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AAT: Frequently Asked Questions
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How many terms are in the AAT? Tell me about the scope, contributions, and how to obtain AAT data.

Thousands of AAT terms are added and edited every year. As of November 2021, the AAT contains around 72,225 records and 472,602 terms.

The AAT includes generic terms, and associated dates, relationships, and other information about concepts related to or required to catalog, discover, and retrieve information about art, architecture, and other visual cultural heritage, including related disciplines dealing with visual works, such as archaeology and conservation, where the works are of the type collected by art museums and repositories for visual cultural heritage, or that are architecture. Terminology may be used for work types, roles, materials, styles, cultures, techniques, subject, etc., so long as terms fit into established AAT facets.

AAT and the other Getty Vocabularies are unique in their global coverage of the defined domain, in citing published sources and contributors and their preferences, in allowing interconnections among historical and current information, in accommodating the sometimes debated and ambiguous nature of art historical information, and in allowing complex relationships within and between Vocabularies. That is, they are not simple 'value vocabularies'; they are also rich 'knowledge bases' in themselves.

Read more about Scope and Structure of the AAT, including information about what is excluded from AAT.

Contributions: The Getty Vocabularies are compiled resources that grow through contributions from various Getty projects and outside institutions. Contributors to the Getty Vocabularies include museums, libraries, archives, special collections, visual resources collections, bibliographic and documentation projects, and large translation projects. Scholarly research projects may be contributors as well. (Please click the paragraph heading for more information.) A list of contributors is available on this site.

Obtaining the data: The Getty vocabulary data can be obtained a) on the Getty Web site, for searching individual terms and names, b) by accessing XML, relational tables, APIs, and Linked Open Data (LOD); all formats are provided by the J. Paul Getty Trust under the Open Data Commons Attribution License (ODC-By) 1.0. The data is refreshed every month. (Please click the paragraph heading for more information.)


What are Scope Notes?

The Note or scope note clarifies the meaning and usage of a concept within the context of the AAT. A scope note differs from a definition in a dictionary or glossary in that, rather than providing all the possible meanings for a word, it identifies a single concept and explains its particular meaning. For example, a dictionary entry for barrel could include a dozen different definitions including those for a type of container, a firearm component, and a part of a musical instrument, all of which are barrels. In the AAT, barrels would appear three times, as barrels (aerophone components), barrels (containers), and barrels (firearm components); each is found in its appropriate part of the AAT hierarchical structure. In the AAT, words that are spelled the same but represent different concepts are homographs, and are recorded in separate records, unlike in a dictionary. The parenthetical qualifiers of the AAT allow users to distinguish among the homographs at a glance, but their scope notes further define them.

Scope notes serve two basic purposes: To clarify the precise meanings of concepts and to advise on usage. The following example for rhyta illustrates how a scope note clarifies meaning by precisely identifying a specific type of work and how it was used:


Scope notes may describe the context of the concept, people or places relevant to the concept, and the time period during which it was evident, as in the example for Mannerist below.


A scope note may describe different ways in which the terms may be used. It may alert the user if the meaning of a term has changed over time, as in the note for ale glasses below.


Scope notes also guide users in selecting the most appropriate term among several possibilities. The choice may depend upon subtle differences in meaning among similar and closely related concepts, as in the note for naïve art below.


What are the relationships in the AAT?

The defining characteristic of a thesaurus, that which distinguishes it from a flat list of terms such as a glossary, is the network of relationships among its terms and concepts. These relationships are semantic relationships, based on logical connections among the concepts, activities, and objects represented by the terms. Thesaurus construction standards identify three kinds of relationships, all of which are included in the AAT:

  1. The Equivalence Relationship

    Multiple terms may refer to the same concept. The relationship between terms that represent the same concept is the equivalence relationship. Among terms that refer to a single concept, one is chosen as the preferred term or descriptor. This is the term that is most often used to refer to the concept in scholarly or professional literature. Other terms for the concept may be synonyms, variant spellings, inverted forms of multi-word terms, different parts of speech for the same term, or terms in British English or other languages. In the traditional nomenclature of thesaurus construction, various terms in a record are labeled; in the AAT the terms include Descriptors, Alternate Descriptors, and Use For Terms.

    Users of the AAT should decide whether or not it is important to their work to consistently use the same term for a given concept. Criteria for this decision should include whether or not the thesaurus is physically linked to their records in their cataloging system; if the thesaurus is not linked, it is generally advisable to use the same term each time reference it made to a given concept. Users who require such consistency may use either the descriptor or the alternate descriptor. Institutions typically use the alternate descriptor if they prefer the singular rather than the plural form of the term. The example below lists several terms that refer to the same concept. The descriptor is flagged with a "D," the alternate descriptor with "AD," and the use for terms with "UF."


