Controlled vocabularies

A controlled vocabulary is an organized set of terms (words and phrases) meant to facilitate description and retrieval of items in a collection. These terms can be in alphabetical or hierarchical order, and are often developed to describe a certain type of collection, such as the Art & Architecture Thesaurus or the Nomenclature for Museum Cataloging (although that does not mean that they can only be used for that type of collection). Controlled vocabularies can be used to describe the subject of an item, the form or genre of an item, or even provide information about its provenance.

Controlled vocabularies

Controlled vocabularies can be organized in several ways. Two of the most common forms are subject heading lists and thesauri.

Subject headings

Subject headings are words used for describing the subject of an item, in order to retrieve groups of items on a particular topic (i.e. books about Shakespeare, or art depicting Romeo and Juliet). Subject heading lists are usually arranged alphabetically rather than thematically or hierarchically; they provide the preferred terms for topics along with cross-references to alternative terms. The Library of Congress Subject Headings are probably the best-known example of this kind of vocabulary.


A thesaurus, in contrast, organizes its terms hierarchically, since its main emphasis is on the relationship between concepts (and their corresponding terms). Like a subject heading list, it provides preferred terms and cross-references, but also includes relationship indicators with each term. For instance, the Art & Architecture Thesaurus indicates that Bibliographies are a form of the concept Lists (which are in turn a Document Genre). A thesaurus represents a semantic network, not just a flat list of terms.

Taxonomies, authority files, and classification schemes are all examples of controlled vocabularies as well. If you'd like to read about controlled vocabularies in more detail, the Getty Institute has produced a comprehensive and freely-available Introduction to Controlled Vocabularies.

Controlled vocabularies at the Folger

Folger catalogers use several controlled vocabularies (both subject heading lists and thesauri) to fit the needs of different materials. These controlled vocabularies are used in several ways:

to categorize the subject of an item
to describe its physical characteristics
to elaborate on its provenance, genre, and form
to detail its relationship with other items or entities using relationship designators

Controlled vocabularies most frequently appear in MARC fields 600, 610, 630, 650, 651, and 655. When they are from any vocabulary other than LCSH, the source vocabulary is indicated in a subfield ‡2 following the term (see the Subject heading term source code list and the Genre/form term source code list for more information). The Folger generally uses non-LCSH terms as genre/form headings only; they are found in the 655 field.


The Library of Congress Subject Headings is a general list, first developed by the Library of Congress in 1898, and actively maintained and updated since then. At the Folger, it is used to specify subjects for both open stacks and vault materials.

 600 10 Shakespeare, William, 1564-1616 ‡x Homes and haunts ‡v Pictorial works 
 650  0 Political corruption ‡z England ‡v Early works to 1800 

(In the two examples above, notice that there is a subfield ‡v present, indicating a genre/form term. Genre subdivisions are gradually being phased out of practice as the Library of Congress develops more specialized vocabularies, such as LCGFT, and library catalogs implement faceted browsing, but for now many are still actively used.)

The LCSH is a broad, generalized vocabulary, and it can describe a variety of materials, but like Library of Congress Classification, LCSH was created to fit the Library of Congress's holdings, and not to encompass all areas of knowledge or topics. It is a subject list, and although the terms found therein may be used for form and genre, it's a clumsy fit. Folger catalogers turn to a selection of smaller, specialized vocabularies for genre and form: the RBMS controlled vocabularies, the Art & Architecture Thesaurus, and occasionally the Thesaurus for Graphic Materials (as well as a small handful of local terms). We turn to LCSH for genre or form only in the event that the other vocabularies do not provide a needed term.


The Rare Book and Manuscripts Section (part of the American Library Association) maintains six controlled vocabularies relating to the physical evidence, provenance, and genre of rare materials. RBMS terms are used extensively by the Folger as genre and form terms to describe our Vault collections, and some of our open stacks items as well (such as to note the presence of an author's inscription); they are also used to describe items in the Folger Bindings Image Collection. The RBMS vocabularies account for seven abbreviations on the list of source codes for genre & form terms (printing and publishing terms get distinct abbreviations, despite being released as a single thesaurus).

Composition errors (Printing) ‡2 rbpri 
Printed waste (Binding) ‡2 rbbin 
Volvelles. ‡2 rbgenr 


The Art & Architecture Thesaurus is a true hierarchical thesaurus. (By contrast, LCSH is not, despite its designation of broader and narrower terms.) Maintained by the Getty Research Institute, AAT is much broader than its name implies. Its coverage of art topics is useful at the Folger, but AAT is also designed to describe topics depicted in art. The Folger commonly uses AAT in authority control. In terms related to the book trade, especially, AAT is more granular and expressive than LCSH.


Index terms for occupations in archival and manuscript collections (ITOAMC) is a controlled vocabulary maintained as an Excel spreadsheet by Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress for use in authority and bibliographic records. It does not seem to be available on the Library of Congress web site, so the listing on Folgerpedia may be the easiest way to access the controlled vocabulary.

ITOAMC, as its name implies, focuses on occupations (e.g., Archivists, Pianists) and other designations for persons (e.g., Civil libertarians, Quakers). At the Folger, it is used almost exclusively in authority control. However, like LCSH, ITOAMC has an American bias by design. It has terms, such as "American loyalists" and "Chaplains, U.S. Senate", that would rarely come up at the Folger - and none particular to, say, the English Civil War. Thus, ITOAMC is often a third choice for Folger catalogers when doing authority work, after AAT and LCSH.


The Thesaurus for Graphic Materials was initially created by the Library of Congress to provide subject indexing for pictorial works, and was designed with automated systems, such as machine-readable cataloging in mind. At its creation in 1995, it consisted of two vocabularies: subject terms (TGM I) and genre and physical characteristic terms (TGM II). In October 2007, TGM I and TGM II were merged into a single thesaurus; however, due to their differing uses, they are still designated by two different sources codes in the MARC subfield ‡2. TGM I subject terms usually appear in the 650 field and are designated by ‡2 lctgm, while TGM II genre terms appear almost exclusively in the 655 field and are designated by ‡2 gmgpc.

One of TGM's strengths is its emphasis on providing subject access for both the "of" and the "about" of graphic materials - not just the subjects that are directly depicted, but also the broader meanings or symbolism that those subjects may suggest. TGM does not always have the granularity and deep hierarchical structure of AAT; however, it is a living vocabulary, and is regularly updated. It is occasionally used by Folger catalogers for bibliographic records, particularly for items in the Folger Art collections, when a more appropriate term cannot be found in RBMS, AAT, or LCSH.

Language of Bindings

Like AAT, the Language of Bindings database, or LoB, is a highly-structured thesaurus. It is one of the projects of Ligatus, a research center of the University of Arts London, and was released in June 2015. It's a young project, and will continue to develop with community involvement. Eventually, they hope to have pictures. We have not officially adopted the use of LoB at the Folger, but will keep a close eye on what, if anything, develops between LoB and the RBMS Controlled Vocabularies.

Local terms

Occasionally, the vocabularies above will not include the most precise term to describe an item, or Folger conventions may describe an item a particular way that does match a controlled vocabulary. For these cases, the Folger maintains a small group of local terms, identified by ‡2 local. While a group of local terms is technically considered a controlled vocabulary (it is a flat list of subject headings and/or genre terms, though it is not hierarchical), the Folger's local terms are not updated systematically, and are used or added to very rarely - only when there is no other option available for to describe a collection item.

Local terms used by the Folger:

Manuscripts from print
Patent rolls
Pipe rolls
Players' parts
Prologues and epilogues

External links