Existing Resources to Support Description

Descriptive standards for visual resources are well developed in several independent fields. This list provides a basic overview and orientation to existing resources.

Image Description Guidelines

Guidelines for describing images that appear in digital publications. The DIAGRAM guidelines focus on content that commonly appears in the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math publications: especially diagrams, charts, and tables.

  • DIAGRAM Center Guidelines, Diagram Center  The DIAGRAM Center is a research and development center whose goal is to make it easier, cheaper, and faster to create and use accessible digital images. These guidelines focus on content that commonly appears in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) publications — especially diagrams, charts, and tables — and have expanded to include content found in the arts and humanities, including maps, photographs, and art.
  • National Center for Accessible Media Image Description Resources  Free training and professional development resources to support image description for accessibility

Alt Text Guides

Guides to writing alternative text, or “alt text,” for images on websites. Different context than writing description in publications, but offer useful principles.

  • Alternative Text, WebAIM  WebAIM’s article explains how to understand context in order to write alt text that is appropriate for the specific image in question. It also offers detailed examples of how to write good alt text for different kinds of images.
  • Accessible Images, University of Washington  Short overview on when, and how much, description is required to make images accessible.
  • Image Alt Text, Pennsylvania State University  This short guide shows how to write alt text for infographic and artistic images. It also explains the difference between writing alt text versus captions.
  • Alternative Text for Images, Oregon State University  This guide provides examples on how to write alt text for multiple types of images with varying degrees of functionality and complexity.


Describing and Analyzing Art

Approaches that set out procedures for describing art. The following approaches come from various contexts and have different aims, including access, analysis, and visual literacy education.

  • Art Beyond Sight Handbook for Museum Educators, Art Beyond Sight  This handbook takes you through the process of creating accessible programming for people with visual impairments.
  • A Short Guide to Writing About Art, Sylvan Barnet  Sylvan Barnet’s A Short Guide to Writing About Art guides students through every aspect of writing about art. Students are shown how to analyze pictures (drawings, paintings, photographs), sculptures and architecture, and are prepared with the tools they need to present their ideas through effective writing.
  • Visual Thinking Strategies Handbook, Visual Thinking Strategies   VTS is a method and teaching strategy that uses art to lead students down a path of deeper learning in subjects like math, science, and social studies. Discussions of visual art encourage students to engage with one another as well as to develop aesthetic and language literacy and critical thinking skills.
  • Visual Literacy: Art of Seeing Art, Toledo Museum of Art  Art of Seeing Art is a program that draws on the vast resources of art museums to train users to better understand works of art. Six steps— — Look, Describe, Observe, Analyze, See, and Interpret— — teach visual literacy to unlock the rich meanings in artworks.


Metadata Standards

Standards that define the pieces of information required to represent an object, their relationship to each other and to other standards, and how to write them. Metadata standards focus on the framework for information and the type of information that should be included, and may include useful guidance on how to describe certain pieces of information.

  •  Text Encoding Initiative Guidelines, TEI: Text Encoding Initiative  The TEI Guidelines for Electronic Text Encoding and Interchange define and document a markup language for representing the structural, renditional, and conceptual features of texts. They focus (though not exclusively) on the encoding of documents in the humanities and social sciences, and in particular on the representation of primary source materials for research and analysis.
  • VRA Core, Library of Congress  VRA Core is a data standard for the description of works of visual culture as well as the images that document them. Works of visual culture can include objects or events such as paintings, drawings, sculpture, architecture, and photographs, as well as book, decorative, and performance art.
  • Introduction to Metadata, Murtha Baca  Now in its third edition, as an open access online book, Introduction to Metadata provides an overview of metadata.


Descriptive Cataloging

Similar to metadata standards, these define the pieces of information required to represent an object, their relationship to each other and to other standards, and how to write them. Cataloging standards set a framework for information, make statements about what type of information should be included, and provide guidance on how to describe certain pieces of information.

