Thousands of public and research libraries, museums, archives, local historical societies, corporations, professional associations, and private collectors are custodians of graphic materials.  In the past, each has had to devise its own system of documentation because there were no readily available cataloging guidelines.  Researchers and staff alike have suffered from having to cope with a multiplicity of methods.

A nationally accepted system of cataloging would benefit both the institution and the researcher.  Those embarking on cataloging projects would not have to totally rethink the problem.  Communication among institutions with similar holdings would be fostered, and they could in fact profit from some form of shared cataloging.  Whether used in a manual or automated form, a standardized set of rules would guide institutions in presenting the researcher with consistent cataloging information.  A national union catalog for graphic collections to aid researchers in locating sources could become a reality.  Even if not adopted in its entirety, a standard would provide a reference point by which institutions could indicate how their own cataloging practices differ.

Computer technology has made it possible to document huge numbers of items and transmit information electronically.  The impact of automation on inventory control and research access could be enormous.  Thus it is crucial that custodians of graphic collections think seriously about establishing compatible methods of documentation even if, for many, automation is not right at hand.  Because national standards and automated systems for book cataloging have proven so successful, it is worth trying to adapt that format to graphic materials.

This online help provides guidance for cataloging graphic materials within the general structure and theory of the second edition of the Anglo-American Cataloguing Rules (AACR 2), applied by libraries and automated bibliographic networks in the United States, Canada, Great Britain, and Australia.  Library cataloging methods have been reconciled with the principles of archives and museum documentation in an attempt to facilitate the cataloging of graphic materials and, furthermore, to link graphics records with a national system used for books and serials.

Chapter 8 of AACR 2 focuses on commercially-produced audiovisual materials, published and/or documented artists’ prints and photographs, portfolios, and reproductions accompanied by printed information.  Although the general introduction to AACR 2 states that the rules are "not specifically intended for specialist and archival libraries," it is "recommended that such libraries use the rules as the basis of their cataloguing and augment their provisions as necessary."  This online help not only augments the original rules found in Chapter 8, but it also departs from that base in several instances in an effort to meet the requirements for cataloging original and historical graphic materials. ( FN 1)  It should be emphasized that small institutions or those with more general interests may wish to reduce the amount of detail given in these rules, while larger or more specialized institutions may wish to elaborate on them.

The texts of AACR 2 and Bibliographic Description of Rare Books (Washington, D.C. : Library of Congress, 1981) form the foundation for these rules.  Provisions in those two documents were modified and expanded with more specific interpretations, clearer and more recognizable definitions, fuller guidelines, and additional examples in order to assist those who may be more familiar with traditional archives and museum methods than with library terminology and techniques.

Those more familiar with library cataloging will find differences between the documentation of graphic materials and the description of books and other printed or published library materials.  For example, original or noncommercial graphic works are generally considered to be unique, though they frequently exist in multiple copies.  Even if published, they lack much of the explicit information characterizing books and book-like materials.  Furthermore, most collections of graphic items are unique because, as collections, they have never been published.

Book cataloging is based on the transcription of data from the published item (the " chief source of information") into the format of catalog record.  The concepts of "chief source of information" and "prescribed sources" used in traditional book cataloging has been redefined here for original and historical graphic materials because they often have little or no text to transcribe.  The major reason for documenting graphics is to provide the researcher with as complete an identification of the material as possible.  This is done by translating the visual information into a verbal description of the material’s physical nature and image content.  Authenticating the material and making attributions of responsibility are also activities in documenting graphics.  Information must be extracted, interpreted, and extrapolated from the visual content and context of the material, as well as from secondary sources.  The cataloger must supply a great deal of information because it is unlikely the catalog user has a copy of or a citation to a specific item or knows the contents of a collection. ( FN 2)  In these rules the cataloger is allowed to record such interpretive information but, for the catalog user’s sake, distinctions are made among transcribed, supplied, and conjectural data.

Graphics may be cataloged individually because of their aesthetic value or their historical and iconographical importance.  In many instances, however, an individual image may have relatively little value as a work of art or as a single piece of evidence but rather derives meaning and importance from the collection of which it is a part.  For this reason, equal attention has been given to item-level and collection-level cataloging.

It should be emphasized that the following rules are most significant for the description and identification of graphic materials felt to be of importance and of some permanent value to the institution’s holdings.  Full cataloging may not be feasible for all pictorial works, especially those that can be efficiently arranged in self-indexing files or shelved by creator, subject, or other category.

