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Cataloging Cultural Objects:

Cataloging Cultural Objects:
A Guide to Describing Cultural Works and Their Images

by Murtha Baca, Patricia Harpring, Elisa Lanzi,
Linda McRae, and Ann Whiteside



This impressive guide to documenting and providing access to cultural objects and their images is the product of a huge collaborative effort by the cataloging and art and cultural heritage communities. The five authors are experts in the field, and the guide was reviewed by dozens of their colleagues, with project planning assistance provided by the Visual Resources Association (VRA) Data Standards Committee and major funding by the Getty Foundation and the Digital Library Federation.

The goal of Cataloging Cultural Objects (CCO) is to provide a content standard for describing and retrieving information about cultural objects (art, architecture, and material culture) and their images. As the "Introduction" states, "Standards that guide data structure, data values, and data content form the basis for a set of tools that can lead to good descriptive cataloging, consistent documentation, shared records, and increased end-user access" (p. xi). In the visual resources metadata community, data structure (element set) standards and data value (vocabulary) standards have been more developed than data content standards. CCO aims to fill the data content standard gap, providing rules and guidelines for the "…selection, organization, and formatting [order, syntax, and form]" of the values and information proliferating throughout the elements of the record. CCO works with structure standards such as Categories for the Description of Works of Art (CDWA) and VRA Core Categories and recommends use of various thesauri, such as the Thesaurus for Graphic Materials (TGM) and the Art & Architecture Thesaurus (AAT) and controlled name and subject vocabularies, such as LCNAF and LCSH. CCO also complements and extends AACR and Describing Archives: A Content Standard (DACS). In addition to placing CCO in the context of the art and cultural heritage metadata enterprise, the "Introduction" also discusses the audience and the scope and methodology of the manual.

The main body of the work is divided into three parts: "General Guidelines", "Elements" and "Authorities". The first part, "General Guidelines", delineates the principles of CCO, and includes extensive sections on levels of description, related works, database design and relationships, and authorities and controlled vocabularies. Although the work as a whole is meant to be a handbook and not read cover to cover, this section deserves at least one careful reading; the sections on related works and database design and relationships alone are worth the price of the book. The principles and guidelines discussed here are brought up again in the later chapters; indeed, one of the strengths of the book is the referring back and forth among principles, guidelines, and discussions in the first section and their applications in the "Elements" and "Authorities" chapters.

Part Two, "Elements", contains a chapter for each element of description: object naming; creator information; physical characteristics; stylistic, cultural and chronological information; location and geography; subject; class (i.e., classification); description; and view information (for images). Each chapter opens with discussion of the element in question and issues related to its description and definition, such as specificity and depth and how to handle ambiguity and uncertainty, followed by a section on terminology, with a list of sources for standard vocabulary. Cataloging rules and recommendations follow, including dealing with capitalization and abbreviations, syntax, terminology, and applying the rules to various materials, as well as any other special aspects of the element. Recommendations are made regarding use of free-text and controlled vocabulary fields, as well as which fields are repeatable or not, referring back to discussions of principles of description, user access, and database design in Part One. Extensive examples of the specific rules and recommendations are provided. Each rules section is followed by a section on presentation of the data, discussing display and indexing (with references back to the "Database Design" section in the first part and forward to the "Authorities" part) and including sample records. The sample records are displayed along with their related work and authority records and arrows linking the various relationships.

Part Three, "Authorities", covers controlled vocabulary types familiar to library catalogers--subjects and personal, corporate, and geographic names--while also adding the concept authority, which provides controlled vocabulary as well as hierarchical and cross-reference structure for generic terminology in the field. As with the "Elements" part of CCO, each chapter on an authority type has three parts. Following general discussion of the type of authority and its terminology (with resources), it moves on to editorial rules for constructing the heading. The rules include considerations of usage, language, word order, fullness, and earlier and later forms (compatible with heading construction rules in AACR), with additional considerations specific to the needs of documenting cultural objects, such as life roles, gender, and dates and locales of activity. Finally, the section on presenting the data discusses display and indexing and provides sample authority records.

CCO concludes with a selective bibliography, a glossary, and an index keyed to pages rather than sections or rules. One minor quibble with the layout and numbering is that the rules consist solely of numbers, rather than alternating numbers and letters, and subordination is indicated by finely-graded diminution of type size. For anyone who loses track between similar numbering sequences (for example, A.3.2.1.2.1 and A.3.2.1.2.2), it is challenging to get back on track without clearer visual cues. In every other respect CCO is a model manual. Throughout, the authors stress principles and consistency of practice balanced against local collection and user needs, while providing detailed recommendations and guidance for each aspect of cultural object description. CCO will be an essential tool for catalogers of art and cultural heritage. Its delineation of principles of description and access and database design make it a model content standard and, as such, it belongs in every cataloging library.

Published in 2006 by: American Library Association, Chicago, Illinois. (xiii, 396 p.) ISBN-13 978-0-8389-3564-4 (pbk.-$85.00)

Reviewed by:
Anna DeVore
Cataloging Department, University Library
University of California, Santa Barbara

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