Ethnographic films: genre/form and subject access

ANSS Subject and Bibliographic Access Committee

Question/Answer on Cataloging Issues – April 2019

Question: What kinds of genre terms and subject headings are used when cataloging ethnographic films?

Submitted By: Isabel Quintana, Harvard Library, Harvard University

As a cataloger, I’m always surprised and enchanted by the various ethnographic films that I’m asked to catalog. They cover time periods from the prehistoric to this year, and places all over the world, many of which I’ve never heard of. They can run for just several minutes, or several hours. They are sometimes produced as lavishly as Hollywood films, and sometimes shot on an iPhone. In short, the variety of materials known considered ethnographic films is remarkable. So what makes an ethnographic film what it is? Ethnographic film can be defined as “the visual manifestation of anthropological practice organized into a lineal and moving media.”1  

As catalogers we try to collocate these films in such a way that patrons can readily identify them, even though they have more differences than similarities. One way that we identify these films is by adding the genre term “Ethnographic films.” This genre term is from the Library of Congress Genre/Form Terms, a thesaurus that enables catalogers to describe what the work is versus what the film is about.

In terms of genre/form headings, these are frequently used for ethnographic films:

Ethnographic films

  • Use for Anthropological films and Ethnological films

Documentary films (a broader term of Ethnographic films)

Ethnographic television programs

  • Use for Anthropological television programs and Ethnological television programs

Catalogers also usually distinguish between certain categories of films, in order to help users sort through possible films on a topic. Two main distinguishing terms used for ethnographic films are:

Nonfiction films (Fiction films would be the opposite term.)

Feature films

  • For individual full-length films with a running time of 40 minutes or more

Short films

  • For films that are usually limited to a running time of less than 40 minutes

These few genre terms are added to most records that describe an ethnographic film.

Some libraries also add genre terms from the Art & Architecture Thesaurus (Getty Research Institute), a free online thesaurus available here: One term that is commonly used for films from this thesaurus is “DVDs” which is used to collocate all DVDs in a collection.

To describe what the film is about, catalogers use the Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH) thesaurus. However, there is no short list of commonly used terms for ethnographic films in LCSH, because ethnographic films, just like other ethnographic works, can be on any subject.

That said, it bears mentioning that there are no form subdivisions to bring out the documentary or ethnographic nature of the subject. In other words, if we have a fiction film on a subject, we add the subdivision “Drama” at the end of the LCSH string. For example:

650  0 $a Pirates $v Drama

would be the subject heading used for “Pirates of the Caribbean,” the 2003 Hollywood film starring Johnny Depp. If we had the ethnographic film, “Caribbean Carnivals” which explores the holiday Carnival on various Caribbean islands, the subject heading would be:

650  0 $a Carnival $z Caribbean Area

There would be no additions to the subject heading which would make it obvious that this was a film on the subject. Therefore, patrons need to look at the combination of genre/form and subject headings to get the full picture that this is an ethnographic film about these subjects.

In some public library systems, patrons can sort on the genre/form terms as a facet in the catalog. This helps patrons navigate through results when they begin with a subject search, and want to narrow down the type of resources available. Of course, this varies, and our library catalogs currently use many different parts of the catalog record to facilitate patron searching.

Here is a redacted example of a catalog MARC record for an ethnographic film. Since catalog records for films can be very long, most fields not concerned with genre or subject access have been omitted. Genre terms are in bold (655), and subject terms are in italics (650-651).

245 00 They are we / ǂc Unshackled Media ; The University of Sydney ; Australian Research Council ; a film by Emma Christopher ; director & producer, Dr. Emma Christopher.
264 1 Brooklyn, NY : ǂb Icarus Films, ǂc [2015]
300  1 videodisc (79 min.) : ǂb sound, color ; ǂc 4 3/4 in.
336  two-dimensional moving image ǂb tdi ǂ2 rdacontent
337  video ǂb v ǂ2 rdamedia
338  videodisc ǂb vd ǂ2 rdacarrier
520  They are we is the story of a remarkable reunion that takes place 170 or so years after a family was driven apart by the ravages of the transatlantic slave trade. In Central Cuba, proud members of the Gangá-Longobá, a small Afro-Cuban ethnic group, have kept their unique heritage alive. Incredibly, through decades of brutal enslavement, independence wars, and then the denying of all religions after the revolution, they have retained a collection of distinct songs and dances that one of their ancestors brought from Africa as a slave. Each December 17th they still perform them at the San Lazaro ceremony. After a chance discovery while working in West Africa, director Emma Christopher spent two years showing a film of the Gangá-Longobá songs and dances to several thousand people across Sierra Leone. Eventually, in an isolated village with no road access, one man looked at another in joy and wonder as he watched a recording of the Gangá-Longobá songs and said, “They are we!” Then the villagers joined in with others of the Gangá-Longobá songs, still recognizing them clearly despite all the years of separation. Returning to Cuba, Emma showed her findings to the Gangá-Longobá. “We are not so alone anymore”, said one of their number, woodcarver and artist Alfredo Duquesne. Later he would say that knowing where he came from “is divine”. In early 2013, after the law changed allowing them to freely leave Cuba, a trip was at last made to visit Sierra Leone. It turned into a remarkable celebration, a rare recognition of the tenacity and resolve of one young girl who once made the awful journey from Africa to Cuba, but never let her memories of home die. They are we tells the story of the Gangá-Longobá and of the village their ancestor called home. It is the story of how, just very occasionally, a family separated by the slave trade can reunite for the good of all.

651 0 Perico (Cuba) ǂx Civilization ǂx African influences.
651 0 Perico (Cuba) ǂx Social life and customs.
650 0 Ethnology ǂz Cuba ǂz Perico.
650 0 Blacks ǂz Cuba ǂz Perico.
650 0 Blacks ǂz Cuba ǂx Rites and ceremonies.
650 0 Blacks ǂz Cuba ǂz Perico ǂv Music.
651 0 Sierra Leone ǂx Social life and customs.
650 0 Ethnology ǂz Sierra Leone.
650 0 Rites and ceremonies ǂz Sierra Leone.
650 0 Music ǂz Sierra Leone.
655 7 Documentary films. ǂ2 lcgft
655 7 Ethnographic films. ǂ2 lcgft
655 7 Nonfiction films. ǂ2 lcgft
655 7 Feature films. ǂ2 lcgft
655 7 DVDs. ǂ2 aat

1 Durington, Matthew. Ethnographic film. Oxford Bibliographies (Oxford University Press) 30 September 2013.