Cataloging Photographs in Archival Repositories

Cataloging and providing access points to photographs has always been a challenge, whether the photographs are part of a library's special collection or an archives. In this paper, I will discuss the major issues involved in cataloging photographs and describe the cataloging tools that are available to archival repositories. I will concentrate on description rather than databases such as RLIN or OCLC.

Catalogers of textual materials such as books and journal articles usually have several convenient sources of information-title, table of contents, abstract, or index-from which to determine the author's scope and purpose and the overall subject of the work. Several specific headings usually can be selected to describe the content of the book or article.(Parker, pg.14)

Authors and publishers go to great lengths to tell us what [the book's] purpose is. Images do not do this. To paraphrase one prominent author speaking of museum objects, unlike a book, an image makes no attempt to tell us what it is about. Even though the person who captured an image or created an object may have had a specific purpose in mind, the image or object is left to stand on its own and is often used for purposes not anticipated by the original creator or capturer.(Besser, pg.788) There may or may not be any written documentation accompanying the material by which to identify the "who? what? when? where? and why?' of its creation and purpose. A cataloger may, therefore, have to invest some time in research in order to answer these questions before describing and indexing these image(s). (Parker, pg.14) In an archives, this research may be accomplished in several ways: by talking to the donor or donating organization; by researching the accompanying papers, if applicable; or by researching the subject of the images and their general time period. In Bohdan S. Wynar's Introduction to Cataloging and Classification, it is suggested that the primary source of information about graphic materials come from the item itself. It that is not possible, a non-integral container, accompanying textual material, or other sources may be used. (Wynar, pg.101)

The task of devising a title often falls to the cataloger as well, since many pictorial items and groups lack them. By their very nature, most photographs are "of" something; that is, they depict an identifiable person, place, or thing. In addition, photographic works are sometimes "about" something; that is, there is an underlying intent or theme expressed in addition to the concrete elements depicted.

When describing the subject, the cataloger must take into account both of these aspects in order to satisfy as many search queries as possible. Indexers should examine images, their captions, and accompanying documentation carefully to determine both the most salient concrete themes (what the picture is "of") and any apparent themes or authorial intents (what the picture is "about"), taking care not to read into the images any subjective aspects which are open to interpretation by the viewer. For example, a political cartoon depicting a basketball game in which the players are dribbling a globe is "of" BASKETBALL and "about" INTERNATIONAL RELATIONS. Another example of the "of and about" concept is Dorothea Lange's photograph known as "Migrant Mother", which depicts a Dust Bowl migrant worker and her children. The photograph is "of" MOTHERS & CHILDREN and MIGRANT LABORERS, but in this case it would be overly subjective to assign terms for "aboutness," since the captions fails to tell us whether the photographer's focus was poverty, despair, hardship, survival, or other abstract concepts.(Parker, pg.15)

Even taking the above concepts into account, subject access systems have always been inadequate for describing the multitude of access points from which they user might try to recall the image. Images are rich and often contain information that can be useful to researchers coming from a broad set of disciplines. For instance, a set of photographs of a busy street scene a century ago might be useful to historians wanting a "snapshop" of the times, to architects looking at buildings, to urban planners looking at traffic patterns or building shadows, to cultural historians looking at changes in fashion, to medical researchers looking at female smoking habits, to sociologists looking at class distinctions, or to students looking at the use of certain photographic processes or techniques. (Besser, pg. 788)

In addition, or sometimes in place of topical subjects, photograph researchers usually find geographical and biographical access useful. Therefore, repositories may want to index under that name of a person, organization, or place in cases where these are not represented in an image and identified. Especially in an archive that collects in a specific subject area, such as the Walter Reuther Library of Labor and Urban Affairs, biographical access terms are probably one of the best ways to index photographs. Catalogers at the Reuther have found that using LCSH will result in the bulk of their collections being indexed under TRADE UNIONS. Hardly helpful for researchers of reference staff.

In most cases, proper name headings can be found in either the Library of Congress Name Authority File (personal names and corporate bodies) or LCSH (geographic entities and features, structures, events, etc.)

Some photographs in archives are important as much for their artifactual value as for their subject content. The distinction between topical terms and genre or physical characteristic terms is critical in describing such materials, since researchers often know whether they wish to see examples of formats and physical types or images in which formats or physical types constitute the subject.

Most photographs in archives are cataloged not as individual items, but as part of a collection (this is also true of manuscripts). This can be accomplished by making a photograph series within the manuscript collection, or by grouping photographs from a donor together as a collection unto itself.