  • Cataloging Cultural Objects: A Guide to Describing Cultural Works and Their Images, Visual Resources Association  A data content standard for the cultural heritage community.  The Commons includes cataloging examples, training tools and presentations for use by practitioners, in addition to excerpts from the CCO print publication. Sponsored by the Visual Resources Association Foundation, CCO activities center on educational efforts to promote widespread acceptance of cataloging best practices for the museum, image collection, library, and archival communities.
  • DCRM(G): Descriptive Cataloging of Rare Materials (Graphics), American Library Association  DCRM(G) follows Elizabeth Betz Parker’s classic Graphic Materials: Rules for Describing Original Items and Historical Collection, published by the Library of Congress in 1982. DCRM(G) presents guidelines and instructions for descriptive cataloging of graphic materials (e.g., prints, drawings, photographs, portraits, book illustrations, born-digital pictures, etc.), other than maps, requiring special treatment within a repository.
  • Categories for the Description of Works of Art (CDWA), Getty  A set of guidelines for best practice in cataloging and describing works of art, architecture, other material culture, groups and collections of works, and related images, arranged in a conceptual framework that may be used for designing databases and accessing information.
  • A Guide to the Description of Architectural Drawings, Getty  Guidelines, conventions, and standards for describing architectural drawings and documents, with examples and recommendations for authority files and controlled vocabularies.


Standardized Vocabularies: Art, Artists, Architecture

Standardized vocabularies settle confusion about multiple terms for the same thing—a person, an artistic style, a building—by linking all the terms together, and in some cases setting a preferred term.

  •  The Art & Architecture Thesaurus (AAT)®, Getty  AAT is a structured vocabulary, including terms, descriptions, and other metadata for generic concepts related to art, architecture, conservation, archaeology, and other cultural heritage. Included are work types, styles, materials, techniques, and others.
  • Iconclass, Netherlands Institute for Art History  Iconclass is a classification system designed for art and iconography. It is the most widely accepted scientific tool for the description and retrieval of subjects represented in images (works of art, book illustrations, reproductions, photographs, etc.) and is used by museums and art institutions around the world.
  • The Union List of Artist Names (ULAN)®, Getty  ULAN is a structured vocabulary, including names, biographies, related people, and other metadata about artists, architects, firms, studios, museums, patrons, sitters, and other people and groups involved in the creation and study of art and architecture.
  • The Cultural Objects Name Authority (CONA)®, Getty  CONA compiles titles, attributions, depicted subjects, and other metadata about works of art, architecture, and other cultural heritage, both extant and historical, linked to museum collections, special collections, archives, libraries, scholarly research, and other resources. CONA is linked to the AAT, TGN, ULAN, and the Getty Iconography Authority (IA).


Standardized Vocabularies: Other

Standardized vocabularies settle confusion about multiple terms for the same thing—a person, an artistic style, a building—by linking all the terms together, and sometimes setting a preferred term.

  • The Getty Thesaurus of Geographic Names (TGN)®, Getty  TGN is a structured vocabulary, including names, descriptions, and other metadata for extant and historical cities, empires, archaeological sites, and physical features important to research of art and architecture. TGN may be linked to GIS, maps, and other geographic resources.
  • Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH), Library of Congress  The Library of Congress has maintained LCSH since 1898 to catalog its materials. LCSH is used by other libraries around the United States to provide subject access to their collections, and is also used internationally, frequently in translation. The website includes all Library of Congress Subject Headings, free-floating subdivisions (topical and form), Genre/Form headings, Children’s (AC) headings, and validation strings for which authority records have been created.
  • VIAF: The Virtual International Authority File, OCLC  The VIAF combines controlled vocabularies for names from libraries across the world into a single OCLC-hosted name authority service. Covering geographic, corporate, and personal names, as well as subject headings, names of works, and more, the VIAF links terms from dozens of world languages.


Standards and Guidelines for Journalism

Journalism guidelines are wide ranging in scope, from writing style to professional principles. Useful here for guidance on describing documentary content, sections on writing photo captions, and ethical guidance on describing human subjects.

  • Reuters’ Handbook of Journalism, Reuters  Reuters’ Handbook of Journalism offers a set of style and principle guidelines meant to keep the work of Reuters’s employees accurate and unbiased. It draws on contributions from dozens of journalists in text, television, and pictures, both domestic and international.
  • AP Stylebook, Associated Press  The AP Stylebook is a guide for grammar, punctuation, and principles of reporting, created by journalists working for the Associated Press to standardize mass communications. It contains a section titled “Photo Captions,” which provides guidelines for writing photo descriptions. The most recent edition was released in 2016.