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User Guide

Using the Nomenclature for Museum Cataloging website

Search terms

If you have some idea of what the object you are catalogingFootnote 1 might be called, you can search for the term by entering it in the search box. The search will return any terms that match.

Wildcard search is supported; for example, a search for man*l would find “mantle,” “mantel,” “mandolin,” “mandrel,” etc.

You can also simply click on a letter of the alphabet to jump to the words starting with that letter.

Preferred versus alternative terms

Notice that Nomenclature includes both:

This will help you find the term you are looking for, whether it is a preferred or alternative term. For each alternative term, you will be pointed to the appropriate preferred term to use instead (as noted in the table below where “comic book” is the preferred term for “comic magazine”, so is returned in a search for “magazine”). Alternative terms are listed entirely in lowercase letters and do not appear in the hierarchical listing or the search results.

Broader concept to differentiate terms

The broader concept where the preferred term is found will be displayed, which will help you confirm that you are selecting the correct term. This is especially important in the case of different objects with identical names and spellings (homonyms). Term qualifiers are also used to help differentiate between homonyms. For example, a cataloger trying to catalog a gun magazine might search for “magazine” and see the following entries:

Table showing the resultset for a search on the word magazine
Preferred Term Alternative Term(s) Broader Concept
comic book comic magazine; magazine, comic comic
magazine - periodical
firearm magazine - armament accessories
powder magazine powder house; house, powder defense structures
slide magazine - slide holder

The multiple types of “magazine” are differentiated either by qualifiers or by the hierarchy in which they are found (e.g. Armament Accessories).

View term details

If you find a likely term, click on it to see the details for that term. The term will be shown within its place in the hierarchy. Look at broader and narrower terms and other terms grouped in the same part of the hierarchy to determine which term is most suitable. Term details also include:

Browse hierarchy

If no likely terms for the object come to mind, catalogers should review the list of categories, classes and subclasses by choosing “Browse hierarchy”.

Expand tree or browse one level at a time

It is possible to “Expand All” to show all three levels of the classification structure, but many catalogers prefer to just start at the top level and select the likely category for the object based on its function. Once you have determined the category, you can work your way down the hierarchy, deciding which class or subclass is most appropriate for the object.

Definitions for categories, classes and subclasses

Definitions provided for the categories, classes and subclasses will be of great assistance in confirming your choices.

Selecting a term

Once you have found the category, class or subclass that seems to fit your object, scan down the list of primary object terms. If you find a primary term that works, check the list of narrower secondary and tertiary object terms to find the most appropriate term. Catalogers may use a broad or specific term, depending on their level of knowledge about the type of object being cataloged and their access requirements.

Word order

Users can select between natural word order (e.g. “rocking chair” or “marriage license”) and Inverted order (e.g. “chair, rocking” or “license, marriage”) as the primary display format for English terms. In French, only natural word order is necessary.

Historically, Nomenclature used inverted terminology. This was the convention developed for English terms before computers with powerful search options were in common usage, and it served the valuable purpose of keeping similar objects together in alphabetical listings.

The inverted order is a valid alternative that is preferred in some institutions, often because of legacy systems. Museums should select the word order they prefer and maintain the practice.

Singular form

Most object terms are listed in singular form, as common practice in museums is to catalog objects individually. Even when a catalog record describes more than one object, continue to use the singular form (e.g. “shoe” to indicate a pair of shoes) in order to ensure consistency of indexing. Exceptions to the singular form do exist in Nomenclature when singular forms do not exist or are difficult (e.g. “pants,” “scissors,” “uneven bars,” “regalia,” etc.)

Canadian and international spelling

For the vast majority of terms in Nomenclature, there is one preferred term that is used across North America. For a small number of terms, however, there is a difference (usually a spelling difference) in the preferred term between Canada and the U.S. For these terms (e.g. armour vs. armor), users are able to toggle between their preferred spellings. Museums should select which spelling they prefer and maintain the practice.

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Understanding the structure of Nomenclature

Categories, classes and subclasses

Nomenclature helps catalogers find the best term by grouping like objects together by their function. Every human-made object has one or more functions—the intended purpose of the object. These functions define the ten categories of Nomenclature:

  1. Built Environment Objects
  2. Furnishings
  3. Personal Objects
  4. Tools & Equipment for Materials
  5. Tools & Equipment for Science & Technology
  6. Tools & Equipment for Communication
  7. Distribution & Transportation Objects
  8. Communication Objects
  9. Recreational Objects
  10. Unclassifiable Objects

Most categories are further divided into functional classes. Many classes are further divided into subclasses. Indentation shows the relationship between broader and narrower concepts; the full tree of the classification hierarchy can be viewed on the Browse Hierarchy page. (Note that in classes and subclasses, Tools & Equipment is abbreviated to T&E.) Categories, classes, and subclasses have initial capitals (e.g. “Furniture”).

