1. Introduction

2. Policy aims

3. Definitions

4. Policy statement

5. Key roles and responsibilities

6. Review

7. References and related documents

1. Introduction

This policy outlines the key principles that underpin sustainable description activities and practices for material in the National Library of Australia’s collections.

The National Library of Australia is a world-leading and respected custodian of Australia’s published, written, oral, visual and digital heritage. This policy is aligned with the Library’s corporate objective to deliver streamlined workflows and tools to support acquisition, management and description of collection material.

It is intended that this policy will ensure that material in the Library’s collection is managed and controlled effectively, that it is discoverable and available for use by readers ensuring Australian culture and knowledge is sustained for all Australian people, now and in the future.

This policy focuses on descriptive metadata that describes the content of the item or resource, identifies various access points such as title, creator and subject, and describes how the resource is related to other resources intellectually or within a hierarchy. It may also describe physical attributes of the resource such as media type, dimensions, and condition.

Descriptive metadata supports a number of user tasks, including discovery, identification, retrieval and citation of the Library’s collection resources. While descriptive metadata is used by and displayed to human users, it is also used by machine applications and widely shared in machine-readable ways. It is therefore essential that descriptive metadata for the Library’s collections is accurate, adequate, timely, and recorded consistently.

The Collection Description Policy heads a suite of internal procedural and guideline documents, providing the over-arching principles that direct the National Library’s approach to description.

2. Policy aims

The National Library of Australia employs the most appropriate method to describe and make available collection materials either through catalogue records, finding aids or summaries.

The purpose of this policy is to provide a statement of the National Library of Australia’s current approach to describing its collections and making them discoverable and retrievable.

In accordance with the National Library Act 1960, the Library collects documentary resources, ‘particularly relating to Australia and the Australian people’ so Australians can discover, learn and create new knowledge. This policy informs individuals about the Library’s approach to collection description and the application of standards.

The policy covers collection description activities undertaken by Library staff, externally-supplied descriptions from third parties such as the creators, donors, publishers and vendors of material, and automated contributions to resource description and data enrichment, including the aggregation of data from multiple sources.

The policy applies to all formats of library material, described in various library management systems and made available via the National Library catalogue.

It is also intended to support the Library’s expanding digitisation program and the description activities undertaken as part of digitisation processes, outlining standardised practices designed to increase availability of and access to digitised content. With the growing volume of material being digitised, description of collections has become integral to the overall program and delivery of content.

3. Definitions

Term Definition

Archival materials

Materials created, accumulated and/or used by an individual/family/organisation in the conduct of their affairs and preserved because of their continuing value. They most often consist of aggregations of largely unpublished documents.

Archival standards

Guidelines and principles for creating and encoding the content of archival descriptions in consistent and standardised ways, including ISAD(G), the International Standard Archival Description (General), and EAD, Encoded Archival Description.


The process of extracting component-level data contained in finding aids to create individual catalogue records in Trove.

Authority record

Metadata that contains a single form of name for people, organisations, meetings, titles and subjects that draw together variant forms of the name and to facilitate consistency in catalogue records.

Bibliographic metadata

Data elements used for description such as titles, names, subjects, notes, publication information, and the physical attributes of an item.

Catalogue record

The compilation of bibliographic metadata including description, subject analysis, classification and authority control that enable identification and access to an individual entry or resource in a library catalogue.

Collection-level description

A level of resource description that describes a collection of materials in a single catalogue record. This may include a link to a published finding aid.


A person or organisation who creates, produces, assembles or makes library material.


Metadata associated with bibliographic, subject and authority data that describes the authorship, content and arrangement of collections or items. This is usually in the form of item or collection-level catalogue records and finding aids or summaries.


A person or organisation offering library materials for inclusion in the collection.


Encoded Archival Description (EAD) is an XML standard for encoding archival finding aids, maintained by the Technical Subcommittee for Encoded Archival Standards of the Society of American Archivists, in partnership with the Library of Congress.

Finding aid

A structured and often multi-level or hierarchical listing of components contained in a collection. Consists of a documentary inventory and description of the materials, their source and structure, aiming to identify and explain the context and content of collection material and help researchers locate relevant materials efficiently. Originally developed for archival collections, they are now used more broadly for any type of multi-part collection.

Fit for purpose

The minimum level of description necessary for system requirements and to facilitate discoverability of resources.


