Art historians argue that it is not possible to restrict the language used to catalog an image. One image can contain an inexhaustible range of meanings, and it can take more than one thousand words to describe it. There is not an adequate list of terms available today to describe all of the aspects of images contained in image collections. In fact, few reliable descriptors exist for images: "It is that pictures need words. Words for artists. Words for style. Words for dates. Words for subjects. Words for things. In other words, many, many words."
It is conceivable to expect catalogers to use some type of universal authority control and controlled vocabulary in specific fields such as the artist/architect name and date field and the title field, and to maintain the remaining fields that they feel necessary for their users in the same manner as they have in the past. The use of controlled vocabulary in such basic fields as artist/architect name and title fields will enable cooperation between institutions while maintaining the necessary unique fields for each individual image collection. Cooperation between institutions will not necessarily call for complete standardization in descriptions, but will call for compatible software systems. Nevertheless, questions remain about which control tools are the most adequate for describing art and architecture images.
Controlled vocabulary and authority control have developed independently in individual art, architecture, and museum image collections . Endless methods for cataloging images have been created due to the diverse needs of the users. The types of indexes that have been created also vary enormously. In addition, the nature of the image collections vary greatly, even within the same discipline. For example, in the field of art history, some collections may be based on one very narrow subject such as Italian Renaissance architecture and may use a very limited controlled vocabulary, while others may contain thousands of general art and architecture images and use no controlled vocabulary at all. The only way some of the images can be located is by actually searching through the physical location where the images are stored.
Image collection developers have, in the past, used whatever tools they felt necessary to organize their specific collections. These tools include geographical dictionaries, the Art and Architecture Thesaurus (AAT), the ICONCLASS, the subject list developed by Elisabeth Betz Parker (of the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division), and various naming protocols. The librarians and curators that I spoke with commented that in the future they planned to consult the AAT and the Union List of Artists Names developed by the Getty Art History Information Program (ULAN) in the future because these tools are available electronically and will be easier to access when cataloging. The image collection organizers admitted that in the past they have not been consistent in their use of controlled vocabulary and authority lists. Although many of the collections did have existing "home-made" authority and vocabulary controls available to them, the lists were not consulted consistently. Cataloging for these image collections is based on the "historical knowledge" of the collection, which is usually acquired during their training (from their predecessor). Because of this, many of the collections have not handled information consistently from one generation to the next. The second-generation and third- generation catalogers generally disagree with various aspects of the previous catalogers' methodology, so they change methods to suit their own needs. This was never a problem until image collections began to create computerized index systems.
Many image collections converted their records of old paper indexes to computerized databases. During the conversion it became blatantly apparent that there was a problem with inconsistency in the information being used to catalog images. Database structure demands consistency of information for search capabilities. No matter how good the database software is, "technology will not dramatically change how an item is indexed without the cataloger or indexer first changing how he/she goes about the process of documentation."
The two most common sets of terms consulted by image collection organizers are the Art and Architecture Thesaurus and ICONCLASS. The AAT was created by the Art History Information Program (AHIP) and is trademark of the J. Paul Getty Trust. The AAT contains extensive art and architecture terms (although it does "skimp" on the terms used to describe images in the fine arts). It is organized in a hierarchical way, lists words with definitions, and contains notes on usage. The AAT provides a flexible base for "defining" an image. Most image collections that use the AAT use it as a supplement of some sort in conjunction with other vocabulary lists they have created for their individual collections. ICONCLASS, on the other hand, is not as flexible: "[ICONCLASS] takes everything, absolutely everything, you can think of. Then divides it into one hierarchical and interlocking set of broad categories with examples." ICONCLASS was developed by Professor H. Van der Waal to deal with the traditional iconography of art history. It contains codes that represent various iconographic elements used in cataloging descriptions. The codes are difficult to remember (you have to look them up in the nine volume set), and because of the interlocking nature of the system, additional codes are difficult to incorporate. Catalogers can not always say what they want to say using these codes.
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