Three hierarchical levels of object terms

Within these categories, classes and subclasses, object terms are also arranged hierarchically (broader/narrower relationships). This hierarchical arrangement of object terms is designed to help catalogers quickly and accurately find the best term for their needs and to speed the retrieval of information. Again, indentation is used to show the relationship between broader and narrower terms:

Primary terms are the most general terms for an object. Indented under some primary terms are secondary terms—specific examples of the type of object noted by a primary term. Indented under some secondary object terms are even narrower tertiary terms.

Terms situated within the classification structure

An example of the full classification structure, including all six levels, is as follows:

The hierarchical arrangement of object terms within the classification structure helps catalogers determine the most appropriate term for the object they are cataloging. They can choose a general term or one that is very specific, depending on their knowledge of the object and their requirements for access.

In addition to facilitating the work of catalogers, the hierarchical arrangement of object terms also helps with data retrieval. Object searches can be narrowed or broadened to include, for example:

Organization by functional context

For categories, classes and subclasses, the general organizing principle of Nomenclature is functional context. Object terms are also organized by functional context where possible. However, when it is impossible or impractical to differentiate object terms on the basis of functional context, other attributes are used (e.g. form, location, material, context of use, method of construction, method of operation, method of propulsion, fuel source, etc.).

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Nomenclature cataloging conventions

The cataloging conventions suggested here are intended to make recording, searching and sharing collection data easier and more consistent. Multiple methods are sometimes suggested, and museums can make choices based on their practical requirements and limitations. Museums should document their own in-house cataloging conventions so that consistent practices are followed.

Unknown objects

If you are not sure of the name or function of an object, a broad class can be assigned. If an object cannot be identified at all, catalogers can use “unidentified object” from Unclassifiable Objects (Category 10).

Adding object terms

Terms for specialized collections

Most museums with collections encompassing North American human history will find that Nomenclature contains the vast majority of terms they require. Some museums with highly specialized collections may find that the terms in Nomenclature are not specific enough to provide adequate distinctions. Museums may add their own terms to the lexicon and organize them as narrower object terms under existing broader terms. This should be done carefully:

Regional or community-specific terms

Museums that are regionally or community focused may want to use regional or community-specific terms, as these may be more familiar to staff and visitors than the standard Nomenclature terms. However, this will make data sharing with other museums or outside researchers more difficult. Although it is not recommended to use non-standard terminology for object naming, museums that choose to do so should be consistent in their methods. The recommended solution is to use standard Nomenclature terms and place the regional or community-specific terms in an alternate name data field or descriptive field. Another option is to add regional and community-specific terms as alternative terms. Whichever method you choose, document your choice and maintain the practice.

You may submit your terms to the Nomenclature Committee, so that they may be considered for addition to Nomenclature for the benefit of others.

Terms for natural history collections

It is common for human history museums and historical associations to collect small numbers of natural history specimens, and Nomenclature allows the broad classification of these objects within the context of human activity. Examples include:

Museums that need more specific terms for their natural history specimens will require the use of naming conventions (such as online Integrated Taxonomic Information System) already established by the zoological, botanical and geological sciences. Catalogers may enter terms from these scientific classification authorities in a separate field or may enter them in the object name field, organized under “animal specimen,” “plant specimen,” or “geospecimen,” as appropriate. Document your choice and maintain the practice.

Terms for archaeological and ethnographic collections

Nomenclature relies on determining the function of an object, but it can be challenging to determine function for archaeological and ethnographic objects, either because the function is uncertain or unknown, or because the object is so fragmented that it is impossible to determine its function. If the function of the object is known, archaeological and ethnographic objects can be classified in the same way that any other object is classified. Some of the terms in Category 10 are useful for objects or object lots that are unidentified or fragmented.

Terms for raw materials

Many museums have examples of raw materials, such as a skein of wool, a sample of unworked pottery clay or a piece of leather. Museums could choose to:

The strengths and orientations of a museum's collections may govern its choice of whether to regard a material such as leather as either a finished product of one trade, or as the raw material of another or both. Document your choice and maintain the practice.

