the Archives on 16 May 1994 consignment number:  A461/7
transfer job number:  2001/2948143
Item Trade with Siam, 1937-1949 G323/1/5

The content of this example may be interpreted as follows:

The Prime Minister's Department, in carrying out its functions within the Commonwealth of Australia in the 1930s and 1940s, kept records of its correspondence in a series of files that had a multiple number control system. One of the items in the series was titled `Trade with Siam'. The earliest document in this item is dated 1937 and the latest document is dated 1949.

The Archives has registered this series with the control number A461. Item G323/1/5 from the series was transferred to the Archives in 1994 as part of consignment A461/7 (now transfer job 2001/2948143). As part of the transfer the item was given a unique barcode number which is then used for archival  management purposes.

The registration numbers are the key to retrieving the records themselves as well as the Archives information and documentation that is available at each control point. Information concerning administrative and recordkeeping context, transfer history and other internal administrative details would normally be assembled for each level within the CRS System (ie organisation, agency/person, series, item).  Retrieval via the RecordSearch database is possible through a variety of paths, including the control numbers, bar code number, title, keyword and descriptive notes.

The registration and description process involves capturing information against a defined set of descriptive elements to produce the following,

Organisation registration A set of data elements identifying an organisation
Agency registration A set of data elements providing concise information about the administrative history of an agency, its functions and its relationship with other agencies and organisations
Person registration A set of data elements providing concise information about a person and their relationship with the Commonwealth
Series registration A set of data elements providing a description of the records in a series and information about the administrative and recordkeeping context of the series, eg its relationship to agencies, persons and other series
Item description A set of data elements identifying an item and the series to which it belongs and, in many cases, describing its content, sub- items, quantity disposal status and medium.


Registrations are the basic descriptive `documents' that staff prepare or revise when controlling, arranging and describing records (including the context of their creation and use). Information from registrations is subsequently used in finding aids constructed in RecordSearch which compile information dependent on the search query.

This manual provides instructions and guidelines for the completion, content and presentation of the data elements for registration and description of records and their provenance in the CRS System. 

A certain minimum amount of information must accompany each registration. This information is required to:  Relationships

In the documentation work that is done to support each registration, particular attention is given to showing the relationships between organisations, agencies, persons and series. Separate data elements (or fields) have been established for this purpose, and there is scope to provide additional information in text notes. The entries made to document the more important relationships, in most cases, must refer to organisations, agencies, persons or series that have already been registered. There is some provision, however, for showing relationships between registered and unregistered entities. The major relationships are listed below.

Documentation of provenance

Documentation of broader administrative context

Over the life of the agency:

Documentation of recordkeeping context

Over the life of the series:

 The CRS System is capable of representing a complex web of relationships. Some of these relationships are created through direct data entry against the data elements or through relationships created through the reporting process. Strict validations operate between the structural levels to ensure correct application of the standards. Using this framework it is possible to move hierarchically and/or chronologically from a known point in pursuit of relevant information. An impression of the structural levels and their linkages is shown in the table below.

3.2.5.  Major contextual links in the CRS System

The table below represents an indication of the main descriptive elements and linkages in the CRS System.  Please refer to the table of contents for each level to see a comprehensive list.


Descriptive elements



Title / Alternative title
Date range
Descriptive note

*Organisations controlling
*Organisations controlled
*Previous organisations
*Subsequent organisations

*links currently not in use but able to be 
documented in the descriptive note

Organisation to agency links: 
   - organisation(s) controlling over date range of agency


Descriptive elements



Title / Alternative title
Date range
Descriptive note
Status codes

Minister responsible
Previous agencies
Subsequent agencies
Agencies controlled
Superior agencies
Persons associated with agency


Descriptive elements



Date of birth / death
Descriptive note

Agencies associated with person


Agency / Person to series links:
  - recording agencies / persons over date range of series
  - current controlling agencies / persons
  - transferring agencies / persons (documented in transfer process)
  - agencies / persons with custody of series


Descriptive elements



Accumulation date range
Contents date range
System of arrangement / control
Predominant form/ item dimensions
Range of control symbols
Descriptive note

Controlling series
Previous series
Series controlled
Subsequent series
Related series

Series to accession links - for items in archival custody:
  - each accession is linked to one series only

Accession to item links - for items in archival custody:
  - each item can only be in one accession at a time

Item to series links:
  - each item can only be in one series at a time


Descriptive elements



Series number
Control symbol
Contents date range
Accumulation start date
Located in
Disposal information
Descriptive note

Series accession number
Source item (for a copy item)
Parent item (for a sub item)
Constituent items (for an aggregate item)
Aggregate item (for a constituent item)
*Previous item
*Subsequent item

*links currently not in use but able to be 
documented in the descriptive note

3.2.6.  Accessioning

The identification and registration of series, where possible, is done before or at the time of transfer. This allows for the processing of new transfers as serialised accessions. In some urgent, difficult or unimportant cases, however, control numbers may be allocated to accumulations of records that comprise several series according to the CRS System definition, to facilitate accessioning and to meet physical control imperatives. These are known as unserialised accessions and can be identified accordingly.

