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Preferred nature of vocabularies

Approved by the TSC as FHISO technical policy on 8 June 2017.

This is a FHISO policy developed after the November 2015 Board meeting resolved that “the TSC will draft and release … a general policy on vocabularies”. It was released by the TSC for wider comment on the tsc-public mailing list and has been updated to reflect the consensus reached on that list.

Although neither absolutely binding nor completely immutable, future FHISO standards and other technical documents should follow this FHISO policy insofar as it applies, unless there are exceptional circumstances not to do so.

The key words must, must not, required, shall, shall not, should, should not, recommended, may, and optional in this document are to be interpreted as described in RFC 2119.

The examples given in this documented are intended as illustration only. This document does not define any actual vocabularies. As actual vocablaries are defined, the examples herein may be updated to reflect them.

Vocabularies and terms

The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) answers the question “What is a vocabulary?” as follows:

Vocabularies define the concepts and relationships (also referred to as “terms”) used to describe and represent an area of concern. Vocabularies are used to classify the terms that can be used in a particular application, characterize possible relationships, and define possible constraints on using those terms. In practice, vocabularies can be very complex (with several thousands of terms) or very simple (describing one or two concepts only).

A vocabulary is defined to be a set of related terms, where each term identifies some specific concept, idea or relationship. How the terms in a vocabulary are related to each other is not specified, and in particular there is no assumption that they can be used in the same context, for example as possible values of some field. A vocabulary is simply a collection of terms that might usefully be discussed together, for example, all the terms defined in a particular standard or section of a standard. Given this rather nebulous definition, the word should be avoided in FHISO standards and other technical documents if a more precisely-defined word or phrase is available.

A term consists of a unique, machine-readable identifier, known as the term name, paired with a clearly-defined meaning for the concept or idea that it represents. This meaning shall be written in a natural language (such as English), though aspects of the definition may also be available in machine-parsable form.

Term names

A term name shall canonically be an IRI matching the IRI production in §2.2 of RFC 3987. IRIs have been chosen in preference to URIs because it is recognised that certain culture-specific genealogical concepts may not have English names, and in such cases the human-legibility of IRIs is advantageous.

FHISO standards may define new terms, and may use terms defined in third-party standards. Where possible all terms used in FHISO standards should:

In additional, terms defined in FHISO standards shall use the following IRI patterns:

Although this permits an arbitrary number of path segments between the literal term and the name of the term, exactly one path segment should normally be used. For example, a term named “birth” in some future FHISO “events” vocabulary might have the term name

The use of additional segments to partition a vocabulary into parts is permitted but not recommended in normal circumstances. It is also permitted but not recommended to have zero path segments between the literal term and the name of the term; this should only be done if a term has sufficiently wide applicability that it is not naturally part of one specific vocabulary.

Term names are case-sensitive, but FHISO should not define multiple terms that differ only in their capitalisation. Implementors are warned that some current third-party standard do contain terms differing only in their capitalisation, and FHISO standards may use such terms.

A namespace is an abstract container for term names that all share a common prefix, where the common prefix is itself a valid IRI and is known as the namespace name. Namespace names should normally end with a delimiter character such as / or #. For example, the term is within the namespace with a namespace name of The content of a namespace is a vocabulary, but not all vocabularies equate with a whole namespace — it can also be convenient to talk about vocabularies that span several namespaces, and also vocabularies that are a subset of a namespace.

Comparison of term names uses the “simple string comparison” algorithm given in §5.3.1 of RFC 3987. This is how XML Namespaces compares namespace IRIs and it involves no normalisation of term names before comparing.

Applications must not make inferences about the meaning or usage of a term based solely on its term name.

Compact term names

FHISO standards or other technical document may allow terms to be written in ways other than as IRIs, and if so shall provide an unambiguous definition of how such terms are converted to and from their canonical form as an IRI. This conversion process shall not depend on anything external to the document or data stream.

