Introduction to Vocabularies: Enhancing Access to Cultural Heritage Information

Stuart James (University Librarian, University of Paisley, and Editor, Library Review and Reference Reviews)

Library Review

ISSN: 0024-2535

Article publication date: 1 June 2000




James, S. (2000), "Introduction to Vocabularies: Enhancing Access to Cultural Heritage Information", Library Review, Vol. 49 No. 4, pp. 197-206.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

The increasing heritage movement means that there are more and more smaller and local museums and collections, increasing awareness of the value of preserving records of all kinds, with an equal necessity to record all the material for access, ownership, and record purposes. The major archival description manuals are very detailed and authoritative, but they need both expertise and experience to apply their precepts. So many smaller collections and institutions simply do not have – nor are ever likely to have – such experise or access to it. So there would seem to be a large potential market for a simpler manual aimed at just such collections, and that is what the Getty Information Institute sets out to provide here.

The key to it all is the overall manual Introduction to Archival Organization and Description. This surveys the whole field in four sections: Archival principles, archival practices; Archival analysis, archival description; Putting it all together, how an archivist works; and What’s ahead in description and access. A very practically‐oriented text, aimed at the novice or amateur, introduces basic concepts, starting with the nature and characteristics of archival information and documentation. It shows how to gather information for archival description (and what to gather), how to analyse it, and then present it as a descriptive record within an information system.

The whole work is firmly rooted in standard practice, with constant reference back to the various published standards available, including AACR and MARC. It is concise and clear, with a standard example worked through, leading to a final tutorial chapter “An over‐the‐shoulder view of an archivist at work”, summarising and putting into practice all that has gone before. Appendices usefully provide a glossary, acronyms, a bibliography, and a list of Web resources; this latter will become an increasing feature of many textbooks, and is warmly to be recommended. If the whole work (including the Web sites) is strongly biased to North America, that is both understandable in itself and offset by the international applicability of the principles and practice delivered. This is an excellent introduction: my review copy is being passed on to a new research assistant coming to my library to do almost exactly this kind of work for us. It is ideal for any non‐expert faced with arranging and recording any collection of records.

More detailed aspects are then addressed in two further volumes in the same series. Our readers will, of course, know the principles underlying thesaurus construction and use, or of controlled vocabularies, and the reasons why they are essential aids to information retrieval. But, again, they are things the novice has to have pointed out, and so the principles and practice are presented in Introduction to Vocabularies. The Getty Institute itself is very active in this field with its collaboration in the Art and Architecture Thesaurus and other similar work. This is all covered here and used as a source for examples. Again, this is a practical manual, with some very necessary repetition of basic principles from the previous volume, coupled with full reference to resources and Web sites.

One of the paths to the future is, of course, the digital/electronic one. The technical questions can pose some difficulties, but perhaps not as many as the legal ones. The subject of the third manual is intellectual and cultural property rights, their administration and control, in a digital environment. Once more, it addresses essential questions of basic principles, again with many examples of possible solutions. If the North American orientation is more specific here, it still raises questions we all have to face, with examples of how they may be answered in specific circumstances. The text discusses: what are intellectual property rights? The distribution of intellectual property over electronic networks; Administering intellectual property in cultural organisations; the structure, function and operations of intellectual property service providers; managing content and usage; Rightsholder and user issues; and Economic considerations. It closes with a summary of issues, trends and challenges and with “Another perspective” from Canadian experience. It is completed by four practical appendices, acronyms and glossary, and a bibliography. It is probably no accident that this is the longest and most detailed of the three volumes: the issues it discusses demand that.

These three volumes underline the Getty Trust’s mission to broaden its cultural outlook and impact, not only by publicising its own collections, but also by assisting other collections to develop; proper recording is, as we of all people know, fundamental to that task, and these works will give a sound basis for smaller (and not so small) collections to work on.

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