Sunday, July 17, 2011

Some Final Thoughts on Cataloging The Family Stuff

Earlier last week, I was discussing the importance of cataloging and identifying family photos, documents and artifacts, primarily to ensure that they didn’t end up in the landfill because nobody knew exactly what they were.  And why they were important. 

I described and illustrated my “quick and dirty” database, maintained in an Excel spreadsheet, and also the single-sheet MS Word document that I used to record each individual item, with a scan or photo of the item and imbedded in the document above the text.  I noted that the text was a template of key data elements and was designed to follow a formula to capture the essential descriptive data, thus making stuff easy to identify and find.

When I interjected a new topic (the theory/history of memory)  into the last post, I intimated that I would return to the earlier discussion and talk about the importance of using a “controlled vocabulary”.  Even earlier, I suggested that I’d describe what I was doing with all those single-sheet pages that described the stuff in the collection.

First – the sheets.  The sheets get punched for a three-ring binder and then filed by number.  That’s the “inventory number” assigned the day the item was cataloged that was described in the earlier post.  Why this way? Because I figure that if someone picks up a photo and has no idea what or who it is, it’s easier to find out about it by looking at the inventory number in pencil on the back and then matching it with the number in the loose-leaf binder.

Plus, by using the Excel database, I can sort all the photos, documents and/or artifacts that referenced any specific family, locate the inventory numbers, and quickly find the inventory sheets that describe each item and identify the storage location.  (Note: the database does this too, but the sheets in the binder have a picture as well.)  

Plus I can sort and print indexes sorted all kinds of ways till the cows come home.

Why not keep it all in an electronic database and save the trees?  Simple.  I believe in the Luddite version of LOCKSS” (Lots of Copies Keep Stuff Safe).  Printed sheets in a loose leaf binder tend not to crash, become corrupted files or get lost in the cloud. They don’t take up a lot of space. I don’t worry about power failures, or having the right software to read the files.  It’s all  pretty simple.

As you might have guessed, I also like KISS, too.  That’s “Keep it simple, stupid” in case you forgot.

Now, about that “controlled vocabulary” thing.  

By building a glossary of terms and defining them, you’re building a controlled vocabulary.

For example, it makes your cataloging and sorting life easier if you can always sort on the same terms.  Let’s take pictures.  What will you call them when you enter stuff in the database? Photos?  Photographs? Snapshots? Ambrotypes? Polaroids?  It doesn’t truly matter for a home database, but even there it needs to be consistent if you expect to retrieve the data in a simple search.  In this case, “consistent” equals “controlled.”

Sometimes, you’ll want to search on a broad term and sometimes on a very specific term.  Here’s an example:  In your collection, you have a large, wide-angle picture of your great-grandfather in evening dress, celebrating at a dinner with about a hundred of his lodge brothers in 1918.  Sure, it’s a photograph, but can you “fine-tune” that?

Actually, that kind of photo has a very specific name. 

If you want to see how this works in the archives/library world, here’s the link to the Library of Congress website that describes their “Thesaurus for Graphic Materials II”  (known as “TGM II”).  Cataloguers in archives and libraries use this site a lot, and you can, too. 

Enter “photo” in the search box, and when you get to the page, scroll down to “photographs”.  

Behold! The image you’re describing is called a “banquet camera photograph” and if you click on the hyperlink, you’ll find a very specific definition. [Photographs made from a fixed wide-angle-lens camera capable of producing a sharp image of great depth. Usually photographs of large groups of people. One camera, marketed 1913-1926, produced prints of 7 x 17 in. (18 x 43 cm.) and 12 x 20 in. (30 x 51 cm.).]

By using that very specific term in your item description, you will (a.) learn it and (b.) be able to retrieve it with greater ease and precision when you go looking for where you stashed that photo.

Yeah, I know you’re not the Library of Congress, and your collection of family stuff pales in size by comparison.  But that’s no reason not to do a good job of cataloging in the first place.  As your collection grows, using a controlled vocabulary will make your life a whole lot easier in the end.

More important - you'll be writing metadata. 

That’s it for now on cataloging –slash – inventory hints.


  1. As I am in the process of going through and trying to figure out how to keep track of thousands of pages of family documents, photos and archives, this post is most helpful and welcome.

  2. It can be a truly intimidating task to undertake, but once you start the process, you quickly realize that the end results are well worth it!