How to Choose a Title

If you are working as a catalog librarian, archivist, or museum professional, you have probably found yourself stumped by how to title a particular object. This can be tricky enough for publications, and it gets crazy when you’re working with images and artwork.

To improve access, we want to make sure that we are consistently choosing and constructing titles. But there are so many guidelines on titling out there! Do they conflict? Do they overlap? Which one(s) should we follow?

To answer these questions, I combed through three content standards in the cultural heritage sector that provide guidance on devised titles:

Cataloging Cultural Objects (CCO)

Describing Archives: a Content Standard (DACS)

Descriptive Cataloging of Rare Materials (Graphics) (DCRM(G))

The following recommendations are a distillation of these standards —

A simple, five-step process to choose a title.

If a title exists:

STEP ONE: Check to see if the object has a title on it.

“If any work contains an inscription that was applied by the creator with the apparent purpose of giving it a title, record it as a title.” (CCO

NB: Don’t record something as a title that isn’t a title. There are lots of textual notes — just because it’s text, doesn’t mean it should be a title.

STEP TWO: Check some other places.

“If no title can be derived from text (printed, manuscript, or electronic) provided by the creator or creating body on or with the material, but a title can be supplied from another source, transcribe it from that source and enclose it in square brackets. Cite the source in a note.” (DCRM(G) 1F1.1)
“When devising a title, take the information from any reliable source, including internal evidence of the materials being described, an external source such as a records schedule or communication with a donor, or a title on another copy or version of the materials being described.” (DACS 2.3.1)

Likely culprits include curatorial files, correspondence from the creators, donors, and dealers, bibliographies, catalogues raisonnés, exhibit catalogs, articles, and conventional names (e.g., Mona Lisa)

STEP THREE: Decide whether the first line is a good access point.

“If no title can be found on or with the material, or in another source (see 1F1), and the material has sufficient non-incidental text (i.e., more than just numbering, a mailing address, a customer name, etc.), use the beginning words of such text as the title proper (see also 1F3).” (DCRM(G) 1B5.1)

You’re most likely to do this for poetry and narratives.

Else, devise a title:

“If no title can be derived from text (printed, manuscript, or electronic) provided by the creator or creating body on or with the material, and a title cannot be supplied from the beginning words of text (see 1B5) or from another source (see 1F1), devise a brief descriptive title, preferably in the language and script of the cataloging agency, and use this devised title, enclosed in square brackets, as the title proper.” (DCRM(G) 1F2)

STEP FOUR: Decide what’s important.

Is the object to be used for documentary or aesthetic value? Are there figures, patterns, motifs, colors, subjects, or other features that users will be interested in? What is it made of? How was it made? What type of object is it? What was it originally intended to be used for?

STEP FIVE: Construct a title.

Note: a) what type of thing it is, b) what’s depicted, c) when/where it was made, and d) who made it.

“Constructed titles may refer to the subject, the materials, the form, or the function of the work” (CCO
“When devising title information, compose a brief title that uniquely identifies the material, normally consisting of a name segment, a term indicating the nature of the unit being described, and optionally a topical segment as instructed in the following rules. Do not enclose devised titles in square brackets.” (DACS 2.3.3)
“Record the name(s) of the person(s), family (families), or corporate body predominantly responsible for the creation, assembly, accumulation, and/or maintenance of the materials.” (DACS 2.3.4)
“For untitled images of a documentary nature, give the objective factual content clearly and concisely, enclosed in square brackets. … Include the following kinds of information in the devised title, as appropriate and feasible: the subject type or form of material, e.g., view(s), portrait(s), sketch(es); an identification of the main subject(s) depicted (i.e., persons, events, activities, and objects); geographical location(s) depicted, if known and significant; the date (including month and day, if considered important) or span dates of what is being depicted if different from the date of publication or execution” (DCRM(G) 1F2.1)
“For untitled images where the interest is in the aesthetic value of the material, use a succinct descriptive phrasing of the subject, iconographic theme, technique, artistic school or style, etc., when devising a title.” (DCRM(G) 1F2.2)

These three content standards are largely overlapping and complementary with regard to choosing and constructing titles. The only area where they conflict is whether to use brackets!

So, kids: when choosing a title, just follow this five-step process, and make a decision about the brackets. Voila! Titled.