Nomenclature does include certain material genre terms, listed under:

Terms for archival lots

Nomenclature may be used to deal with batches of archival materials that may not be individually cataloged in the foreseeable future. Within the “Other Documents” subclass, Nomenclature includes such terms as “archive” and “fonds,” which can be used to assign an appropriately generic identity to such batches. If the individual items within the batch of archival materials are sufficiently similar, and the batch has a specific function, it may be possible to assign a more specific classification. Many will fit within the Documentary Objects class, in subclasses such as Government Records, Administrative Records or Legal Documents.

If a museum holds significant quantities of archival materials, archival description standards such as Rules for Archival Description (RAD) [PDF Version] in Canada or Describing Archives: A Content Standard (DACS) in the United States should be consulted.


Nomenclature is a monohierarchical classification system: each unique object term has only one position in the hierarchy; each term has only one immediate broader term (parent term).

However, a single object can serve multiple functions or be named with terms that describe various characteristics of the object. For this reason, catalogers are strongly encouraged to use more than one term to describe a singular object if doing so will improve access.

For example, the term “wedding dress” is classified as a ceremonial object in Category 8, but it could have been classified as an article of clothing in Category 3. In order to find the wedding dresses, whether you are looking for the clothing or the ceremonial objects, you can cross-index them as both:

Look for the “May also use” notes within the term detail view on the Nomenclature for Museum Cataloging website. The “May also use” notes will help you select appropriate additional terms for a given object. These notes do not cover every possible instance in which an object may be cross-indexed with multiple terms; catalogers are encouraged to find additional terms for other objects as appropriate and useful.

Multi-purpose objects

When an object has more than one function, it should be cross-indexed to enable you to find it in multiple ways. For example, a souvenir T-shirt is both an article of memorabilia (a documentary object) and a main garment (an article of clothing) and should be indexed as both “souvenir” and “T-shirt.”

Combination objects

Multiple terms should be used to index objects that consist of various components for which object terms exist. For example, a home entertainment centre may be a piece of furniture but also a piece of sound communication equipment and/or telecommunication equipment. The cataloger should use multiple terms to ensure that this item is found by a searcher regardless of their approach. For example:

Multiple terms may also be used to index objects that have had different functions over time, such as a tire reused as a garden planter or a swing, or a guideboat fashioned into a bookcase.

Documentary objects and media

Using multiple terms for singular items also comes in handy for cataloging certain documentary objects. Nomenclature distinguishes between:

For example:

Digital objects

Many objects managed by museums are now digital (e.g. documents, artworks, photographs and sound or video recordings in electronic format). Most of these materials are born digital, but some are digitized from analog sources.

Terms in Nomenclature's Category 6: Tools and Equipment for Communication can describe:

However, these terms are not sufficient to classify and name the digital file itself. Generally, the digital object should be named just as its physical equivalent would be. For example, a digital photograph is a photograph; a digital report is a report; a digital ticket is a ticket. So their object names should be “photograph,” “report” and “ticket.”

The object's digital status should also be cross-referenced in its object name to allow the museum to find all of its digital materials. As an alternative, the museum may choose to record the fact that it is a digital object in a separate field.

Some examples illustrating the difference between physical objects and digital objects:

Additional examples of cross-indexing that can be used for digital objects:

Tricky cataloging cases

Object sets

Nomenclature for Museum Cataloging includes a number of terms for object sets. Furniture sets are found in a separate subclass under Furniture. Other set terms may be listed in Food Service T&E, Toilet Articles, Game Equipment and Toys.

There are two options for cataloging sets:

  1. Entire sets are cataloged in a single catalog record without separate records for the individual pieces. In this case, the “set” term should be used in addition to terms describing the objects in the set. For example, “sugar and creamer set,” “sugar bowl,” and “cream pitcher” all should be entered in the object name field(s) for the single record. This method ensures that a query for “sugar bowl” will find all the sugar bowls, whether or not the bowls are parts of sets. This is especially useful in those cases where it is impractical to catalog each piece (e.g. a chess set).
  2. Each object in a set is cataloged individually, and a separate catalog record is entered for the set. Add a “set” term to each of the catalog records for individual set pieces to indicate that each object is part of a set. For example:
    • “bed” and “bedroom Suite”
    • “dresser” and “bedroom suite”
    • “highboy” and “bedroom suite”
    • “night table” and “bedroom suite”

    In this case, a search for “bedroom suite” will find all objects in the collection that make up parts of bedroom suites. A drawback to this practice is that a search for the number of bedroom suites in the collection is falsely inflated.

Each museum should determine its own rules for cataloging sets based on its requirements for access and what is practical.

