Reference Data Survey Results

Results of SARIs first public survey on Reference Data Usage in Switzerland

In fall 2018, Swiss Art Research Infrastructure (SARI) conducted a wide-ranging survey on reference data in the field of art and architectural history and related disciplines. The survey was aimed at universities, research institutions, museums, collections, archives and comparable cultural institutions in Switzerland.

Approximately 250 people took part in the survey, mainly from universities, museums and research institutions, but also from the cultural heritage sector and other fields. Most of the feedback came from academic staff (49%) and senior managers (38%).

Which reference data is used and for which field?

It is gratifying to note that most survey participants work with reference data, especially for works (61%) and keywords (57%). More than half of the institutions represented also work with reference data for individuals and corporations (52%), while thesauri have so far been used rather little in the field of geography and iconography.

It is informative to know which sources of the reference data are in use. Around 75 percent of the respondents work with terminologies and authorities that have been developed within their own institutions and with their own resources. In the case of external reference data sources, on the other hand, clear favorites have emerged.

Art works and Built Works

Entries (several selections possible):
Data from internal lists by institutions: 93
Wikipedia: 42
Gemeinsame Normdatei (GND): 35
Wikidata: 16
Library of Congress Authorities (LOCAuth): 16
Other, including printed sources: 49

Individuals and corporate bodies

Entries (several selections possible):
SIKART Lexicon on Art in Switzerland: 70
Historical Dictionary of Switzerland: 51
Internal name lists of institution : 50
Allgemeines Künstlerlexikon (AKL): 40
Gemeinsame Normdatei (GND): 38
Other, including printed sources: 65

Geographical names

Entries (several selections possible):
Internal lists with geodata: 41
Gemeinsame Normdatei (GND): 19
Geonames: 12
Wikipedia: 11
Getty Thesaurus of Geographic Names (TGN): 10
Other, including printed sources: 20


Entries (several selections possible):
internal lists of institutions: 31
Iconclass: 23
Wikipedia: 17
Getty Iconography Authority (IA): 7
Other, including printed sources: 18


Entries (several selections possible):
internal keywords of institutions: 77
Art and Architecture Thesaurus (AAT): 15
Gemeinsame Normdatei (GND): 14
Wikipedia: 14
Other, including printed sources: 27

We received differentiated answers about why reference data is not being used – mainly because of the lack of human resources. Secondly, there is a lack of suitable reference data with regard to content. It was stated that reference data often is incomplete, not updated, and respondents claimed an overview of possible reference data as well as their possibilities for its use and linking.

Use of the Art and Architecture Thesaurus (AAT)

As many as 65% of the respondents said that they did not know the AAT, while only 11% knew the AAT but do not use it. Only one in four of the respondents works actively with it.

75 percent of the respondents would use the AAT if the terms were available in their own language. The prerequisites and claims are the following:

  • From the eight facets of the AAT, “Materials” (54%), “Objects” (51%) and “Styles and Periods” (42%) would be the most relevant for the work of the survey participants.
  • What is most important for the respondents are that the thesaurus is scientifically elaborated, multilingual, thematically broad, extensible and freely accessible.
  • More than half of the respondents are generally interested in the use of thesauri in research projects (56%).
  • Many would like to learn more about the general benefits of thesauri (46%) and their role in online collections (46%).

What are the needs?

The survey identifies clear needs for the use of reference data:

Multilingualism. Reference data must be multilingual and available in all national languages so that they can be used meaningfully for existing and future research and collection data. This applies in particular to thesauri in the field special terms/keywords/concepts, such as the AAT.

Scientific character and expandability. The central criterion for the use of reference data is its scientific nature, as well as its expandability. Reference data must be scientifically proven and verifiable. They must also be expandable with regard to specific research questions and collection contexts.

Accessibility and interlinking possibilities. No less important is that the reference data is accessible and that it allows interlinking with other reference data. For example, more concordances between different reference data are needed, as well as the ability to create a network with the reference data in use.


The survey revealed clear shortcomings and needs. SARI will therefore be active in the following areas:
A translation project planned by SARI aims to translate selected terms from the Art and Architecture Thesaurus (AAT) into German, French and Italian. Thus the AAT – a thesaurus widely used in the global community of cataloguing objects in contemporary and cultural-historical collections – will also be of use here in Switzerland.

The reference data service being developed by SARI is intended to enable institutions to integrate their own terminology into existing, multilingual thesauri and make them publicly accessible to other actors – free of charge. Thus, specialized, local thesauri of individual institutions can be opened up for a larger research community and reusable by other institutions.