Lately I've been shopping around for a good thesaurus, one that establishes terms for the many different physical forms that archival materials take. This includes paper-based holdings like letters, diaries, leaflets, and contact sheets, and audiovisual items like radio and television programs. If we use a set of standardized terms to describe our archival materials, it will be easy for researchers to locate all of the diaries or radio programs in our new digital collections portal when it launches early next year.
Thesaurus shopping is a microcosm of the irony of standards in the archival world--there are many to choose from. This undermines the intent of standardization, yet is the reality.
With at least three contenders, competition in the world of physical-form thesauri is more intense than a layman might expect. The Library of Congress (LC) genre/form terms is the grand dame of the group. Genre/form terms were mixed in with subject terms in the LC's thesaurus of subject headings, which dates to 1898. The new kid on the block is the Thesaurus For Graphic Materials (TGM), which came out of the rare books and manuscripts community in the 1980s. Meanwhile, the needs of art libraries triggered work on the Getty's Art & Architecture Thesaurus (AAT) in the 1970s.
My shopping list included physical forms like reports and drawings, which are not well represented by LC terms, and oral histories, which are not recognized as a form in TGM. But all three thesauri lacked a term for panel discussions, in which a group of speakers is guided by a moderator in a formal discussion before an audience. Our Commonwealth Club sound recordings include many such programs.
The TGM and LC thesaurus contain the term "discussions," but it suggests informality and lack of structure. When I searched AAT, a thesaurus that covers art and architectural terms, I got a whopping 45 results for "panels." However, the terms involved structural or surface elements of buildings, or were a type of building (I hadn't known that panel-houses is a term for brothels).
Dismayed by this gap, I contacted the AAT editors to suggest adding "panel discussions" or "roundtables" to their thesaurus. Normally new terms are submitted via institutional project staff who are trained and provide authoritative research, but in this case the managing editor responded the same day that she would add three new terms to AAT: discussions (meetings), panels (meetings), and roundtables (meetings). In just one day "panels" got a whole new meaning!