Object components, accessories, and fragments

Nomenclature includes terms for:

stand-alone objects or devices that are not essential in themselves but add to the beauty, convenience, or effectiveness of other objects. These are arranged in separate groupings at either the primary term level (e.g. fireplace accessory) or subclass level (e.g. Dental Accessories & Components) as required to group them at the correct level of specificity.
portions of objects that have been torn or broken off the whole item (as opposed to components which are intentionally separate from the object). If the identity of the whole object from which the fragment came is known, the museum should enter the term for the whole object in the object name, and cross-index with the term “Fragment” from Category 10. This will enable access to the fragments in a search for the whole object.
parts of a larger object (for example, a “mantel” is a fireplace component. Such objects are not “types” of the objects they are part of (a mantel is not a type of fireplace, so cannot be a narrower term for fireplace). Therefore they are arranged within separate groupings either at the primary term level (e.g. “musical instrument component”) or at the subclass level (e.g. “Water Transportation Accessories & Components”) as required to group them at the correct level of specificity.

If the accessory or component term you need does not exist in Nomenclature, you may wish to create a new term.

You may submit your new specialized accessories and component terms (and any needed “Accessories & Components” subclasses) to the Nomenclature Committee so that they may be considered for addition to Nomenclature for the benefit of others.

The term “fragment” in Category 10 is used when the object is not a complete constituent part of another object but rather a portion of an object that has been torn or broken off the whole item and does not have a distinctive term to describe it. In the case of a “fragment,” if the identity of the whole object is known, the museum has two options:

  1. Enter the term for the whole object in the object name, and cross-index with the term “fragment.” This will enable access to the fragments in a search for the whole object, but it can also be misleading if you are only searching for whole objects.
  2. Enter only “fragment” as the object name, but enter the term for the whole object in a subject field.

Museums should choose the method that is most practical for them and meets their needs for access and use it consistently.

Toys and models

Miniature representations of objects do not serve the practical purposes of the objects they depict, but rather they are usually intended as toys, models or works of art. The recommended solution is to enter the term “toy” or “model” (or narrower term such as “patent model” as appropriate) in the object name field and the term for the object that the toy or model represents in a separate subject field.

Containers and their contents

Nomenclature terms such as “bag,” “bottle,” “box,” “can” and “jar” are used to describe the forms assumed by containers. While Nomenclature does include some terms for specialized containers or packages for specific products (such as “pillbox” or “milk can”), it is beyond the scope of Nomenclature to include all such terms. Instead, the following methods are recommended when the container term you need is not found in Nomenclature:

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Adopting Nomenclature

For first-time users of Nomenclature

Some museums have never standardized cataloging systems or are just beginning the process of cataloging their collections.

  1. If you have existing object names in your system, convert them to terms found in the Nomenclature lexicon.
  2. Move any descriptive information that has been intermixed with object names (like a “Victorian walnut turned-leg nightstand”) to more appropriate data fields dealing with material, style, chronological period, etc.
  3. Relate the newly assigned object names to their respective categories in the Nomenclature classification system. Any one of the several computerized records management systems that incorporate Nomenclature will recognize valid object names as they are entered and will automatically assign them to the proper category, class and subclass, and even to broader object terms in the hierarchy.

For users of past editions of Nomenclature

For museums that are using Nomenclature 4.0, the information in the History of Changes within the Nomenclature for Museum Cataloging website will help. This list contains all the significant changes (to preferred terms) that were made since the publication of Nomenclature 4.0. If you require a list of changes made between Nomenclature 3.0 and 4.0, contact CHIN.

For users of Parks Canada Descriptive and Visual Dictionary of Objects (Parks DVD)

Although the Parks DVD application has been decommissioned, the contents of the Parks DVD have been harmonized with Nomenclature for Museum Cataloging, so users of the Parks DVD will find much of the terminology they use is included within Nomenclature. Although the Parks Canada system was very similar to the Nomenclature system (they had the same origin), users of the Parks DVD will have some conversion to do. Some tools are available to assist:

Vocabulary upgrades for collections management systems

Vendors of collections management software systems that have included Nomenclature within their built-in database lexicons will have access to updated versions and can facilitate the conversion of client data. But some cleanup after conversion usually will be needed, such as reviewing locally added terms to see if they are now covered by Nomenclature and determining where they would fall within the Nomenclature hierarchy. Museums may also wish to check if better or more specific terms have been added to Nomenclature that would be useful for their collections.

Additional Resources

See our video series for more information on the Nomenclature and other museum collections documentation standards.

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