Controlled Vocabulary for DAM

by Tracy Wolfe, MLIS

One of the ingredients essential to a successful digital asset management implementation is a controlled vocabulary. A controlled vocabulary (CV) is simply an established group of terms used to describe assets in the DAM. Controlled vocabulary can help users search more effectively. Most importantly, a controlled vocabulary lends consistency and ease for anyone adding assets to the library.

Controlled vocabularies are used for websites all the time, especially to enable search on e-commerce sites. Employing the same techniques for DAM makes sense, as many users expect the DAM search experience to mimic the internet.

What is the best way to create a controlled vocabulary? Whether you need a couple hundred keywords to describe your content or several thousand (or millions), the steps to initiating the vocabulary are similar. Depending on the complexity of the filters and metadata fields you choose to utilize, you may construct more than one CV to back-up your DAM system.

This article explains the basics of creating a term list. These steps can be repeated to create multiple lists for use in facets, filters or hierarchies forming the basis for a DAM taxonomy.

  1. Before collecting terms, first consider the content you need to describe. Do your assets focus entirely on one product or initiative or many? How do people in the organization talk about the content?
  2. Who will be responsible for maintaining the CV? Will the DAM manager add or change terms, or will multiple people share this responsibility? Either way, write down instructions or guidelines for adding or changing terms.
  3. Think about the users. If your DAM is internal and everyone in the organization shares the same language surrounding the assets, you will require fewer terms that may be very industry specific. If you will be serving both internal and external users (like vendors or travel agents or franchise owners, etc.), the keywords or terms will need to be more universal.
  4. Is there an established vocabulary available to provide a starting point? There are quite a few vocabularies available as examples or models depending on the subject matter. From Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH) to the Getty Art & Architecture Thesaurus (AAT), librarians have compiled trusted standard vocabularies for many domains.
  5. How does the DAM system handle tagging or keywording? Are hierarchies allowed or will your workflow be more streamlined if the keywords are attached to files prior to ingestion? Should the vocabulary be a text file, Excel file or built in some other way?
  6. Okay, now the fun part begins. If you are building the vocabulary from scratch or adapting another vocabulary, you will collect terms from various sources. Decisions will be made regarding the final set of terms and all of this work should be documented for future reference.

Where can you find terms for the controlled vocabulary?

  • Does your organization have a website? Check out the site map and the search logs to find words that users use to search.
  • How do people in the organization describe what you do? If you sell a product or products, will you need a list of brand names? What departments will be supported by the DAM? Will the users search on things like color for design purposes?
  • Are you describing photos, videos, audio files or more? Consider the differences in describing two-dimensional versus moving images and the breadth of additional terms that could enhance findability of all types of media files.
  • Look at similar organizations. Competitor’s websites, trade journals, and articles on the internet can all provide ideas for a term list.

At this point, you probably have a list of many words. It is time to organize the terms, establish hierarchies if applicable, and to decide on preferred terms and synonyms or variants. A standard way to go about this is to designate broad terms and narrower terms.

In this example, we will look at the term Handbags and the broad terms (BT) and narrow terms (NT) related to Handbags.

(BT) Accessories

(NT) Bucket Bags

(NT) Crossbody Bags

(NT) Totes

Naturally, this type of work is sometimes challenging in a group, so agreeing upon the decision making process, primarily which keywords will “win” or be included, is the most crucial step at the outset. Like any document, the vocabulary can be edited and altered over time, but finalizing the initial list will allow it to be tested and used to inform these updates.

Once a controlled vocabulary is in use, reviews and updates are always expected, but the main advantage of having created the vocabulary in the first place is consistency. Maintenance of the CV can be ongoing or the vocabulary can be reviewed and refined periodically. Make sure to include the controlled vocabulary in the overall best practices and standards for the DAM.

The best thing about a controlled vocabulary is the improved findability of assets. Knowing what to expect by having a framework for describing assets helps both when adding assets and when performing searches. The time invested in building a controlled vocabulary will provide a huge return and positively impact the experience surrounding the digital asset management system in your organization.

About Tracy Wolfe

Tracy Wolfe worked as an advertising producer for 13 years and managed a digital asset management system at DDB. Tracy pursued an MLIS at San Jose State University as a result, focused on emerging technologies and has been working in DAM or search ever since. Tracy managed a DAM at Corbis Images for a high profile non-profit client and is currently working in Search Strategy at Getty Images. Ms. Wolfe’s interests include taxonomy, helping creative users find assets, and streamlining pretty much any process. Tracy has been involved with digital asset management for almost ten years.

Tracy has been a DAM Guru Program member since 2013. Connect with Tracy on LinkedIn.

Read more from the “Librarian Tips for DAM Managers” DAM Guru Program series »

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One comment

  • Thanks Tracy! This article is as good as any lecture I had in school — and a lot more concise.

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