Documenting Your Collections
Info-Muse Network Documentation Guide

Les guides électroniques de la SMQ

The documentation guide

Issued in 1992 by the SMQ, several times updated and republished, this publication has become an essential reference for most Quebec users when it comes to documenting collections. The guide suggests a documentation system suited to different types of collections. It allows the user to decide which data are to be recorded, and offers specific rules for organizing and entering the data. It can be used with any type of collection management software, requiring only that fields be compatible and that the entry rules be adapted to the particular functionalities of the software. For example, the use of a semicolon to separate multiple entries may be unnecessary in a relational software program. Similarly, commas are of no use for separating generic and specific terms in a software program that establishes an automatic hierarchy among fields. It is best to consult the software supplier and adapt the Info-Muse documentation system to the technical abilities of the computer tool used. Info-Muse Network users can consult the SMQ to ensure that they can transfer their data into the Info-Muse database.

Before turning to the guide, users must first plan the project to be conducted, in order to determine:

  • the goals of the documentation project;
  • the necessary tools, including hardware and software;
  • the necessary human and financial resources;
  • the documentation approach chosen.1

Dividing up the data, then organizing them

The Info-Muse Network documentation system suggests a means of dividing up and organizing the data, based on the type of collection to be documented and the type of data to be recorded in each field block, and then offers a means of breaking the data down into the smallest meaningful units, known as fields.

The guide can be used for documenting five types of collections:

  • ethnology and history collections;
  • fine arts and decorative arts collections;
  • science and technology collections;
  • archaeology collections, including object and site data;
  • natural science collections.

Within each type, the fields are presented by field block. Each block includes various fields containing the same type of data. These fields are closely related and complementary. In many cases, they must be used together. The first blocks are related to the object: it is identified (Identification, Taxonomy); described (Dimensions, Physical Description, Specimen/Description); and located in space and time (Origin, Site/Habitat/Origin, Dating, Location). The last blocks include data related to the source (Source) and collection of information (Cataloguing).

Note that the Info-Muse Network documentation system requires the use of mandatory fields. The exclusive use of the mandatory fields for a documentation project, automated or not, makes it possible to quickly identify a minimum set of basic data on objects. Such a brief, but complete, inventory guarantees better collection management, while providing a core to which other data on the objects can be added.

  All mandatory fields are marked with a readily identifiable hammer.

The proposed fields for each type of collection are outlined in the first three sections of the guide:


The first section contains a description of the fields to be used for documenting ethnology and history, fine arts and decorative arts and science and technology collections.


The second section contains a description of the fields to be used for documenting archaeology collections. It starts with the fields used for recording data on objects and then the fields used for data on archaeological sites.

  The third section contains a description of the fields to be used for documenting natural science collections.

At the end of each section there is an index. For the first section, sample records illustrating exemplary documentation practices have been prepared in co-operation with member institutions of the Info-Muse Network, using information, objects and works of art from the Info-Muse database.

Classifying objects

In a classification system, information is presented hierarchically so that it is easier to consult. It allows the user to create logical links between objects, to identify similarities and differences, groupings and contrasts even within a single collection. It is also useful for obtaining an overview of the collection, better understanding its content and reflecting on guidelines for collecting, research options and the ideal means of disseminating the information in and on the collection. Using the same classification system for all collections ensures that all the information on your collections will be consistent and standardized.

For natural science collections, Latin taxonomy already gives a universal scientific method for classifying specimens. The same is not true in the humanities. This is why the Info-Muse Network has developed two classification systems. The first was designed for ethnology, history and historical archaeology museums. The second classification system applies to fine arts and decorative arts museums.


The fourth section of the guide presents the Info-Muse classification system for ethnology, history and historical archaeology museums.


The fifth section presents the Info-Muse classification system for fine arts and decorative arts museums.

In these two sections, controlled vocabularies are proposed for categories and sub-categories, followed by a definition for each term.

Measuring objects

When a documentation project involves taking measurements of objects, it is important to ensure that this is done systematically. Depending on the nature of the collections, some objects may be a challenge to measure. The user should consult the definitions and the rules set out for each field relating to dimensions.


The sixth section of the guide, entitled "How to Measure Objects," contains information and illustrations for standardizing the method used to measure different types of objects.

Standardizing information

One main operating principle of the Info-Muse documentation system has to do with the standardization of information, i.e. adopting uniform and consistent terms and procedures.2 The documentation standards are used to structure the information coherently so that it can be easily read, sorted and indexed, regardless of the computer system used. There are two main types of standardization: terminological standardization and syntactical standardization.

Terminological standardization consists of selecting terms to be used to describe the objects or activities in a uniform and systematic way. This is done with various tools, including:

  • general language and specialized dictionaries;
  • lexicons and glossaries;
  • thesauri;
  • authority lists.

For some fields, the documentation guide suggests authority lists.


They are indicated by this pictogram of a scroll.

It is also recommended that you consult the bibliography at the end of the guide or the selective bibliographies prepared by the Info-Muse Network team for useful references.

Syntactic standardization consists mainly of defining the general structure of the information, i.e. the way in which it is to be entered in the information fields, be it on handwritten sheets or in a database. The Info-Muse documentation system suggests a number of conventions for this purpose.


The following conventions are used throughout the guide and are presented as entry rules. Any exceptions are clearly identified in the guide.

  • Abbreviations are not to be used in documenting collections. The use of abbreviations is contrary to the principle of the Network, i.e. that the documentation process is intended to make information easily accessible to everyone.
  • To simplify search operations in the computer system, use the masculine form of any French words entered.
  • For accented characters, place accents on both upper- and lowercase letters.
  • It is best to use lower-case letters, and use capitals only when required for proper spelling.
  • It is best to use the singular form. Use the plural only when the term is normally used in the plural.
  • If no research has been done to locate the desired information, the field must be left blank. If research to find the information has not been successful, enter "unknown" in the field. If there is any doubt regarding the accuracy of the information, this should be indicated in the field by appending a question mark.
  • Date fields are highly selective. The recommended form, YYYY-MM-DD, is based on the international standard for numeric expression of dates.
  1. There are different approaches to putting together this core of basic information on a collection. Before taking any concrete action in this regard, it is best to think it over and set the project goals, so as to choose the approach to be used. The planning guide on computerization of collections (Comment informatiser vos collections ? Le guide de planification du Réseau Info- Muse) is a project planning tool that can help you consider all the aspects of a project and make the best choices in view of your specific situation.
  2. See Comment informatiser vos collections ? Le guide de planification du Réseau Info-Muse, for a more detailed discussion of standardization. © Société des musées du Québec