Thursday, April 1, 2010

How Do I Find the Right Words?

While I did not hear Dr. Judy Weidman explain how cataloging is an art and not a science, I believe that she is on the right track. As an image cataloger, I can relate to her assertions about the cataloging process particularly as it pertains to architecture: uncertainty is always present, design is non-linear and one is imposing an order. In many cases, I simply do not know enough.

Those of us who experienced the development, release, promulgation, and implementation of controlled vocabularies which are now used to tag works or documents that we are cataloging in order to facilitate straightforward retrieval, appreciate the consistency that authorized terminology brings to our cataloging. We avoid many of the pitfalls of databases replete with homographs, synonyms, and worse. Our choices when applying authorized terminology are supported by discipline specific user warrant thus providing welcome consistency both within our local databases and in the aggregate as they are shared within and beyond institutional borders. Our work became much easier when these authoritative vocabularies became widely available.

And, yet, there is so much that I as a visual resources’ cataloger fail to notice or simply don’t or can’t know. While my lack of knowledge might be discipline based, this is not necessarily the case. Images are used so ubiquitously by all sorts of people for many different reasons that it is impossible for a single cataloger facing a data input screen to capture it all. This is where folksonomy--also known as social tagging, social indexing or social classification--becomes useful. This collaborative creation and management of descriptive tags contributed by end users adds an important level of descriptive information that is both democratically based and current. It can provide information that I simply do not and cannot know. This is why the Library of Congress Flickr Project was so successful; this is why museums are building on the experience of Steve.Museum.

Yes, there is still a huge role for our favorite authorized vocabularies to play as we describe images. The Getty Art History Information Program vocabularies (AAT, ULAN, TGN, and soon CONA) along with the Thesaurus of Graphic Materials (TGM-I, TGM II), and the Library of Congress Authorities (NAF, SAF) will continue to provide a base level of consistency, timelessness, and stability to our descriptive practices. We need both approaches.

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