DLF logo DLF logo

DLF Home


Architectures, systems and tools

Digital preservation

Digital collections

Standards and practices

Use and users

Roles and responsibilities

DLF Forum

Publications and resources

Project Proposal for Guide to Good Practice: Cataloging Standards for Describing Cultural Objects and Images

January 12, 2001

Prepared by
Linda McRae, University of South Florida
Elisa Lanzi, Smith College
Murtha Baca, Getty Research Institute

and submitted on behalf of the Visual Resources Association by Ann Whiteside (President)


Over the last decade, many organizations and agencies have been working toward the development of standards for describing and retrieving information about cultural objects. Data standards are not new, but they have become far more critical as information is increasingly stored in electronic form. Data standards not only promote the consistent recording of information, they are fundamental to the efficient retrieval of information online. In the art and cultural heritage communities, the most fully developed type of data standards are those that enumerate a set of categories or data elements that can be used to create a structure for a fielded format in a database (e.g., Categories for the Description of Works of Art (CDWA), VRA Core Categories, Version 3.0 (VRA Core). Although such a structure is the logical first step in the development of standards, a structure alone will achieve neither a high rate of descriptive consistency nor a high rate of retrieval.

The choice of terms or words (data values) and the selection, organization, and formatting of those words (data content) are two other types of standards that must be used in conjunction with an agreed upon data structure in order to achieve an optimum rate of retrieval and a high level of consistency. Of these two types of standards, far more work has been accomplished, particularly by the Getty, in developing standards for data values, typically in the form of thesauri and controlled vocabularies such as the Art & Architecture Thesaurus, Union List of Artist Names, and Thesaurus of Geographic Names. However, data content standards for art and cultural heritage information have received little or no attention outside of local contexts.

Both the library and archival communities have well-established rules for data content. Known as the Anglo-American Cataloging Rules, second edition (AACR2), the rules were originally intended primarily for describing books, but over the years adaptations have been developed for graphic materials and archival collections. Occasionally these rules have been applied to works of art, but they fall far short of meeting the specific and idiosyncratic needs for describing works of art and cultural objects.

Similar to AACR2, the proposed guide to good practice will be designed specifically for those communities engaged in describing and documenting works of art, cultural artifacts, and their visual surrogates. Standard rules for describing cultural objects will immediately improve the management of content and reduce redundancy of effort. In time, the accumulation of consistently documented records across multiple repositories will increase access to content by maximizing research results. Ultimately, uniform documentation will promote the creation of a body of cultural heritage information access to which will greatly enhance research and teaching in the arts and humanities.

Scope of Work

This project proposes to review and evaluate existing data content standards and current practice in order to compile a manual that may be used to describe, document, and catalog cultural objects and their visual surrogates. The resulting guidelines will be divided into two sections. The first Section will be organized with a format similar to the Anglo-American Cataloging Rules, using numbered categories drawn from the CDWA and VRA Core Categories. Items under each category will cover the general rules for description and the exceptions and special issues inherent in describing particular object types. Extensive examples will be used to illustrate the rules. Section one can be disseminated in both print and Web format, with links to the CDWA and VRA Core Web sites. The second section will consist of signed articles covering issues associated with cataloging and describing art objects that require more in-depth analysis.

The proposed guidelines will cover a limited set of cultural objects and their images. The primary focus is on museum objects, including but not limited to paintings, sculpture, prints, manuscripts, photographs, archeological artifacts, and other objects from the material culture. It is hoped that these guidelines can be used as a model for additional publications covering such areas as the built environment that have been excluded from this proposal.

The intended audience is visual resources professionals, museum registrars, library catalogers, archivists, and others engaged in documenting cultural heritage objects and images. Based upon existing data structures, particularly the Categories for the Description of Works of Art and the Visual Resources Association Core Categories, the guide will have extensive relevance to other data structures such as the Canadian Heritage Information Network CHIN Data Dictionary; Spectrum, the UK museum documentation standard; and the French document, Méthode d'inventaire informatique des objets beaux-arts et arts décoratifs. To extend its value to the widest possible community of users, it will include mapping to the MARC format and Dublin Core elements, where appropriate.


Analyze existing standards and current practice

The project will begin with a survey of the literature (both published and unpublished). The editors will review, evaluate, and compile documentation that records examples of data content standards currently being used. This will form the basis for the Bibliography section of the proposed publication.

Identify data categories for project inclusion

Data Categories will be selected from the CDWA and VRA Core Categories. They will include all elements defined as "core" elements as well as others deemed significantly critical to general object description. The selected categories will define the structure of the first section of the proposed publication.

Compile list of rules and prepare examples

A checklist of potential rules applicable to each category will be compiled from the surveyed documentation. The format used will be: general rules for capitalization, punctuation, abbreviation, and syntax, followed by rules governing the special issues inherent in describing particular object types. Each rule will be illustrated with extensive examples.

Identify special issues and assign authors for articles

Issues requiring more extensive analysis will be identified and potential authors will be solicited to write about them. These articles will form the second section and will be keyed to categories and examples from section one.

Consult constituents and gain consensus

In order to achieve broad consensus, specialists representing a number of documentation communities including museums, visual resources, archives, and libraries will be identified and form a steering committee. This committee will review the initial lists of categories and rules; will be asked to evaluate the proposed categories and rules and make recommendations for changes, additions, examples; and will act as a forum for discussion of the proposed guidelines.

Draft Guidelines

Based on feedback from the community, the editors will draft the guidelines. Section one will be ordered by numbered categories, and numbered/lettered rules (e.g. I. Object Type, I.a. general rules governing Object Type). Each category will contain definitions; entry rules with extensive examples covering the issues typically encountered when describing various types of objects; suggested thesauri for data values; and recommendations for further reading pertinent to the specific category. Section two will contained signed articles keyed to categories and examples from section one.

Review and evaluate guidelines

The draft guidelines will be released to a sample of the broader community for comment. A select group of practioners (e.g., AIC participants) will test the implementation of the proposed guidelines on a set of predetermined data. The results will be analyzed and changes or adaptations made to the draft document where it is deemed necessary.

Publish and distribute guidelines

The guidelines will be published in print and on the Web. The release of the guidelines will be announced in a variety of forums including lists-serves of relevant professional organizations, newsletters, and conference workshops.

Please send comments or suggestions.
Last updated:
© 2000 Council on Library and Information Resources