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Catalog and Finding Aid Systems for Pictorial Materials: Representative Examples

When archivists and librarians plan projects to contribute descriptions of photographs, drawings, prints, and other pictorial materials to online information systems, they often look for models among sister institutions. This resource list cites representative systems according to cataloging characteristics frequently asked about. The categories highlight only one feature of each system to help you compare different types of catalogs and finding aids; levels and depths of description; cataloging (descriptive metadata) standards; digital image navigation, and encoding schemes. Exploring these representative systems may also give you ideas about other important features, such as advising users about ordering reproductions, offering keyword access or subject headings, and explaining what portion of your collections are available online.

The selected features are not presented in any particular order, except that the most popular topic appears first. Question: Should records for pictures be integrated with catalogs for all kinds of information resources, or kept separate? Answer: Both capabilities are needed--integrated access for all media and the option to limit searches to 'only pictures.' The examples below illustrate several ways to accomplish that goal.

The systems were selected between 2002 and 2004 to represent a wide range of current practices in cataloging visual materials, with an emphasis on libraries and archives. Inclusion in this list is not an endorsement by the Library of Congress. For many additional examples of catalogs, see the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division reference aid called "Picture Catalogs Online."

Disclaimer icon The Library of Congress does not maintain most of these sites. Users should direct concerns about these links to their respective site administrators or webmasters.

Table of Contents


Integrated -- pictures with other media

  • American Antiquarian Society, Online Catalog. Thousands of records for historical prints, photographs, and ephemera are described in the same catalog used for books and other non-visual media. Limiting a search to the department name "Graphic Arts" provides access to only the pictorial materials.
  • Library of Congress, Online Catalog. More than 100,000 records for pictorial materials are among the 12 million records representing books, electronic resources, manuscripts, maps, moving images, sound recordings, and other materials. The item-level records are chiefly for published pictures. The collection-level summaries often link to inventory-level records for large negative collections available only in the Prints & Photographs Online Catalog to avoid flooding the integrated catalog with similar records.
  • Smithsonian Institution Research Information System SIRIS has 230,000 descriptions of personal papers, manuscripts, photographs, oral histories, sound recordings, films, and organizational records from nine repositories. Over 100,000 scanned images are available online. The catalogs for books and art inventories are separate databases within SIRIS.

Separate catalogs for pictures

  • Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Online Catalog. PPOC includes the 100,000 still picture records available in the LC Online Catalog, plus 4000,000 inventory-level records, chiefly for items in large collections with negatives. Almost 1 million digital images are linked to group and item-level records.
  • Canada Library and Archives.
    • Photographs. 400,000 descriptions for photographs, with 10,000 digital images.
    • Documentary Art. 160,000 entries, with 5,000 digital images. Descriptions are written mainly in the language of the creator-donor, with most descriptions in English.

Multiple levels of description

  • Series and item

National Archives and Records Service, Archives Research Catalog. Covers 3,000 still picture series, including digital image reproductions of more than 50,000 pictorial items. Search can be limited by "level" of description. For an example with photographs, search for "Ansel Adams."

  • Collection, series, folder, item

New Mexico State Records Center and Archives, On-line Catalog. "All materials are described in a hierarchical manner. This means that there can be multiple records for individual collections (collection records, series records, folder records and/or item records)."

  • Collection, series, and item

Chicago Historical Society, Archie. Use the advanced search feature and ask for "negatives" and "state street" to see all three levels of description.

  • Different levels of description in different catalogs

Minnesota Historical Society.

  • PALS. This statewide OPAC holds records for collections and groups of photographs.
  • Visual Resources Database. Holds records for 184,500 photographs, posters, art, and fine art photographs. 115,000 records have a corresponding digital image.

Single level of description

  • Collection-level

University of California, Berkeley, GLADIS-UCB Library Catalog. Search for "photographs" limited to the "Bancroft" Library location. When more information is needed than can fit in catalog entries, the records link to finding aids in the Online Archive of California.

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. To see descriptions of manuscript collections that have photographs, select the catalog's advanced search screen. Look for "photographs" (as a subject) and "southern historical collection." The collection-level summary records usually link directly to online finding aids with additional information.

  • Item-level, pictorial only

University of Michigan, Bentley Library, ImageBank. More than 4,000 records for individual pictures accompanied by digital images. To provide sufficient context for each image, the records link directly to the archival finding aid for whichever collection contains the picture.

  • Item-level, multi-media

University of Washington Libraries, American Indians of the Pacific Northwest Digital Collection. Ca. 2,500 photos and text pages with digital images.

Degree of cataloging

  • Enriched, item-level

Denver Public Library, Western History / Genealogy Dept., Photography Collection. Detailed subject notes, numerous subject headings, and dimensions for the original items indicate full-level cataloging. Ca. 100,000 photographs have online descriptions with digital images.

  • Sufficient, item-level

Minnesota Historical Society, Visual Resources Database. Descriptive titles, primary subject headings, and basic media and date information cover 184,500 photographs, posters, art, and fine art photographs. 115,000 records have a corresponding digital image.

  • Abbreviated, item-level

Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Online Catalog. A search for photochrom prints of Ireland illustrates characteristics of inventory-level records: no subject headings, most description is from a boilerplate template; reliance on the digital image and keyword access to provide access.