General International Standard Archival Description (2nd edition, 2000), The International Council on Archives (ICA).

Linked data

A method for publishing structured data using vocabularies that can be connected together, with the potential to increase the visibility of library resources and interoperability with non-library systems.


LCSH (Library of Congress Subject Headings) is a controlled vocabulary, or thesaurus, of subject headings maintained by the United States Library of Congress, for use in bibliographic (catalogue) records.


MARC (Machine-Readable Cataloging) is a metadata encoding and transmission schema for the description of items catalogued by libraries.


Information about an object or other resource that describes characteristics such as the content, quality format, location etc.

Optical character recognition

The automated conversion of images of printed or handwritten text into machine-encoded text.

Published materials

Resources created specifically for dissemination to the public.


A person or company that prepares and prints books, magazines, newspapers or electronic products and makes them available to the public.


RDA (Resource Description and Access) is the current standard for descriptive cataloguing. It provides data elements, instructions, and guidelines on recording the contents and formulating bibliographic metadata for description and access to information resources covering all types of content and media held in libraries, museums and archives.


An overview of the key points and topics covered in an oral history interview.

Sustainable description

Meets the minimum needs of Library users now and in the future.

Enables scope for further enrichment of metadata through automated processes when available.


Text Encoding Initiative which outlines the guidelines for descriptive and declarative information that must be prefixed to the XML transcript. The Library uses TEI to provide access to its oral history transcripts and summaries.


Refers to a third party, other than a publisher, that sells content and supporting services specifically to libraries.


Extensible Mark-up Language/Rich Text Format are the document formats in which transcripts must be provided.

4. Policy statement

4.1 Principles

The National Library of Australia’s policy on collection description is based on the following principles:

  1. Sufficiently describe each resource or group of resources to enable collection discovery and access, and to facilitate inventory management
  2. Use the most appropriate descriptive models for each resource or group of resources in our collections, ensuring the type, level and granularity of description are practical and sustainable while facilitating discovery
  3. Where possible, utilise existing description and metadata created by others in preference to re-creating it ourselves
  4. Description for digitisation purposes needs only to meet minimum level necessary to assist digitisation processes
  5. Record metadata consistently to facilitate resource exposure, data sharing and support interoperability and reuse by third parties (people and systems)
  6. Where available, links to summaries, finding aids and content are provided within metadata records to enable searching and discovery
  7. Seek better, more innovative and efficient ways to describe the Library’s collections
  8. Cooperate nationally and internationally in metadata creation and sharing.

4.2 Context

The Library uses, creates, harvests, stores and maintains several different types of metadata, including descriptive, technical, administrative, and preservation metadata, which are variously used to facilitate ongoing collection discovery, access, control, management, and preservation. Descriptive metadata is the information about material that enables its identification, discovery and use. Descriptive metadata is the focus of this policy.

Descriptive metadata may be expressed as a catalogue record in MARC, hierarchical index, finding aid or structured data file, or be embedded into or stored with the content that it describes. When an item is in digital form, the content may be searched for discovery instead of, or in addition to, descriptive metadata. Full text searching augments or sometimes replaces descriptive metadata.

The National Library’s descriptive metadata is stored across several systems and aggregated for discovery depending on the type of data or resource, and its use. For most materials the National Library of Australia aims to provide straightforward, unmediated access to all collection material whether in physical or digital form via the online catalogue.

The approach used to describe a resource depends on the nature of the material itself, as well as cost-effectiveness, and discovery and access efficiency.

4.3 Guidelines

In looking for fit-for-purpose approaches to describing and making the collection accessible, the Library has made pragmatic decisions to maximise resources.

Where it is effective and efficient to do so, an individual item-level record is created for most single published materials.

Manuscript collections and similar original archival resources with multiple parts are described with a finding aid.

Finding Aids are also used for other types of material with multiple parts as a streamlined method to describe items with common characteristics. Finding aids can be used for listing the photographs in an album or describing a formed collection of ephemera, posters or maps. A collection- level catalogue record is made with a link to the Finding Aid for material so described.

The decision on level of description (collection vs item) and approach to description (catalogue record, summary, finding aid) is determined by a number of factors:

  • efficiency
  • effectiveness of the description in enabling discovery and use
  • nature of the material to be described (collection vs item)
  • relationship of the components and whether they lend themselves to a collection based descriptive approach.

