A Yak by Any Other Name: Meet the Thesaurus for Graphic Materials

Fishbowls, Whittling, Email, and Ice cream parlors.  What could those four terms possibly have in common?  It turns out they are all recent additions to the Thesaurus for Graphic Materials (TGM).

Which naturally leads to the question:  What is the Thesaurus for Graphic Materials?

Two men secure wood logs on yak's back. Color slide by Alice S. Kandell, May 1971. http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.30125

Two men secure wood logs on yak's back. Color slide by Alice S. Kandell, May 1971. http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.30125

Briefly, TGM is a tool for indexing visual materials, both by subject and by genre or format. It provides a standard vocabulary for activities, types of people, events, objects and even broad concepts, such as education. There are also terms to designate the pictorial genre or format of an item, such as lithographs or bird’s-eye views. If you’re a cataloger of visual materials, it’s an invaluable tool. And if you are a researcher, taking advantage of the indexing and the thesaurus relationships can enrich your search.

Terms are added to the Thesaurus for Graphic Materials all the time, suggested both by Prints & Photographs Division catalogers and by staff at other institutions with picture collections. The terms can be words that have come into common use, like Email and Internet. Subjects that turn up in collections inspire other terms, such as Yaks, featured in the photos of Sikkim in the Kandell Collection.

I’ll give you an example of how terms from TGM add informational value. The original caption for the early 1900s image below is:  New Orleans, La., a typical milk cart. The caption is relatively helpful, establishing a geographic place and mentioning the main item you can see. A cataloger in the Prints and Photographs Division added four subject headings from the TGM to this photograph to further describe it.  Subject headings are chosen based on such things as items visible or concepts illustrated. Can you guess what types of subject headings were added to this image?

New Orleans, La., a typical milk cart. Photo by Detroit Publishing Company, between 1900 and 1910. http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/det.4a19877

New Orleans, La., a typical milk cart. Photo by Detroit Publishing Company, between 1900 and 1910. http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/det.4a19877

The four subject terms are: Dairying, Carts & wagons, Barbershops and Shipping. Any of those match up with your guesses?

With these further terms available to be searched in the catalog, a researcher interested in early 1900s barbershops will now discover this image, along with other images of barbershops.  Maybe a film producer needs an example of a wagon from the turn of the century. A search for wagons will give him this one, thanks to the heading Carts & wagons.

This is only one example of how TGM makes our images more findable, more connected and more understandable. Check out the links below if you want to learn more!

Learn More:

With thanks to the catalogers in the Prints and Photographs Division who develop and work with the Thesaurus for Graphic Materials for their help with this post. 


  1. Carl Fleischhauer
    October 15, 2012 at 9:44 am

    You got me curious about terms applied to your own collection. In your online catalog, limiting my search to “subject terms,” I didn’t find any instances of “Email.” But there are some wonderful Nicole Hollander comic strips cataloged with “Internet” as a subject term — here’s one of them:

    That and two other equally appealing Hollander examples do have “email” in the textual part of the strip and in the summary notes in the catalog record, so a search on “email” (not limited to subject terms) will turn them up.

    I started to look for fishbowls but time ran out . . .

  2. Kristi Finefield
    October 15, 2012 at 10:41 am

    Hello Carl,

    Thanks for the comment! Email is a brand new term for TGM, only loaded into the catalog this week, so it hasn’t had a chance to be applied to any collection items yet, but I’m sure its day will come! I would have definitely shared the Hollander comic strips in my post, but they are rights restricted to those outside the Library, so only display as thumbnail images.

    There are a few uses of fishbowls as a subject heading – one great 1895 cover of Puck and two 1940s photos of a kitten in a fishbowl. The range of our collections on display!

  3. Classic Teacher
    October 29, 2012 at 12:22 pm

    The Thesaurus for Graphic Materials is a wonderful resource for classroom teachers creating visual presentations that convey background of authors and their works; and settings or culture, etc. in specific literary works. In addition, this is an awesome source for students who may wish to write graphic novels. Of course, it is an invaluable resource for the creative writing teacher and his or her students.

    My question is whether or not TGM is available only on-line from the Library of Congress, or can a school library purchase a database (regularly updated, of course) or a hard copy (updated semi-annually, etc.)?

  4. Randa Cazeau
    December 8, 2012 at 2:16 pm

    Quite usefull weblog. i will follow this blog. maintain up the very good function.

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