Records are considered to have been accessioned when they are formally received into the Archives' custody as part of an approved transfer and located in the repository. Where archival value records to which the public have a right of access remain in the custody of agencies, they are registered and controlled under the CRS System, but are not accessioned into Archives' custody.

Each series may be subdivided into several transfer jobs or consignments for control purposes. At least one transfer job or consignment for each series is required if items are controlled in custody.  Accession  records

Records that document a records transfer are prepared when accessioning some or all of a series being transferred to the archives custody, or when changes are required to facilitate the management of records already in custody.

While their primary purpose is to facilitate physical control and management, accession records help to document the transfer history and content of the records in the transfer job or consignment. Checklists of items form part of a transfer job / consignment record. Verified lists of items in transfer jobs / consignments at the time of transfer and details of subsequent changes to their content are an essential information resource for the Archives.

Instructions concerning the data elements for transfer jobs / consignments are covered separately in manuals and procedures dealing with the transfer of records to the Archives and their management in custody, and in procedures relating to the Physical Control System and RecordSearch.

3.2.7.  Finding aids

All the information gathered about Commonwealth records and their provenance is held in, and can be retrieved from, RecordSearch for management and research purposes. RecordSearch is an online database which is used by staff and the public to search for relevant information. Searches can be initiated by one or more of the options given below, though these are not a comprehensive list:

RecordSearch allows staff and public to exploit the provenance of records to identify and retrieve relevant series and items.  Organisations, agencies and persons of potential relevance are first identified and then their inventories of agencies, series and items are viewable by clicking the appropriate 'find' button attached to each provenance or series registration.  The registrations for individual agencies, persons and series are also viewable to provide further leads for the researcher by way of links to previous, subsequent and related agencies and series.

With improvements in technology there are now many options available for information retrieval, including complex text and date searching. The information that is retrieved is capable of being sorted and structured for reports in a variety of ways.

The approach taken under the CRS System, for reasons of flexibility and efficiency, to record separately information about organisations, agencies, persons, series, items and accessions has a significant influence on the use of the information as a finding aid. While the finding aids prepared by or for the Archives usually include information drawn from several points in the control system, it is important to maintain an awareness of the compartmentalised nature of the source data and make full use of the links and relationships to provide context and additional leads.

An innovative feature of RecordSearch as a finding aid is that there is no requirement to use the traditional top down provenance-based approach to identify relevant records. Searches can combine series and items, series and provenance or, as mentioned above, all objects in RecordSearch can be searched at the same time. RecordSearch also allows for navigation between items, series and their provenance descriptions without having to be fully conversant with the full context of the CRS System. 

There are several options for displaying and printing information retrieved through RecordSearch, usually referred to as reports. These include:

Having retrieved a result display and print options can be customised to exclude certain attributes. This is useful if very specific information is required for a large result set, but contains more than the attributes in the summary lists.  Revision, updating and cancellation of registrations

The information included in registrations may need to be revised periodically to reflect changes and developments in the history and relationships of organisations, agencies, persons, series and items. This is a normal and expected outcome of the dynamic control philosophy of the CRS System, in which organisations, agencies, persons and series may be registered while active. The level of revision required for individual registrations should be minimal once the relevant organisation, agency or person has ceased to exist, or the series has been discontinued. Item details are also affected by such changes, particularly if items are moved between series by agencies after registration and transfer.

There are some cases in which the cancellation of registrations is warranted, but, there are strict controls to ensure that cancellation of one registration does not affect the visibility of other registrations. For example, a series registration cannot be cancelled if the series contains items that are not eligible for cancellation.

As with new registrations, all revisions and cancellations have a flow-on effect on the finding aids prepared by the Archives. The timeliness with which staff identify the need for revisions to registrations and complete the work required has a considerable bearing on the currency, accuracy and coverage of the finding aids. Finding aids that are available through the online databases will usually be updated immediately following any amendments made to registrations, so it is essential that information in registrations is as accurate as possible and errors are rectified as soon as they are noticed.  Availability of information

Not all of the information the Archives gathers about records is able to be released automatically to the public or, in some cases, to other staff. Archives staff have access, under the Archives Act, to records that are not yet available for public access. The Archives may make arrangements with agencies and persons to restrict access to information about records or about those agencies and persons themselves for certain periods and subject to certain conditions.

Care must be taken when preparing and revising CRS System documentation, predominantly for series and items, that the obligations on the Archives to protect and withhold certain information are respected. This can be complicated in cases where, for example, a series contains a mixture of items that are available (open) to the public and unavailable (closed). At a higher level, an agency may have recorded some series about which information may be released and others where it cannot.

For more information on dealing with sensitive material see:

Attorney-Generalís Department, Commonwealth Protective Security Manual, Commonwealth of Australia, 2000; and

National Archives of Australia, Guidelines on Treatment of National Security Classified, Sensitive and Archives-in-confidence data in descriptive documentation, 1988.


Last updated:  22 Dec 2003


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