Cataloging / Collection Management System (CMS) / Internship

Describing Photographs: ICFA selects its content standard

Written by Carley Altenburger, ICFA Intern (Fall 2014) and degree candidate, Smithsonian – George Mason University MA in the History of Decorative Arts

With the development of AtoM@DO, the Image Collections and Fieldwork Archives’ new online catalog, ICFA was presented with the opportunity to make our large collection of fieldwork photography accessible beyond on-site visits.

It is estimated that ICFA holds approximately half a million images in various formats (prints, negatives, slides, and transparencies). However, only a fraction has ever been cataloged electronically. Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, there was a push to digitize and catalog the fieldwork photography using Gallery Systems’ EmbARK collection management system, which is also used by the Dumbarton Oaks Museum. While EmbARK can be used to share collections online using its Web Kiosk module, ICFA had only begun to leverage the system for the purposes of cataloging. Sometime in the late 2000s, ICFA’s cataloging in EmbARK stopped, and it wasn’t until 2012 that the data was exported in preparation for import into AtoM. The resulting legacy dataset totaled nearly 70,000 image records. With a new catalog system in place and records from EmbARK exported, it was time to consider what would the best method of cataloging the fieldwork photography.


VRA Core 4.0, a data standard for the description of works of visual culture, 2007. Visual Resources Association.

The item-level image catalog records from EmbARK would be restructured in AtoM using the VRA Core model, which proposes three types of records for describing visual resources: collections, works (i.e., the object depicted in the images), and surrogates (i.e., the images themselves). ICFA staff decided that a new VRA Core template would be developed for use within AtoM to provide the proper elements within the fieldwork photography records.

By the time I arrived at ICFA in September 2014, all of these decisions about encoding standards and record structure had already been made. What was left to decide was the rules we would apply in the actual cataloging. To help guide this decision, I was tasked with creating a comparison of content standards that could be used to describe photographs within the context of the Collection-Work-Surrogate hierarchy established by VRA Core. To use the terminology favored by one of my past professors, this is certainly a “unique snowflake,” since not many archival repositories consider the standards used outside of their immediate field. And, of course, the content standards ended up being not quite as straightforward as I initially perceived them to be.

The hierarchy established by VRA Core – in this situation, Church of St. Irene, Church of St. Euphemia, and Church of the Holy Cross are each a Work, and the images are Surrogates of each Work.

Unlike encoding standards (such as VRA Core, EAD, or MARC), which dictate how descriptive data is structured, content standards provide a consistent method of representing or describing materials. There are, of course, several different content standards, each with their own strengths. Because we are working exclusively with photographs in various formats, rather than manuscripts, we chose to investigate Descriptive Cataloging of Rare Materials – Graphics (DCRM(G)) and Cataloging Cultural Objects (CCO).

To really understand DCRM(G) and CCO, and to figure out which standard will aid us best in achieving the cataloging we desire, I compared the two content standards element by element. At first glance this may seem like a tedious chore and a huge investment of time. However, it was an extremely useful way to understand what each content standard dictates. On a personal note, this exercise also provided an opportunity for me to become intimately acquainted with two content standards I have worked with in only a limited capacity, or knew only by name.

DCRM(G) was specifically developed for use in describing graphic materials within a library context, taking into account their unique and often non-textual nature. Its basis is transcription – copying any information found on the item – and making it clear when information has been provided by the cataloger. CCO, on the other hand, was developed for use within cultural heritage institutions, including both museums and archives. Unlike DCRM(G), which is focused solely on the image, CCO differentiates between the image and the work that is depicted in the image.


Descriptive Cataloging of Rare Materials (Graphics), 2013. Bibliographic Standards Committee, Rare Books and  Manuscripts Section, Association of College and Research Libraries with Library of   Congress.


Cataloging Cultural Objects: A Guide to Describing Cultural Works and Their Images, 2006. Sponsored by the Visual Resources Association Foundation.


The two most unassuming elements – “Date” and “Extent” – ended up being the most complex and challenging elements to consider. Initially, before conducting the content standard comparison, the general practice in ICFA was to put “unknown” for any date that was not provided or not known. However, when carefully studying DCRM(G) and CCO, I found that both standards required more information than merely stating that the date is “unknown.” In the case of CCO, a date should be provided, even if it is as broad as “fifth century.” In DCRM(G), if a date does not appear on the item in question, a date should be conjectured from surrounding materials or even the known dates of the creator. It was clear after reading these rules that stating “unknown,” especially for the date of the photograph, just was not acceptable. The decision was made to utilize the rules from both content standards in our local practice: bracket conjectured dates for Surrogates and provide a general date or date range for Works.

“Extent” posed an entirely different problem. Having worked in libraries and archives, as well as studied library science, I understood “extent” to signify “how many.” True to its status as a bibliographic standard, DCRM(G) adhered to the definition of extent as an “Arabic numeral indicating the number of pictures or items issued, followed by a specific material designation.” CCO, however, has a very different meaning for this element. Designed to be used to describe works of art, the standard assumes that there is only one item being described. Therefore, extent does not mean how many items present or issued, but is an attribute that modifies two other elements in CCO: Dimensions and Medium. As an attribute of the element Dimension, extent refers to the part of a work that is being measured, such as “diameter,” “base,” or “frame.” As an attribute of Medium, extent refers to a specific part of a work that is composed of one material or created using a specific technique. In the case of Extent, we decided to use the DCRM(G) rules over those stated in CCO, since the majority of our fieldwork photography depicts works of architecture at archaeological sites, we rarely record any specific measurements for our work records, and we will only be providing extent for our surrogate records.


Extent as defined in DCRM(G, which quantifies the amount, versus CCO, which specifies a part of the object being described.

After reviewing my comparison of the two content standards, ICFA decided that rather than choosing one standard and using it indiscriminately, a combination of the two standards would best suit its needs. CCO will comprise the base of local description practice, since it was developed specifically to work with VRA Core and reflects the Collection-Work-Surrogate hierarchy established in the encoding standard. However, DCRM(G) rules will be used for “Extent” and a combination of both standards for the element “Date.” Since CCO was not developed for use with visual materials in a strictly archival sense, these rules from DCRM(G) provide important information about the Surrogate that would not otherwise be included.

Now that a content standard has been chosen (or in our case, a combination of two standards), a cataloging style guide will be developed, and local practice implemented as exported EmbARK records are cleaned up and normalized in preparation for import into AtoM@DO, and in the future as the remainder of the fieldwork photography is cataloged in AtoM@DO.

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