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Authority Files for Cataloging Pictures: Common Choices

Authority files contain names and subjects that can be added to catalog records to simplify searching by providing a consistent vocabulary for access points. You may hear authority files referred to by other names: thesauruses, heading lists, indexing vocabularies, or taxonomies. The specialized scope of most authority files means that libraries and archives often rely on several vocabulary sources. Typically, you need to select a source for names of people as well as source(s) for topical subjects and genre-form terms.

Example: A person cataloging many media (e.g., books, maps, posters, sound recordings) relies on the Library of Congress Authorities to select access points for people, places, events, and subjects. When appropriate terms for pictorial subjects are not found, a tool emphasizing visual topics is consulted, such as the Art & Architecture Thesaurus or Thesaurus for Graphic Materials.

Example: An archives specializing in photographs or cartoons turns to the Thesaurus for Graphic Materials as its primary subject indexing tool, supplemented by a list of local headings as needed.

To help you find authority files appropriate for indexing the pictorial materials at your own institution, this resource list cites the online files most commonly used when cataloging documentary photographs, cartoons, prints, posters, illustrations, and design drawings. Representative examples of locally developed subject authority files are also mentioned. Many other authority files exist for such specialized subject fields as astronomy, economics, and real estate. The Taxonomy Warehouse provides a directory for hundreds of vocabularies.

When trying to find authority file(s) appropriate for your information system, it can be helpful to test alternative vocabularies. First, select several catalog records. Then, identify two or three authority files and assign access points from each of them to the catalog records. Compare the results and get reactions from your catalog users to determine which tools best suit your particular community.

For additional information on the benefits of using controlled vocabularies from authority files, see:

Disclaimer icon The Library of Congress does not maintain most of these sites. Users should direct concerns about these links to their respective site administrators or webmasters.

Table of Contents

Name Authority Files

Geographic Names Information System (GNIS) http://geonames.usgs.gov/

More than 2,250,000 names for "physical and cultural geographic features in the United States and its territories." Produced by the U.S. Geological Survey with the U.S. Board on Geographic Names.

GEONet Names Server (GNS) http://earth-info.nga.mil/gns/html/index.html

The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency offers access to a database of foreign geographic feature names containing more than 5 million features with 8 million names

Getty Thesaurus of Geographic Names (TGN) http://www.getty.edu/research/tools/vocabularies/tgn/index.html

The TGN is a structured, world-coverage vocabulary of around 2 million names, including vernacular and historical names, coordinates, and place types, and descriptive notes, focusing on places important for the study of art and architecture. Produced by the Getty Vocabulary Program of the J. Paul Getty Trust.

Library of Congress Authorities: Name Authority File http://authorities.loc.gov/

Provides 8.2 million name authority records -- 6 million personal names, 1.4 million corporate names, 180,000 names for meetings, and 120,000 geographic names. Created by the Library of Congress with contributions from other libraries.

Photography Database http://photographydatabase.org/about.html new

Names and biographical information for thousands of photographers represented in museums and libraries. Onlline version began "as a component of the photography cataloging system at George Eastman House, and was accessible on-line via Telnet until 2010. It is now independently co-edited by Andrew Eskind and Greg Drake and continues to grow and improve upon nearly 30 years of research." Earlier version available as printed book: Index to American Photographic Collections, ed. by Andrew H. Eskind, 3rd enl. ed. (New York: G.K. Hall, 1996).

Union List of Artist Names (ULAN) http://www.getty.edu/research/tools/vocabulary/ulan/

The ULAN is a structured vocabulary containing more than 600,000 names and biographical and bibliographic information about artists and architects. Produced by the Getty Vocabulary Program of the J. Paul Getty Trust.

Subject Authority Files

Art and Architecture Thesaurus (AAT) http://www.getty.edu/research/tools/vocabulary/aat/

The AAT is a structured vocabulary of more than 250,000 terms, descriptions, bibliographic citations, and other information relating to fine art, architecture, decorative arts, archival materials, and material culture. Produced by the Getty Vocabulary Program of the J. Paul Getty Trust.

Australian Picture Thesaurus (APT) http://www.picturethesaurus.gov.au/

"The Australian Pictorial Thesaurus (APT) is a collection of topic terms for indexing Australian images. The APT uses contemporary Australian terminology to describe objects, people, places and structures, activities and concepts depicted in an image." More than 15,000 terms. Sponsored by the National and State Libraries Australasia.

Canadian Subject Headings (CSH) http://www.collectionscanada.ca/csh/index-e.html

"Over 6000 subject authority records in the English language, providing in-depth coverage of Canadian topics ..." Sponsored by the Library and Archives of Canada.

Digital Newsphoto Archives Keywords http://www.ibiblio.org/slanews/archiving/terms/photowords.htm

Includes 500 "enhancement terms" to index news photographs. The "Text and Photo Database Enhancement Terms" project lists indexing vocabularies from several newspaper photo libraries. Sponsored by the Special Libraries Association, News Division.

Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH) http://authorities.loc.gov/

Around .5 million terms for both topics and names used as subjects. Produced by the Library of Congress, Cataloging Policy and Support Office. Also available through Cataloger's Desktop.

Medical Subject Headings (MESH) http://www.nlm.nih.gov/mesh/meshhome.html

More than 25,000 descriptors for medical and health-related information. Produced by the National Library of Medicine.

Thesaurus for Graphic Materials I: Subject Terms (TGM I) http://www.loc.gov/rr/print/tgm1/

Almost 7,000 terms for topics represented in general picture collections. Includes activities, facilities, objects, occupations, and abstract and general concepts, but no proper noun names for people or places. Produced by the Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division.

Form-Genre Authority Files

Art & Architecture Thesaurus (AAT) http://www.getty.edu/research/tools/vocabulary/aat/

The AAT contains thousands of terms for indexing pictorial materials by their object type, format, genre, and physical characteristics. See especially the Visual and Verbal Communications hierarchy in the Objects facet area.

Thesaurus for Graphic Materials II: Genre, Form, and Physical Characteristic Terms (TGM II) http://www.loc.gov/rr/print/tgm2/

Approximately 600 terms, with definitions, to designate types of photographs, prints, design drawings, and other visual media. Produced by Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division.

Local Authority Files (representative examples)

City of Vancouver Archives, Photograph Subject Terms List http://searcharchives.vancouver.ca/;taxonomy/browse/35

About 1,500 terms, including Vancouver (B.C.)--Public works; Victory Square (Vancouver, B.C.); Visits of state; Waterspouts; and World War, 1914-1918.


Compiled by Helena Zinkham, Technical Services Section, Prints & Photographs Division, August 2013.


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  August 9, 2013
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