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Controlled Vocabularies & Keywording for Genealogists



A controlled vocabulary is an important tool in the genealogist's toolbox. A controlled vocabulary is a prescribed set of consistently used and carefully defined terms, which promotes consistency in your genealogy databases and in your family history writing. A controlled vocabulary is especially important when naming digital files and creating metadata such as keywords. As genealogists we create and save hundreds if not thousands of digital files. Keeping it all organized is critical for record retrieval. Using a controlled vocabulary will significantly improve your ability to find these records quickly.


The following free resources may be used to create a controlled vocabulary.


  • Library of Congress Authorities contrains preferred geographic names, personal names, corporate names, and subject terms.

  • The Getty Research Insitute provides six Getty Vocabularies. Of particular revelance to genealogists are the Art & Architecture Thesaurus (AAT)® and the Getty Thesaurus of Geographic Names® Online. The AAT is a thesaurus containing generic terms, dates, relationships, sources, and notes for work types, roles, materials, styles, cultures, techniques, and other concepts related to art, architecture, and other cultural heritage. The TGN focuses on places relevant to art, architecture, and related disciplines, recording names, relationships, place types, dates, notes, and coordinates for current and historical cities, nations, empires, archaeological sites, lost settlements, and physical features.

  • The Library of Congress Thesaurus for Graphic Materials is a thesaurus of subject terms pertaining to topics in pictures as well as genre and format terms for photographs, prints, drawings and other graphic materials.

  • The Integrated Taxonomic Information System (ITIS) is the authoritative taxonomic information on plants, animals, fungi, and microbes of North America and the world.

  • The U.S. Board on Geographic Names is the official repository of domestic geographic names data and sanctions the standard spellings of all foreign place names. It is the official vehicle for geographic names use by all departments of the Federal Government, and the source for applying geographic names to Federal electronic and printed products. For domestic names, see the Geographic Names Information System (GNIS). For foreign names, see the Georgraphic Names Server (GNS). When searching, be sure to check the "Include Historical Records" box to retrieve historic location names.


Do you stuggle to decide which keywords to add to a photo? If you do, I recommend adding a standardized keyword list to your photo editing software. In my experience with Adobe Lightroom, having a pre-populated keyword list makes choosing keywords easier, which means I am more likely to do it. Of course, you have to add specific photo information what will not be in a downloaded keyword list, but these lists help you to identify which keywords to add. Additional resources for free and paid keyword lists can be found here.

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