There are many types of standards used to manage museum collections information. These standards, which range from precise technical standards to general guidelines, enable museum data to be efficiently and consistently indexed, sorted, retrieved and shared, both in automated and paper-based systems.

Museums often use metadata standards (also called data structure standards) to help them:

  • define what types of information to record in their database (or card catalogue) and
  • structure this information (the relationships between the different types of information).

Following (or mapping data to) these standards makes it possible for museums to move their data between computer systems or share their data with other organizations.

Museums can use cataloguing rules (data content standards) and vocabulary standards (data value standards), which include classification systems and controlled vocabularies to ensure consistent cataloguing (using a consistent date format or using a certain spelling of an artist's name, for example).

  • Cataloguing rules (content standards) determine how data are entered in fields (rules for syntax, etc).
  • Vocabulary standards (data value standards) such as classification systems, thesauri or authority lists determine the terms used in the fields; they can help cataloguers select the most appropriate term to describe an object and to apply that term consistently.

Consistency in cataloguing makes retrieval of the data easier and more precise, both in computerized and card-based collections management systems. For example, a researcher can consult an authority file (also called an authority list) or a thesaurus to find the best terms for which to search (possibly including narrower terms, synonyms or words in other languages) in order to find all the relevant records. If integrated with the search engine, the narrower terms, synonyms and alternate language terms of a thesaurus can automatically be included in a search of museum data.

Interchange standards (data format standards) are used for the exchange of automated museum collections information. For example, some commercial collections management systems conform to established standards for data import and export so that museums can more easily share their data.

Museums use their collections data for many purposes (exhibition catalogues, Web access for the public, curatorial research, etc.), and they may want to share their data with other museums, archives and libraries in an automated way. This level of interoperability between systems requires standards to work together. Standards enable the interchange of data between cataloguer and searcher, between organizations and between computer systems.

Alternative format

CHIN Guide to Museum Standards (PDF, 544 KB)

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This resource was published by the Canadian Heritage Information Network (CHIN). For comments or questions regarding this content, please contact CHIN directly. To find other online resources for museum professionals, visit the CHIN homepage or the Museology and conservation topic page on

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