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Recent updates to the Ethnographic Thesaurus reflect needs of power users

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This is a guest post by folklorist and AFC archivist, Kelly Revak. Among her many other responsibilities at the Center, Kelly oversees revisions and updates to the Ethnographic Thesaurus.

The AFS Ethnographic Thesaurus is a living language resource that needs constant maintenance to reflect current concepts and usage in ethnography, while at the same time providing stable linked data points for indexing and retrieval of content across institutions.

A new version of Ethnographic Thesaurus with 326 new or updated terms was recently released on Library of Congress’s linked data site. The updates reflect the needs of ethnographers and organizations who are heavy users of the controlled vocabulary. As the thesaurus has grown in size and use, a community of users has grown around it. This has enabled AFC to tap these power users (the human ones, there are also lots of robots that crawl the thesaurus) to identify gaps so that the vocabulary can be built out in service to practical applications.

The majority of updates in this release come from two sources: Louisiana folklorist Maida Owens, who was preparing her photographic collections for deposit at Louisiana State University, and StoryCorps, a large-scale oral history project.

Maida worked to organize and identify her photograph and negative collections according to subjects to prepare the collection for deposit in a special Folklife collection at Louisiana State University. In doing so her goal was to align her categories and subject terms with the Ethnographic Thesaurus. As she worked through her collection, there were some subjects she was unable to match with an Ethnographic Thesaurus term. In many cases AFC staff were able to redirect Maida to an alternate term with the same meaning she was seeking. In cases where there was no appropriate term in Ethnographic Thesaurus we used Maida’s list to build out several areas, particularly around folk art. Some of the interesting new terms added in this way include “swamp pop music,” “broomcorn work,” and “shoe art” (used to classify the image below).

Image depicts woman from the Krewe of Muses applying glitter paint to a pair of boots during JazzFest in New Orleans, Louisiana. Photograph by Maida Owens.
Krewe of Muses glitter shoes at JazzFest, New Orleans. Photograph by Maida Owens.

In 2015, the StoryCorps app was released and has since had over 1 million downloads. In addition to facilitating oral history interviews, the app allows the users to apply metadata through both fixed subject headings and free text keywords or tags. StoryCorps based their initial controlled vocabulary (fixed subject headings) on categories and terms from the Ethnographic Thesaurus and over time have added a number of other terms based on observed usage of the app. In consultation with AFC about potential changes to the subject headings, StoryCorps shared documentation of their free-text user-generated keywords, including the number of times they were used. We reviewed their top 100 terms, making sure we had the exact term or a close analog, and when necessary added a new term.  As a result, a number of new terms were added in many areas including family relationships (“adoptive families,” “mothers-in-law”), memories (“first memories,” “traumatic memories“), emotional states (“confusion,” “embarrassment,” “excitement”) and concepts such as “body image,” and “decolonization”.


A screen shot of the web page for the Story Corps smartphone app. Features image of a hand holding a smartphone with the app launched.
Screen shot of the Story Corps App web page.


The Ethnographic Thesaurus is seeing increased use as ethnographic description moves to linked data environments. Of note, is search capability in oral history interviews indexed with OHMS (Oral History Metadata Synchronizer) created by Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History at the University of Kentucky Libraries. With the recent OHMS update, they have integrated the Ethnographic Thesaurus as a linked thesaurus in the indexing module. If an indexer has this thesaurus selected, the system will suggest terms as they type to assist in the indexing process. This is allowing a number of new ‘power users’ to tap into the Ethnographic Thesaurus, and we hope it will also lead to additional updates driven by user needs.

In this way the Ethnographic Thesaurus is responding to real-world usage. Free entry keywords are particularly illuminating of how people use natural language in keywords versus the controlled language of subject headings. In many cases, even if the natural language term isn’t in line with the controlled vocabulary, we can add it as a ‘used for’ term. This functions sort of like a redirect, bringing users from a natural language entry to the controlled term. Allowing the growth of the thesaurus to be driven by actual users and uses will result in a vocabulary that is more effective, useful, and aligned with the terms people use to describe themselves. A new process for batch updates allow us to be significantly more efficient in updates, particularly for building out large areas or inputting many new terms at once.

To remain relevant, the Ethnographic Thesaurus must continue to add new terms and new concepts emerge as well make appropriate changes to existing terms as preferred language shifts.  To do this we need your help! We invite you to send in alternate terms for existing terms and suggestions for new thesaurus terms, with citations, if possible, to help keep this vocabulary alive and valuable for use.  On the Library’s linked data American Folklore Society Ethnographic Thesaurus site, there is an option to leave comments at the tab “Suggest Terminology.” Or, you can write to the Ethnographic Thesaurus staff with your suggestions and comments to: [email protected]. We will be glad to hear from you!

The Ethnographic Thesaurus was made possible in part by a grant from the Mellon Foundation.


  1. Thanks for peek at the way real-world dynamics shape the vocabulary: as you say, “a living language resource.” Great to learn of the contributions of Maida Owens and Story Corps. I am sure that you, like me, were reminded of the long history of the Library of Congress Subject Headings and the Thesaurus of Graphic Materials (also with an LoC nerve center), built over time by patient accretion from both power and quotidian users. And no doubt there are other similar stories about other specialized thesaurii, all of which add a bit of structured backbone to our world of digital “free text.” Yay team!

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