  2. The Hierarchical Relationship

    The hierarchical relationship links concepts to broader and narrower contexts. In the AAT, hierarchical relationships link generic classes of objects, actions, or concepts to their members or species. If a concept is a type of, kind of, example of, or manifestation of another concept, then a genus-species relationship exists. The relationships are expressed in displays by using indention. In the example below, chawls inherits all the characteristics of tenement houses, which inherits all the characteristics of apartment houses, which inherits everything belonging to multiple dwellings, which it inherits from dwellings. Ultimately, chawls is still a type of of dwellings, albeit with many details and refinements of meaning added by the intervening types.
    The AAT is polyhierarchical, meaning that concepts may have multiple parents. For example, two concepts below are displaying with their non-preferred parent, indicated by an [N].

  3. The Associative Relationship

    The associative relationships in AAT are cross-references, relationships, or links between terms that are not hierarchical or equivalent, as for the related concept in the record for Oseberg Style below.

Where may I find detailed information about fields and editorial policy?

You may consult online extensive discussions of the fields and Editorial Guidelines.

For translation work, please see Guidelines for Multilingual Equivalency Work.

A training presentation on Introduction to the AAT gives a basic overview. Additional training materials on all Getty vocabularies are also available.

Who is the audience? Museums, libraries, archives? Conservation? Archaeology? Architects?

The AAT is intended for all who catalog and record information about art, architecture, and objects of cultural heritage. It is also intended for those who wish to access art information for research and discovery. Users include the following communities: museums, libraries, archives, visual resource specialists, conservation specialists, archaeology projects, architectural projects, scholars, students, researchers, system vendors, and information scientists.

The Getty vocabularies are constructed to allow their use in linked data, which could have a truly transformative effect on the discipline of art history in general, and on digital art history in particular.

Why aren't the terms in the AAT organized in the way I expect to see them?

Within its given scope of art, architecture, and material culture, the AAT is organized for general use; it is not organized for one particular use or according to any specific discipline. For example, a user asked, why aren't communion cups and chalices narrower terms to church plate? This happens because church plate is a collective term for many different types and forms of objects used for ecclesiastical purposes, thus it is placed in the Object Genres hierarchy. Individual examples of church plate, such as communion cups and chalices or candlesticks, for instance, are found in various other places in the AAT, because the AAT's organization stresses function and form over the context in which an object is used. For this reason, communion cups and chalices are placed in Containers, and candlesticks in Furnishings, under lighting devices. However, the AAT links them to church plate as an alternate parent using polyhierarchical relationships.

Why are some of the terms that I need split into separate words and placed in separate hierarchies in the AAT?

The AAT is composed of terms that represent discrete concepts. This makes the thesaurus powerful and versatile; but it means that a term such as Baroque cathedrals will not be found in the AAT. This phrase must be constructed from separate AAT terms. Baroque is in the Styles and Periods hierarchy; cathedrals is in the Single Built Works hierarchy, under <churches by location or context>. When the two concepts are combined, they retain their individual meanings: They mean structures that are built in the Baroque style and serve as cathedrals (the seat of a bishop). However, every multiple-word concept is not necessarily split up in the AAT; some terms must be listed in the AAT as bound terms. An example is onion domes, in the Components hierarchy. Onion domes are bulbous domes, the style of which developed in Turkey and the Middle East. If the two words that make up onion domes are taken apart, they no longer mean the same thing (i.e., domes retains its meaning, but onions are pungent edible bulbs of Allium cepa).


Why and how do AAT records and terms change over time?

The AAT data changes as necessary, with additions of new data and due to changes in usage over time. Changes to existing data are made only as necessary; it is recognized that changes to preferred terms and hierarchical structure may cause problems for users who rely upon legacy data. The unique subject_ids and unique term_ids, along with the Revision History, allow implementers to keep up with changes.

AAT records are changed primarily for these reasons:

- Loading of new contributions, currently emphasizing the increased multilinguality of the AAT
- To add new records (called "subjects" in the database) or to add new terms to existing subjects.
- To reflect changes in scholarship or usage of terms and their definitions.
- To make the data more consistent throughout. Given that the AAT has grown organically over time, legacy data and incoming contributed datasets occasionally require changes to existing records in order to maintain the logic and consistency of the whole.
- To correct legacy data where near-synonyms or upward postings were included in some records, whereas the editorial rules require only terms that are true synonyms be included in each subject. New subjects are created for the displaced terms; typically the near-synonyms are linked through associative relationships, and the upward postings are linked as parent/children.
- To institute the polyhierarchy, which was suppressed and misrepresented in legacy AAT data (when the database was monohierarchical, which was prior to 2001).
- To correct outright mistakes, either arising from contributed data or from editors' past mistakes.

The AAT has a very small staff. We rely upon the user community to grow the AAT, and we welcome users pointing out errors or inconsistencies.

Go to the general F.A.Q. for the Getty Vocabularies.

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Last updated 10 November 2021

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