This online help is not intended to teach someone techniques of identifying, processing, and organizing graphic collections.  These rules are based on the assumption that the material has already been examined and identified, that collections have been formed, and the data requisite for the creation of the catalog record have been gathered.  The purpose of the rules is to establish conventions for expressing and formatting cataloging data consistently.  The punctuation prescribed here follows the requirements of the International Standard Bibliographic Description (ISBD).  Although designed for automation, such punctuation conventions can help maintain consistency in the patterns of data in a manual catalog system.

A "neutral" vocabulary was sought in order to make the rules more widely applicable.  For more technical terms, a glossary is included.  Some rules may seem to require the cataloger to state the self-evident (such as having to record the fact that the plate mark was measured on an intaglio print), but one must remember that these rules are designed for describing a variety of graphic materials with the goal of making them accessible to researchers of all kinds who may not be aware of specialized practices.

These rules cover only the part of the record for description and, therefore, do not deal with the choice or form of access points that provide the means for reaching the description.  While recognizing the importance of name and subject references to researchers working with graphic collections, it was nonetheless decided that the description of original and historical graphic materials was a sufficiently complex problem to warrant a document just to deal with this aspect of cataloging alone.  Because access points and subject headings emanate from the description, the description is a fundamental concern of catalogers.  For choosing and formulating standardized access points, see guidelines in the following chapters of the Anglo-American Cataloguing Rules (AACR 2):

21 Choice of Access Points:  Guides the cataloger in choosing a main entry heading as well as the various added entry headings.

22 Headings for Persons:  Guides the cataloger in choosing a particular form for the headings that represent people.

23 Geographic Names:  Guides the cataloger in choosing a particular form for the headings that represent nations, states, provinces, counties, cities, towns, and the like.

24 Headings for Corporate Bodies:  Guides the cataloger in choosing a particular form for the headings that represent corporate bodies.

26 References:  Guides the cataloger in referring to the particular forms of headings chosen under chapters 22-25 from various rejected, alternative, or variant forms, i.e., cross references.

Some rules are designated as optional additions, or are introduced by the word optionally.  To quote AACR 2, "these provisions arise from the recognition that different solutions to a problem and differing levels of detail and specificity are appropriate in different contexts.  Some . . . options should be decided as a matter of cataloguing policy for a particular catalogue . . . and should therefore be exercised either always or never.  Other . . . options should be exercised case by case.  It is recommended that all cataloguing agencies distinguish between these two types of options and keep a record of their policy decisions and of the circumstances in which a particular option may be applied" (AACR 2, 0.7).

Further, a certain necessity for interpretation and judgment on the part of the cataloger is recognized in these rules, as it is in AACR 2.  The requirements of a particular catalog or the use of the material being cataloged must always be taken into consideration; situations in which there might be differing local needs are brought to the attention of the cataloger by the words if desirable.  The cataloging agency should always record its interpretations so that they are consistently applied (AACR 2, 0.9).


During my 12 years in the Prints and Photographs Division, I have discussed the problems of cataloging graphic materials with many people.  It would be impossible to name them all here, but I would like to mention in particular my colleagues in the Division, Bernard Reilly (Curator of Popular and Applied Graphic Art) and Annette Melville (Reference Librarian).  The Joint Committee on Specialized Cataloging of the Council of National Library and Information Associations provided an impetus for me to become involved in more than just Divisional considerations by clearly voicing a need for supplementary rules to AACR 2.  I am grateful to Processing Services for the opportunity to work on this project and to Ben Tucker for his constant interest and help in its progress.  It was a great pleasure working with the editorial committee of Georgia Bumgardner, Lynn Cox, Jim Kopp, Bill Roberts, and Chris Seifried.  They shared not only their knowledge, experience, and time, but also an enthusiasm and persistence in dealing with the complexities of cataloging a broad range of graphic materials in a consistent manner.  Those who responded to the draft could, unfortunately, not be answered separately, but they will find many changes in this final version that reflect their comments.  I would also like to thank Oliver Jensen, Chief of the Prints and Photographs Division, for supporting me in this effort when equally pressing work in the Division had to be temporarily set aside.

Elisabeth W. Betz

Picture Cataloging Specialist

Prints & Photographs Division

Research Services

July 1982

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Graphic Materials:  Contents