This brings up the two most important aspects of archival theory: provenance and original order. These principles are important for the cataloger to remember when assigning descriptive terms. For example, it would be highly improper to pick individual photographs from different collections to form a like-subject collection. It is easiest to maintain provenance and original order when manuscript processors and catalogers work together.

Cataloging Tools for Photographs Used by Archives

The following is a list of cataloging tools that archives may use to achieve standardization of terms and a basis or organization in their records. While some archives use all of these tools, some use none, and some use a few, adapting them to their own repositories needs.

AARC2-provides the primary source of cataloging rules. Chapter 8 specifically addresses graphic materials, but many archives chose to supplement AACR2 with Graphic Materials: Rules for Describing Original Items and Historical Collections.

Archives, Personal Papers, and Manuscripts: A Cataloging Manual for Archival Repositories, Historical Societies, and Manuscript Libraries-can be of some use in cataloging photographs, but primarily used for manuscripts. Based on AACR2, but adapted to meet the needs of archival description.

Library of Congress Subject Headings-terms devised primarily for cataloging textual, book-length materials, but also provides the basis for cataloging of non-textual items.

LC Thesaurus for Graphic Materials: Topical Terms for Subject Access-developed as an additional tool for graphic material cataloging, the LC Thesaurus was developed in the Prints and Photographs Division of the Library of Congress and supersedes Subject Headings Used in the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. LCTGM includes subject access only.

Art and Architecture Thesaurus-meant for indexing textual and pictorial materials in various subfields of art history, including painting and drawing, architecture and the decorative arts. While AAT contains many terms useful for indexing pictures of the built environment, it lacks terms for a broader range of people, events, and activities which are equally important aspects of general picture collections. Still of some use to photograph catalogers.

Library of Congress Name Authority File-for proper name headings.

Descriptive Terms for Graphic Materials: Genre and Physical Characteristic Headings-provides guidelines for genre and physical characteristic terms.

As can be seen by this list, many adaptations have been made to the primary source materials to make them more applicable to archives and graphic collections, but many archives don't take full advantage of these resources. It has been more difficult for archives than for libraries to come up with cataloging standards of their own. One can speculate on the reasons, but one of them is that archives have always considered themselves special and unique, that no imposed standards could work in their collections. The photograph collections in many archives are considered a "poor cousin" to the manauscript collections, not getting the time and resources that they need to best present their collections. Also, photograph or AV collection departments in archives may have a very small staff, maybe just one person, making it difficult to keep up with the work load. Today, archives are beginning to realize the value of standardization, not only for their own collections, but as a way to make their holdings known over such networks as RLIN and OCLC. Many repositories are using MARC format, taking the 545 and 600 fields to describe their collections as thoroughly as possible. As more archives are creating image databases on the World Wide Web, standardized cataloged text linked to digitized photographs will help in reaching the widest audience.


Anglo American Cataloging Rules, 2nd ed., 1988 revision. Michael Gorman and Paul W. Winkler, eds. Canadian Library Association, Library Association Publishing Limited, American Library Association, 1988.

Art and Architecture Thesaurus. Getty Art History Information Program, 1987.

Besser, Howard. Visual Access to Visual Collections: The UC Berkeley Image Database Project. Library Trends, vol.38, no.4, Spring 1990, pp.787-98.

Henson, Steve L. Archives, Personal Papers, and Manuscripts: A Cataloging Manual for Archival Repositories, Historical Societies, and Manuscript Libraries, 2nd ed., Society of American Archivists, 1989.

Miller, Fredric M. Arranging and Describing Archives and Manuscripts, Society of American Archivists, 1990.

Parker, Elisabeth Betz. LC Thesaurus for Graphic Materials: Topical Terms for Subject Access. Cataloging Distribution Service, Library of Congress, 1987.

--Graphic Materials: Rules for Describing Original Items and Historical Collections. Library of Congress, 1982.

Ritzenthaler, Mary Lynn, et al. Archives and Manuscripts: Administration of Photographic Collections. Society of American Archivists, 1984.

Wynar, Bohdan S. Introduction to Cataloging and Classification, Arlene G. Taylor, ed. 8th ed. Libraries Unlimited, 1992.

Zinkman, Helena and Parker, Elisabeth Betz. Descriptive Terms for Graphic Materials: Genre and Physical Characteristic Headings Library of Congress, 1986.

Amy L. James
ILS 603
October 15, 1995