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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 March 2023, the AAT contains around 74,045 records and 488,911 terms.

The AAT includes generic terms, and associated dates, relationships, and other rich information about concepts related to or required to catalog, discover, and retrieve information about art, architecture, and other visual cultural heritage, including related disciplines such as archaeology and conservation. Visual works include not only visual cultural works classified as "art" according to Western aesthetics, but also utilitarian and ceremonial works. Terminology may be used for work types, roles, materials, styles, cultures, techniques, subject, etc., so long as terms are within the defined scope of AAT.

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 the expert user community, including various Getty projects and outside institutions. Contributors to the Getty Vocabularies include museums, libraries, archives, special collections, visual resources collections, bibliographic and documentation projects, large translation projects, scholarly research projects, and individual experts or scholars. Read more about how to contribute. 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 and retrieving online displays of the data, b) by accessing Linked Open Data (LOD), XML, relational tables, and APIs; all formats are provided by the J. Paul Getty Trust under the Open Data Commons Attribution License (ODC-By) 1.0. The online data is refreshed every month; updates to the various data release files are available throughout the year. Read more about the Vocabulary data releases.


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: Equivalence, Hierarchical, and Associative relationships.

  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 record-preferred term or descriptor. This is the plural form of the term that is most often found in English language scholarly or professional literature. Other terms for the concept are synonyms, including variant spellings, inverted forms of multi-word terms, different parts of speech, or terms in other languages. In the traditional nomenclature of thesaurus construction, various terms in a record are labeled by term type; each language may have only one Descriptor. Term types include Descriptors, Alternate Descriptors, and Used For Terms.

    Each term in the record (i.e., "subject_id") is identified by its own unique identifier, the "term id." Users may choose or link to any term in the record.

    Some users will wish or need to consistently use the same term for a given concept. They may choose the Record-Preferred term, which is a default term comprising the English-Preferred plural term. They could also choose the Preferred term for another language, the Descriptor or Alternate Descriptor term type, or another flag in the data to identify this consistent term, including the preferred terms according to a given published source or according to a particular contributor. Museums typically use the alternate descriptor if they are cataloging a single object; they wish to use the singular rather than the plural form of the term. Library cataloging uses the Plural form of the term for indexing, which is generally (but not always) the Descriptor. The Library of Congress preferred term, if any, is picked out also by a special flag, the "LC flag" (also called "AACR flag"). The example below lists several terms that refer to the same concept, flying buttresses.


  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 which is having a ttransformative 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 multilingual, multicultural, and inclusive terminology and associated data.
- 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, particularly including changes to terminology and usage surrounding DEAI isues.
- 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 as it was given, from incorrect preprocessing or loading, or from editorial mistakes.

The Getty Vocabulary Program has a 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 27 March 2023

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