UC10153 -- Working with collections -- Week 4

Draft, 28 August 2016
This page should be in a useful state, but still needs work before it's finished.

Description and standards

Last week we looked at the policy frameworks and systems of value within which we develop collections. This week we’re getting into the nitty-gritty of description. Over the coming weeks we’ll see how the management and documentation of collections are supported by a variety of digital tools – including Omeka, which you’ll be using for your collection assignment.

Why catalogue?

The Small Museums Cataloguing Manual describes two main reasons why it is important to catalogue a collection.

  • Enriching cultural value
  • Enhancing administration

By describing a collection you are capturing essential information about its meaning, value and context. This can provide the basis for further research, or support the development of exhibitions. In the case of archives, description also helps underpin the evidential value of the collection, embedding it within a set of organisational functions and relationships.

Descriptions enable discovery. As more and more collections become available online there are greater opportunities for collection items to be found and used. Connections can also be made across collections, further enriching their context.

Collections are also assets. A catalogue or descriptive system allows that asset to be managed efficiently by supporting decisions about where resources should be applied, or how priorities should be set.

Description is a form of intellectual control that allows us to grasp the meaning and signficance of collections. But it’s also a way of unleashing the cultural power of collections, freeing them to support new forms of use and interpretation.

A pop-up museum

For this exercise you’ll need a collection of about 10 items. You’re assembling a pop-up museums, so in selecting your objects think about what the theme or focus of your museum is and how the objects relate to it.

If you’re working in a group, nominate one person as ‘registrar’. It will be their responsibility to maintain consistency and quality across the descriptions and manage the workflow between team members.

You’re going to describe these items using the Cataloguing Worksheet provided by the Small Museums Cataloguing Manual. These are the steps you should follow:

  • Decide on a theme.
  • Select your objects.
  • Create a register or accession list (see the Cataloguing Manual for details), and assign a unique number to each item.
  • Think about what you might need to do to maintain consistency across your descriptions – Will you have a standard set of keywords? How will you structure the object name? Which fields in the worksheet will be relevant to your collection?
  • Research your objects – even if you think you know what it is you might be able to find out more about the model or make of your object, or who created it. Perhaps you can interview someone in your family to find out more about how an object was used.
  • Complete a Cataloguing Worksheet for each item.

Next week we’ll have a go at entering some of these descriptions into a collection management system.


As you might have noticed in cataloguing your pop-up museum, one of the challenges is maintaining an appropriate level of consistency across descriptions. The worksheet provides a set of basic headings, but these might be interpreted differently, and there may be great variations in the sorts of language used, or how values like places or dates are formatted.

The impact of these variations becomes greater once you try to compare or aggregate collections – how do you know you’re really talking about the same sorts of things?

This is where standards can be useful. Standards define shared practices and meanings.

We’re lucky in the cultural heritage sector because we have LOTS AND LOTS of standards! (Ok, so maybe that’s not a good thing?)

There’s a lot of truth to the XKCD cartoon (which must be shown as part of any discussion about standards).

XKCD Standards

I suggested in this week’s reading that you might like to have a look at Seeing Standards. It’s quite scary – 105 different standards are being used in the cultural heritage sector.

But fear not! You’ll probably only ever encounter a small number of these, and in many cases you’ll be using them without even knowing it.

Standards support the description of collections in a variety of ways.

  • Forming frameworks – Standards can define the basic practices which constitute a field of activity. For example the National Standards for Australian Museums and Galleries set out the responsibilities, expectations and activities that make a museum a museum. There are similar sorts of standards for archives. These sorts of standards can be used to review current practice or frame organisational policies.
  • Defining descriptions – Standards can define what information that should be captured about collections and how it should be structured. For example the General International Standard Archival Description (ISAD(G)) sets out the basic principles guiding the arrangement and description of archives.
  • Enabling exchange – Standards can describe how collection information can be packaged and shared to support aggregation or reuse. For example Dublin Core sets out a basic set of terms that are widely used to share collection information.

Another form of standard are authority lists or controlled vocabularies. These may be simple, flat lists of terms, or complex hierarchies. The widely-used Subject Headings from the Library of Congress are an example of this sort of standard. For a visualisation of the complexity of the the subject headings system see the LoC Subject Headings Galaxy.

As I mentioned, most of the time you’ll be using standards without even knowing it. On the Small Museums Cataloguing Manual website you might have noticed that it states the manual ‘accords with Benchmark A2.4.2 of the National Standards for Australan Museums and Galleries’. The standard is being used to give context and authority to the manual.

Sometimes standards are used in the design of tools. The archival management system AtoM (or AccessToMemory) is designed to meet the requirements of the ISAD(G) standard. As we’ll see in a couple of weeks, the core fields in Omeka are based on the Dublin Core standard.

Here are a few standards that you might meet:

  • Dublin Core – for general collection discovery
  • METS (Metadata Encoding and Transmission Standard) – for capturing metadata within a digital library, often combined with ALTO to represent information about digitised objects.
  • ALTO – for describing the structure or layout of text objects, such as the position of articles on a newspaper page.
  • TEI (Text Encoding Initiative) – for representing the structure and content of digital texts.
  • CIDOC-CRM – a framework for representing cultural heritage information
  • EAD (Encoded Archival Description) – for preparing archival finding aids
  • EAC-CPF (Encoded Archival Context: Corporate bodies, Persons, Families) – for describing people and organisations associated with archival collections
  • OAI-PMH (Open Archives Initiative Protocol for Metadata Harvesting) – for sharing cultural heritage collections in a harvestable, machine-readable form

Standards are not standard

But standards and authorities aren’t neutral, they reflect a particular world view. Some examples of this were discussed in the readings for this week.

In both cases we can see that the systems themselves have evolved over time in response to community attitudes. It’s important to recognise that standards can, and probably should, change.

Standards creating organisations can also seek to involve and represent a range of perspectives. For example, the National Library of New Zealand is developing a set of Maori Subject Headings that reflect a Maori world view.