Vocabulary (Data Value Standards)

Introduction to Vocabulary and Classification

Vocabulary standards (such as authority files and thesauri) and classification systems can assist in both cataloguing and retrieval of museum collections. They may be used to:

  • help a cataloguer find precisely the right term to describe an object
  • ensure consistent use of terminology and categories in cataloguing
  • link a museum's collections data with rich authoritative sources
  • provide context for terminology used in museum records (e.g. relationships to broader, narrower, or related terms)
  • make automated or manual retrieval of records more efficient.

There are hundreds of data value standards available, varying in scope from the general to the very specific. Museums will need to select vocabulary standards and classification systems that are appropriate for the scope and discipline of their collections.

Classification Systems

Classification systems provide ways to separate concepts into relatively broad topics – for example, "Furnishings" or "Communication Artifacts". Many classification systems also include specific terminology to be used (for example, object names such as "chair" or "poem"), so vocabulary standards and classification systems often work together.

Vocabulary Standards

For many data fields, especially those most commonly used for searching the data, strict application of a vocabulary standard within your museum's collections database will greatly improve your ability to query the data, ensuring a complete and relevant search result. This is important within individual collections databases, but it becomes even more important in collaborative projects, such as when museums share their data in Artefacts Canada.

Vocabulary Standards include authority lists and thesauri. Sometimes vocabulary lists are included as part of classification systems (e.g. object names are situated within a classification system in Nomenclature and Parks Canada Classification).

  • Authority lists (also called authority files) are lists of terms that can be used by a museum to control the terms or variants that are used in their collections documentation. For example, a museum may use an authority list for artist names during data entry, in order to ensure that the name is spelled consistently, or to ensure that a certain version (such as married name) is consistently used. There may or may not be a "preferred" variant of the term, but all variants are linked in the authority list so that the term can be found. Some authorities include rich supplemental information (e.g. an artist name authority with information on the artist's dates, technique, biography).
  • Thesauri usually provide synonyms, broader and narrower terms, and "preferred" terms for concepts. Some thesauri also include scope notes to advise cataloguers of the precise meaning and usage of particular concepts found in the thesaurus. Thesauri may be used in a similar way as a search assistant - people can use the thesaurus to find the most effective search terminology for a particular concept.

Thesauri or authority lists that exist in electronic format can also be used as automated search assistants in computer search engines. For example, the Art & Architecture Thesaurus, supplemented with French language equivalents by CHIN, is used as an automated search assistant in CHIN's Artefacts Canada: Humanities and in the Virtual Museum of Canada. The search engine uses the thesaurus to database-link the search to include narrower terms, language equivalents, and synonyms; a search for "painting" will be database-linked by the thesaurus to include terms such as "watercolour", "watercolor", "peinture", and "paintings", in order to retrieve all the relevant records.

Authority lists and thesauri vary widely in their construction and presentation, but all types of vocabulary standards can potentially be used in automated or manual systems to ensure consistent, precise cataloguing and more efficient retrieval. Some of the vocabulary standards most commonly used in museums follow.

Some important vocabulary and classification systems for museums include:

Object Classifications/Vocabularies (Humanities)

Subject Classification/Vocabulary (Humanities)

Artist Names Authority

Creator Roles Classification/Vocabulary

Place Names Classification/Authority

Time Periods and Styles Classification/Vocabulary

Materials and Techniques Vocabulary (Humanities)

Culture Classification/Vocabulary (Humanities)

Archaeology and Architecture Classification/Vocabulary

Species Classification/Vocabulary (Natural Sciences)

Physical Attributes Classification/Vocabulary

Disciplines Vocabulary

Standards for Thesaurus Construction

Standards have been created to guide the development of monolingual and multilingual thesauri. Museums often create their own thesauri or adapt existing standards to their needs, and the use of thesaurus construction standards will guide this process. Thesauri that have been constructed following these standards are generally easier to share or to integrate with other thesauri.

The standards for creation of thesauri will provide some guidelines as to how the thesaurus should be structured, what kind of relationships should be included, how to identify preferred terms, etc. However, many thesauri do not follow all the rules of these standards for thesaurus construction, and are still effective tools for indexing and retrieving data.