CDWA Paper

CDWA and the Art Object

“Categories for the Description of Works of Art (CDWA) describes the content of art databases by articulating a conceptual framework for describing and accessing information about works of art, architecture, other material culture, groups and collections of works, and related images” (Getty, 2009). This framework provides 532 categories in which to describe works of art. There is a minimum “core” of these categories that is necessary to ensure the metadata is harvestable. The descendant of CDWA, CDWA Lite is an XML based schema that can be utilized in databases that are participating in the Open Archives Initiative (OAI) (Getty, 2009).

CDWA is a product of the Art Information Task Force (AITF), which encouraged dialog between art historians, art repositories, and information providers so that together they could develop guidelines for describing works of art, architecture, groups of objects, and visual and textual surrogates. (Getty, 2009)

CDWA was designed along with VRA Core, another data element set, in conjunction with Cataloging Cultural Objects: A Guide to Describing Cultural Works and Their Images (CCO) (Harpring, 2007). This collaboration is intended to create uniformity among data sets and make metadata harvestable.   Much like the relationship between AACR2 and MARC, CCO and CDWA (Lite) provide both the data content structure and the container for the objects being described. The Getty Museum and ARTstor conducted a pilot project utilizing minimal metadata description under the assumption that users who harvested that data would provide richer descriptions and additional images on their own sites (Baca, 2007).

One of the aspects of CDWA Lite XML that differs from Dublin Core or MARC is the class or classification element.

If judiciously used, the Class element can function as an aid to browsing for users who are unfamiliar with the contents of a particular collection, and it can provide broader and sometimes more user-friendly, less scholarly categories or facets for searching. For example, an object might be designated as a ‘cartonnier’ in the Work Type and Title elements, while the Class element could be populated with values such as ‘furniture,’ ‘chairs,’ ‘decorative arts,’ or whatever else the cataloger or owning institution deems to be meaningful and useful for its users. (Baca, 2007)

It is the librarian’s duty to deliver content to users.  In order to do so we need to provide a means for the average user to easily access materials. Arcane terms and esoteric classification, while useful in establishing organizational data structures on the librarian’s end, do not always serve the average patron who lacks the training to understand elaborate data terminologies.  With the Class element users are better able to utilize browsing to locate desired resources.

CDWA crosswalks to many other metadata standards. Among these are: MARC, Dublin Core, EAD, METS, and DACS (Getty, 2009). At the rate that database and user interfaces are evolving, it is important that there is a level of compatibility among data standards. Essentially, there is a need to avoid losing years of cataloging work each time a new technology with a different standard arises as the industry standard for digital art surrogate delivery.  The way to avoid this is with a metadata standards crosswalk. A crosswalk is the means by which data can be matched between different schemes. CDWA provides the level of compatibility necessary to achieve this goal. Though there is no universal standard, and probably never will be, interoperability is necessary in any standard.

In closing it is the goal of CDWA to provide the integrity and persistent quality data needs to survive the test of time.  Hopefully, as information migrates to new systems, this framework will provide a common set of rules and guidelines that will ease data transitions between evolving informational technologies. The purpose of CDWA is to create agreement among system vendors, curators, and researchers concerning the types of information that should be included with a digital surrogate of a work of art or cultural object. As with all things time will indeed be the test of this collection of descriptive categories.


J. Paul Getty Trust. (2009). Categories for the Description of Works of Art. Retrieved 4 11, 2010, from The Getty:

Eden, B. (2005). New and Emerging Metadata Standards. Library Technology Reports, 41(6), 34-44. Retrieved from Library, Information Science & Technology Abstracts with Full Text database.

Baca, M. (2007). CCO and CDWA Lite: Complementary Data Content and Data Format Standards for Art and Material Culture Information. Visual Resources Association Bulletin, 34(1), 69-75. Retrieved from Library, Information Science & Technology Abstracts with Full Text database.

Harpring, P. (2007). CCO Overview and Description. Visual Resources Association Bulletin, 34(1), 34-44. Retrieved from Library, Information Science & Technology Abstracts with Full Text database.

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