Adopting a Descriptive System – Data Structure Standards

A descriptive system of the collections is a logical, ordered and meticulous organization of information that pertains to the collections.

An efficient descriptive system makes it possible for the information as a whole to be grouped and organized hierarchically into a unique system. It structures the information so that it is readily accessible and understandable.

It establishes a number of rules or standards to organize information on the collections systematically. These are data structure standards or metadata schemes.

To learn more on the metadata standards for museum cataloguing.

The descriptive information on the collections is divided into a fairly large number of headings or information fields or metadata elements. These elements of information are then grouped and structured logically by information category, with the goal of facilitating retrieval, exchange and migration.

For a number of years now, heritage organizations and institutions all over the world have developed descriptive systems geared to their needs and focused on meeting the new demands of interinstitutional communication.

In Canada, the CHIN Data Dictionary charted the course and served as a development model for many descriptive systems that are compatible with the Canadian repository for museological collections, Artefacts Canada.

Operating Principles of the Artefacts Canada Data Dictionary

The underlying principles of this descriptive system are similar to the core principles of several other systems.

  • Information organized according to type of collection to be documented.
  • Information divided into defined elements.
  • Information organized into logical groups.
  • Proposed "basic Cataloguing Form" which can include a number of mandatory information elements as well as recommended information elements.
  • Proposal for a more detailed group of cataloguing elements.
  • Proposed rules and conventions for entering data.
  • Proposal of controlled vocabularies for certain elements.
  • Ability to maintain links between objects, between objects and their parts, or between a group and the individual objects composing the group.

By providing a common structure, the descriptive system can not only create a central reference database on the institution's collections but also facilitate the exchange of information with other users and systems.

For more information on internationally recognized description standards or metadata schemes for documenting and managing collections, as well as on the correspondence established between the CHIN Data Dictionary and these international standards, consult the Metadata Standards for Managing and Documenting Museum Collections section of the CHIN website.

Exercise 3: Documenting an Object from a Collection Using the Artefacts Canada Data Dictionary

Let us go back to the situation scenario exercise that was carried out at the beginning of this chapter, this time consulting the Artefacts Canada Data Dictionary and respecting the division of information, the definition of fields, and suggested rules for entering data.

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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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