Data Standards FAQs

The original FAQ was first posted in 1996 with many of the questions excerpted from the papers which Eric Childress, Elisa Lanzi and Roy McKeown presented at the session Faces and Names: Standards for Navigating Visual Databases, at the XXIX International Congress of the History of Art: VRA Satellite Meeting (1996, Amsterdam). The basic concepts remain the same; the page was updated in 2013 to reflect new standards and transmission mechanisms.

Background Questions

Q. What are standards?
A. Standards are mutually agreed-upon statements that help control an action or product.
Q. Are there different types of standards?
A. Yes, they include technical standards, conventions, and guidelines. The most exacting standards, technical standards, are codified forms of common practice that yield consistent results. Conventions are similar to technical standards; however, they are intended to accommodate variation in local practice. Guidelines are criteria against which products, systems, or programs can be measured or evaluated.
Q. Where do standards come from?
A. Standards originate in various sectors and exist as both proprietary and open standards. The commercial sector develops standards for such products as computer hardware. Organizations such as the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), the American Standards Institute (ANSI), and the British Standards Organization (BSO) are official standard-makers. Professional organizations such as the Visual Resources Association (VRA), the Art Libraries Society (ARLIS/NA), etc. draft standards in an attempt to meet the needs of their constituencies. Standards are also developed in conjunction with collaborative projects such as the core record developed by Colum Hourihane for the Van Eyck project.

Questions about Data Standards

Q. What is metadata and why is it important?
A. Metadata is data about data; this includes data about information resources. The identification and management of metadata is important to facilitate access to wide ranges of materials over networks. This is particularly important because of the explosion of resources on the Internet. The last twenty years saw the proliferation of data standards tailored for different communities and uses (examples include Dublin Core, VRA Core, CDWA, Darwin Core and others). The future will see further development of the Semantic Web; ways to link and discover these data sets on the Internet through the use RDF (Resource Description Framework) and LOD (Linked Open Data) and other transmission standards.
Q. What are data standards?
A. Data standards promote the consistent recording of information and are fundamental to the efficient exchange of information. They provide the rules for structuring information, so that the data entered into a system can be reliably read, sorted, indexed, retrieved, communicated between systems, and shared. They help protect the long-term value of data.
Q. Are there different types of data standards?
A. Yes, there are at least four: data structure, data content, data value, and data communication.
Q. What are data structure standards?
A. Data structure standards are concerned with the definition of a record and the relationship of the fields within it.The MARC (MAchine Readable Cataloging) format is a good example, although it is really a hybrid of a data structure and an information exchange (transmission) standard. SPECTRUM, a collections management standard developed by the Museum Documentation Association (MDA), provides what are called “procedures” for documenting museum collections, including a procedure for object creation. VRA Core is a data structure standard.

Q. What are data content standards?
A. Data content standards are the rules for how data are entered, for example cataloging rules and syntax conventions. Examples of this are the Anglo-American Cataloguing Rules (AACR2; replaced by RDA, Resource Description and Access, in 2013), and Cataloging Cultural Objects (CCO).

Q. What are data value standards?
A. Date value standards usually take the form of controlled vocabularies, including subject specific-terminologies and authorities for names and places. Well-known examples include the Art and Architecture Thesaurus (AAT), the Union List of Artist Names (ULAN), the Thesaurus of Geographic Name (TGN), the Thesaurus for Graphic Materials (TGM), and the Library of Congress Authorities (Name and Subject Authorities).

Q. How do data value standards differ from classification schemes?
A. Classification systems are sometimes treated as data value standards because their elements can sometimes be used as values. However, in the visual resources community, the use of classification tends to be collection specific as well as dictated by the changing needs of users. Some of these classification terms have migrated from analog filing schemes to digital information. Museum classification may reflect departments or collection divisions. While some standards have a classification element, VRA Core does not, rather allowing it to be determined locally.

Q. What are data communication or information interchange (transmission) standards?
A. The success of shared cataloging is due in part to the adoption of cataloging standards but is also attributable to the development of effective data communication/record interchange standards and protocols. These standards which define the technical framework for exchanging information work between systems and functioning either within a single institution or among systems in multiple institutions. The family of national and international MARC (MAchine Readable Cataloging) standards widely used by libraries around the world were among the first transmission standards. Of the national MARC standards, USMARC (developed by the Library of Congress), is the most widely used.
SGML (Standardized General Markup Language) was developed from the late 1980’s and eventually led to XML (Extensible Markup Language); XML 1.0 was first published in 1997. XML is an application profile of SGML (ISO 8879). Many standards now have schemas which allow them to be expressed and transmitted or exchanged in XML. A schema states the elements and attributes of the standard, and grammatical rules used. MARC itself is now capable of being expressed in XML using MODS (Metadata Object Description Schema). VRA Core 4.0 was the first version to have an XML schema written for it.

Q. Can multiple data standards be used within one institution?
A. Yes. The process that would enable this use would entail the use of mapping; using an existing standards “crosswalk”, or developing a local crosswalk, which identifies fields which hold equivalent data values across multiple standards. Dublin Core is frequently used as a sort of “lowest common denominator” in this scenario, as it addresses the core asset and descriptive information of who, what, where, when. This allows common searching and discovery of assets in an institutional system or data asset management system (DAM); richer, more detailed standards may then also be deployed at the collection or discipline-specific department level as well.

Q. My collection contains surrogates of objects which are neither art nor architecture; they include such items or topics as musical instruments, geography, natural science, etc. Will VRA Core work for this use?
A. VRA Core is a data standard for the description of works of visual culture as well as the images which document them. Because of the needs of teaching collections based on image surrogates, VRA Core is uniquely able to capture descriptive information about both the work and the image, and indicate relationships between the two.

Q. What do I do if I need more fields than are covered by the VRA Core (or another standard)?
A.  As well as different types of data standards, there are also different types of data; descriptive, administrative and technical. Most data standards will not cover all local administrative needs; but rather identify those essential elements which describe the data common to most collections and which are shareable. Most curators of visual resources collections will decide to incorporate additional fields in their local databases in order to adequately describe and manage their holdings. The use of various commonly available guidelines including the Categories for the Description of Works of Art (CDWA), CCO (Cataloging Cultural Objects), MARC, and the CIDOC categories is recommended for guidance when developing local fields.

Q. Is the current VRA Core 4.0 definitive or will it change?
A. VRA Core exists in versions, 1.0 through 4.0, which is the current version. Core 4.0 is the first version to have an XML schema written for it. VRA Core is developed and maintained by the VRA Core Oversight Committee; any changes which occur would receive a version number update. For questions and inquires about the Core standard please contact the VRA Core OC, or consult the VRA Core webpages:
Support pages
LOC Core Schemas and Documentation

Susan Jane Williams, updated 3/29/2013