For digitisation processes, available existing description representing the physical items is assessed for suitability to achieve access to the digitised content. Description is not upgraded to conform to current standards, except to remedy incorrect or missing data. Any description creation or enhancement is completed to a level necessary for Library systems to function and appropriate to the size and format of the collection.

Where there is no existing description (or it is contained in an offline format), and creation of catalogue records or finding aids is required, including for digitisation the Library will:

  • prefer bulk or automated processes to create description
  • prefer grouping material at the collection level where it is practical for the format
  • create finding aids to the appropriate level depending on the size of the collection.

RDA is the preferred format for new or original item records. If a record is available in non-RDA, then it is acceptable not to upgrade to RDA.

ISAD (G) EAD encoded finding aid is the preferred format for collection-based description. Where a listing is provided or created with the collection material, it is acceptable to ingest that subset and make it available.

Description of First Nation’s collection material is guided by Indigenous cultural protocols and advice from the Library’s Indigenous Engagement Section. Records for Indigenous material are enhanced where the description is potentially culturally inappropriate and/or to include cultural sensitivity notes, Indigenous language (Austlang) codes, geographic and subject terms and creator names.

The National Library actively works with the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS) to develop protocols and continually improve culturally appropriate approaches to describing Indigenous collection material. The Library adheres to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Library, Information and Resource Network’s ATSILIRN protocols for libraries, archives and information services and is preparing an Indigenous Cultural and Intellectual Property (ICIP) Protocol.

Libraries around the world are finding that long-established thesauri no longer have suitable terminology for many concepts, especially when considering equity, diversity and inclusion. The National Library actively utilises a variety of subject vocabularies as alternatives to Library of Congress Subject Headings (see 4.4 Third party metadata).

4.4 Third party metadata

It is the Library’s preference to utilise third party metadata where available, or to cooperate in metadata creation where possible, in order to maximise the value and effectiveness of metadata creation activities undertaken by Library staff and to ensure that collections are described, discoverable and available in an efficient, equitable and timely way.

The National Library of Australia obtains and reuses descriptive metadata from a range of sources including creators, interviewers, donors, publishers and vendors. The Library is increasingly receiving donor-created lists of the contents of archival collections, transferred via spreadsheets and ingested into the Library’s metadata systems. Transcriptions and summaries for oral history interviews are created as TEI encoded XML/RTF files that are also ingested in a similar way.

The Library sources MARC records along with the publications from some vendors, as well as those supplied with subscription databases. In general, the Library does not routinely enhance this metadata.

The implementation of National eDeposit (NED) as well as the Prepublication Data Service has introduced the use of Thema a multilingual subject classification system used by the book publishing industry. The publisher-created records produced by these systems via dynamic webforms are harvested with this vocabulary, as are records generated by the Australian ISBN Agency and included in the Books in Print database. The Library accepts these records with little amendment, preferring to reuse the publisher generated and supplied metadata.

4.5 Technology

The National Library utilises technological solutions to enrich description and discoverability where available and appropriate. Current technologies supported are:

  • optical character recognition (OCR) is a standard addition for all published text digitised resources
  • atomisation enables contextualised access to component-level description and digitised content described in finding aids.

As collecting institutions explore opportunities with machine learning technologies there is more capacity to expose content through automated means including automated summarising, keyword identification, handwriting recognition etc.

While libraries are keen to open data silos, a sustainable transition to linked data based on widely used and properly maintained data models is yet to be developed.

4.6 National and international context

The National Library of Australia shares catalogue records nationally through Libraries Australia/Trove and contributes internationally via WorldCat. The Library follows current national and international metadata standards for description as well as specialist resources for different formats of collection material.

5. Key roles and responsibilities

Role Responsibility

Assistant Director-General, Collection

Has broad responsibility for the policy

Director, Collection Management

Has operational responsibility for implementation and review of the policy

Collection Strategy Group

Reviews and provides input into the policy

National Library of Australia Executive

Approves the policy

6. Review

This policy is to be reviewed 3 years from date of effect, and then every 2 years thereafter. Revisions will be presented to Collection Strategy Committee for consultation and comment.

7. References and related documents

  • National Library of Australia Corporate Plan 2021–2022
  • National Library Act 1960 (Cwth)
  • Copyright Act 1968 (Cwth)
  • Collection Development Policy (2020)
  • Draft Collection Description Strategy and Roadmap, 2019–2021 (working document)
  • Sustainable Description for Treasured Voices Digitisation Policy (2020)