Thesaurus integrated with catalog

  • Indiana University Digital Library, Charles W. Cushman Photograph Collection. Terms from the Thesaurus for Graphic Materials are part of the catalog to allow easy access to searching by terms (e.g., automobiles) as well as broader terms (vehicles) and any narrower terms (station wagons). Cross references automatically retrieve preferred terms (a search for 'cars' retrieves 'automobiles').

Union catalogs (records from many repositories)

  • Many kinds of description

RLG Cultural Materials. Includes a wide variety of records and digital images for 225,000 works and 622 groups contributed by more than 30 archives, libraries, and museums. The recommendations for effective data and images are listed in "Contributing to RLG Cultural Materials."

  • Collection-level descriptions

OCLC, Mixed Materials File, via the National Union Catalog of Manuscript Collections. The OCLC "mixed materials" file for archival materials has almost 300,000 records. A search for "photographs" in 2003 yielded almost 25,000 hits. (Additional photographs are in the OCLC Visual Materials file along with moving images and records for individually issued items such as posters and prints.)

  • Item-level and group-level descriptions

Picture Australia. Ca. 630,000 records and images. The National Archives and many libraries are among 25 agencies that contribute still picture records with digital images. A search for "sewing" yields both item and group-level descriptions.

  • Links to separate databases at multiple institutions-

British Columbia Archival Information Network, British Columbia Photographs Online. Lists databases at 12 archives, libraries, and museums as well as 20 online gallery presentations.

  • Special presentations for each collection

Library of Congress, American Memory and Global Gateway. Includes more than 100 collections from more than 25 institutions. All items have digital images. Each collection has a home page to explain its scope and provide general and special indexes, bibliographies, links to related sites, or presentations of selected images.

Finding Aids

Individual collection examples

  • Size of collection: small

Utah Historical Society. M.C. Gigi Photograph Collection (2 folders of photographs)

  • Size of collection: large

Duke University. Guide to the William Gedney Photographs and Writings (49,870 items)

  • Photographs interspersed with other media

Getty Research Institute. Josef Stendl Furniture Designs.

  • Multilevel description: series and file list for photographs

Simon Fraser University. Archives and Records Management Department fonds (F-51-7)

Type of collection

  • Assembled by archives, with provenance noted

Smithsonian Institution, Archives of American Art. Search Digital Collections.

  • Corporate records, all photos

Heard Museum, Library and Archives. Fred Harvey Company Photograph Collection.

  • Family papers, with a photo series

Montana State University, Library, Special Collections. Hart Family Papers.

  • Government records, with photos as a subseries

Wisconsin State Historical Society. Wisconsin. Office of Transportation Safety: Safety Scrapbooks, 1936-1958. (Search for "safety scrapbooks" to display the finding aid.)

  • Institutional records, with photos in series parallel to text materials

Georgia Tech. Inventory of the Georgia Tech Alumni Association Slide Collection.

Many collections in a single search system

  • Single institution

City of Vancouver Archives. Has a search system for all records, including public and private records to the file-level and photographs to the item-level. Searching for only photographs or digitized photographs is also possible.

Johns Hopkins Medical Institution, Alan Mason Chesney Medical Archives, Visual Holdings. Uses a Web page links and a Web site search tool to access inventories of photographs.

  • Many departments at one institution

Yale University Library, Finding Aid Database. Search for "photographs" to explore more than 500 finding aids that mention collections with photographs.

  • Multiple repositories at different institutions

Historic Pittsburgh. Offers separate access to pictorial images (ca. 5,000 from 23 collections at 3 cultural heritage institutions), maps, finding aids, and text, with many special search features. Hosted by the University of Pittsburgh, Digital Research Library.

Kentuckiana Digital Library, Archival Finding Aids Collection. Searches 4,600 finding aids for documents, including photographs, from 15 contributors.

Online Archive of California. Over 120,000 images (including photographs); 50,000 pages of documents, letters, and oral histories; and 8,000 guides to collections are available.

Navigation of images

  • Thumbnail embedded in display of full record

Descriptive standards

  • Anglo-American Cataloguing Rules
    • A summary of AACR2 is available online. Chapter 8 is for "Graphic Materials."
    • Usage example: Library of Virginia. Use the advanced search feature and ask for the subject portraits and the subject engravings.
  • Rules for Archival Description
    • RAD is available online. Chapter 4 covers "Graphic Materials" and chapter 6 "Architectural and Technical Drawings."
    • Usage example: Canada Library and Archives. Photographs and Documentary Art catalogs.
    • Usage example: Archway Photographic Database. Union catalog for archives throughout Nova Scotia.

Subject authority files

  • Art and Architecture Thesaurus

Encoding schemes

  • Encoded Archival Description
  • Mix
    • RLG Cultural Materials. Includes a variety of records and digital images for 225,000 works and 622 groups contributed by more than 30 archives, libraries, and museums. "In general RLG can take whatever you have. Of course we would like to receive the most complete descriptive record possible, since this gives the best result when we map your data to the RLG Cultural Materials data model."

Compiled by Helena Zinkham, Technical Services Section, Prints & Photographs Division, July 2004.

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  March 25, 2022
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