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Authority Files for Cataloging Pictures: Common Choices and Representative Examples

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 called by other titles: 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 archive 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 of some two hundred vocabularies. The wordHOARD describes international terminology initiatives and thesauruses related to cultural object collections.

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:

  • Lanzi, Elisa. Introduction to Vocabularies: Enhancing Access to Cultural Heritage Information. Los Angeles, CA: Getty Information Institute, 1998.
  • Riecks, David. Controlled, (Focuses on image databases.)

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)

Almost 2 million names for physical and cultural geographic features. Produced by the U.S. Geological Survey in cooperation with the US Board on Geographic Names.

GEONet Names Server (GNS)

The US National Imagery and Mapping Agency maintains names for foreign geographic features.

George Eastman House Photography Database

Names and biographical information for thousands of photographers represented in museums and libraries. Last updated Nov. 2002. 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)

Library of Congress Authorities: Name Authority File

Provides 5.3 million name authority records -- ca. 3.8 million personal names, 900,000 corporate names, 120,000 names for meetings, and 90,000 geographic names. Created by the Library of Congress with contributions from other libraries.

Thesaurus for Geographic Names (TGN)

"The TGN is a structured, world-coverage vocabulary of 1.3 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.

Union List of Artist Names (ULAN)

"The ULAN is a structured vocabulary containing more than 225,000 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)

"The AAT is a structured vocabulary of more than 133,000 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)

"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." Approximately 15,000 terms. Sponsored by the Australian Council of State Libraries.

Canadian Subject Headings (CSH)

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

Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH)

More than 250,000 terms for both topics and names used as subjects. Produced by the Library of Congress, Cataloging Policy and Support Office. Also available as printed volumes or through Cataloger's Desktop.

Medical Subject Headings (MESH)

More than 20,000 terms for medical information. Produced by the National Library of Medicine.

Text and Photo Database Enhancement Terms

Includes 500 " Key Words (Enhancement Terms) for Digital Newsphoto Archives." Includes indexing vocabularies from several newspaper photo libraries. Sponsored by the Special Libraries Association, News Division.

Thesaurus for Graphic Materials I: Subject Terms (TGM I)

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)

See especially the Visual and Verbal Communications area of the Objects Facet.

Thesaurus for Graphic Materials II: Genre, Form, and Physical Characteristic Terms (TGM II)

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

City of Vancouver Archives, Photograph Subject Terms List

About 650 terms, including Vancouver (B.C.)--Public works; Victory Square (Vancouver, B.C.); Visits of state; Waterspouts; and World War, 1914-1918.

Denver Public Library, Photography Collection

A sampling of ca. 500 subject headings that can be used to search an OPAC. Includes subjects, people, geographic locations, and photographic terms.

Kalamazoo College, Archives, Photographs -- Subject Headings

A classified list of ca. 200 topics including Academics--Art Department; Athletics--Archery; Buildings--Alumni House; Hazing; and Presidential portraits.

Compiled by Helena Zinkham, Technical Services Section, Prints & Photographs Division, July 2004.

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  October 22, 2010
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