The Language of Catalogue Descriptions

The Heritage Imaging Team has recently completed a project to digitise 901 lantern slides held in the Christian Brethren Archive. As mentioned in a previous blog post, in the case of many of these slides, we had very little contextual information, or information relating to their provenance.

The creation of a catalogue for visual material without much knowledge of origin or content presents certain challenges and concerns.

If you are unable to identify the origin of the image, and the scene it depicts, the cataloguer may be reduced to simply describing what they can see, and thus descriptions like ‘Man under tree holding stick’ are born. As there were several cataloguers involved with this project, there are further concerns in terms of the standardisation of language, as one person may decide to to describe the same moving body of water as a river, and another as a stream.

There are also challenges in terms of the elements of the image which are chosen for description. Is the weather relevant? Do you mention any figures in the background, or stick to the foreground? The cataloguer may be fairly certain that the building depicted is a school, but without any corroborating data, may have to simply describe it as a building.


Another pressing concern is the importance of employing terminology that is culturally sensitive. If the cataloguer is unfamiliar with the subject matter and the culture depicted, it is crucial to try not to make assumptions, or produce descriptions which may prove to be inaccurate.

The cataloguer is left with the options of the potential inclusion of misleading, culturally insensitive information, or catalogue descriptions that are so bland and vague as to impart no useful information at all, thus rendering them not terribly useful as finding aids.

Early on in the process of cataloguing these slides, I decided that I would prefer to avoid misrepresentation by guesswork, and to opt for the best descriptions we could create based upon what could be identified within the images.


The inclusion of information generated by those belonging to the community to which the records relate, and from experts, has become a recognised and valued technique for descriptions of community collections and archives. Now that the lantern slides are available online, I am attempting to obtain more information from members of the Brethren Archivists and Historians Network, from members of the Christian Brethren, and from academics and researchers with expert knowledge on China, Africa and race relations.

There has also been some suggestion in the archival profession that perhaps an attempt should be made to return to archive catalogues created in the past, and improve the outdated terminology used within the descriptions. A problem with this approach is that, in 100 years, elements of the language which we currently use may be considered incorrect, or potentially offensive. Furthermore, the cataloguer must consider what terminology is likely to be employed by researchers when searching for records. It may be more helpful to enhance (rather than replace) descriptions with new additional terminology, to best ensure that a catalogue remains effective.

In the course of this project, I have come to appreciate again that the language used in archival description is important. The use of participatory description is significant and necessary, as we aim to be inclusive custodians of cultural memory.

3 comments on “The Language of Catalogue Descriptions

  1. There are archivists at the State Archives of Pennsylvania and at Elizabethtown College (in Pennsylvania) that are pretty knowledgeable about the Christian Brethren and may be able to assist with identifying or labeling some of your photos. If you’re looking for more assistance, I’d recommend contacting the reference departments at either institution.

  2. Reblogged this on Reading Race, Collecting Cultures and commented:
    This week I (Hannah) met with Jessica Smith, Archivist for the Christian Brethren Archive held at the University of Manchester Library. This collection contains, amongst other things, a large number of lantern slides of the Brethren’s missionary work in India, China and Africa during the early 20th Century. All of which are now digitised and available via the University’s open access image database.

    Our conversation quickly got onto the challenges of archiving material from colonial times; how to do it in a way that is accurate, useful for research purposes, but also culturally sensitive.

    Here is Jessica’s recent blog post about this topic – very interesting food for thought.

  3. Pingback: 14 March: Telling the Truth, I. | agnellusmirror

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