FHISO’s preferred way of shortening term names is to use some form of compact term name. A standard doing so should define a mechanism like that in XML Namespaces to bind a namespace name to shorter, more convenient identifier called the namespace prefix. A compact term name comprises a namespace prefix, followed by a separator (which will typically but not necessarily a colon, depending on the host language), followed by a local part. The term name in IRI form is found by concatenating the namespace name corresponding to the namespace prefix with the local part. For example, if the IRI is bound to the prefix ev, then ev:birth could be the compact representation of the term

Compact term names might take the syntactic form of a QName in XML Namespaces, allowing terms to be used as element or attribute names in XML formats. In an XML 1.0 document, namespace names are URIs, not IRIs; algorithms for converting IRIs to and from URIs can be found in §3 of RFC 3987. More generally, compact term names might take the form of a CURIE; and CFPS 37 gives an example of how they might be used backwards-compatibly in GEDCOM.

IRI resolution

An HTTP 1.1 GET request made without an Accept header to a term name IRI (once coverted to a URI per §3.1 of RFC 3987) should result in a 303 “See Other” redirect to a document containing a human-readable definition of the term. This document should have a text/plain or text/html content-type, and should use either an ASCII or UTF-8 encoding which should be explicitly specified in the content-type.

A 303 redirect is considered best practice for Linked Data to avoid confusing the concept represented by the term with the definition of that term, which can be found at the post-redirect URL. Following W3C policy on vocabulary IRIs, term IRIs defined by FHISO must not result in a 200 response unless the term actually denotes the document being retrieved rather than a concept defined in it.

The webserver serving the term IRI should support content negotiation (per §3.4.1 of RFC 7231) which may allow term definitions to be fetched in additional human-readable formats. Future FHISO policy is expected to define a discovery mechanism by which vocabulary authors can provide machine-readable information to applications on the properties and expected usage of otherwise-unknown terms. This will involve applications making a GET request to the term name IRI with an appropriate Accept header, and receiving a 303 “See Other” redirect to a machine-readable resource in the expected format. Support for discovery will be optional for clients and recommended for servers.

Webservers that do not support content negotiation should (and other webservers may) provide a Link header, as defined in RFC 5988, to locate the machine-readable description of the term. Clients that support discovery should support this mechanism too.


A class is a term used to denote the set of values or entities that may be used in some particular context. There might, for example, be an “individual” class to denote people of genealogical interest; the nature of the such entities is beyond the scope of this policy, but this policy permits a class to be defined representing individuals, howsoever they may be represented.

Other classes might represent various types of literal, such as strings, dates, integers, and booleans. Such general classes should not be defined in domain-specific vocabularies as they are likely to required by many FHISO standards. It is anticipated that a future FHISO policy will provide for common definitions of these basic classes, possibly by reference to a third-party standard such as XML Schema Datatypes. Where domain-specific classes are required, for example to represent strings in some microformat, these may be defined included in the appropriate vocabulary.

Finally, classes can be used to represent a collection of terms. Such classes of terms are examples of vocabularies and are known as vocabulary classes. Not all classes are vocabularies, as the individual and integer examples demonstrate.

An example of a vocabulary class might be an “event type” class consisting of terms for “birth”, “burial” and such like. A FHISO standard that defines a vocabulary class shall state whether or not it is extensible: that is, whether or not third parties are be permitted to define additional terms of that class. Due to the widely variable nature of genealogical data, vocabulary classes should be extensible unless there are compelling reasons to the contrary.

(Some authorities use different nomenclature such as “enumerations” or “controlled vocabulary” to describe these concepts. FHISO does not recommend the use of this terminology as it is used ambiguously in the literature: some authorities use them for any vocabulary class while others reserve them for just those that are not extensibile.)

As for any term, the term name of a class is an IRI, called its class name. These may be put in a vocabulary-specific namespace alongside other terms, for example; alternatively, they may be placed in the namespace, known as the type namespace. Classes should be put in type namespace if they are too general to belong in a vocabulary-specific namespace, or if the natural choice of name would conflict with another term in the vocabulary-specific namespace.

FHISO standards should respect the convention that class names have a upper-case first letter, for example


A property is a term used to identify a particular attribute of an entity, where the attribute has an associated value, which may simply be a boolean. A link between two entities can also be expressed as a property where the value is another entity (or a reference to another entity; the distinction is beyond the scope of this policy).

Any FHISO standard that defines a property shall also define:

The domain and range of a property should normally be specified in terms of a class. For the domain this is the class of entity on which the property may be used; for the range it is the class of the property’s value.

In some cases when the expected value of a property is another term (i.e. when its range is a vocabulary class), the natural choice of name for the class of values might be the same as the obvious choice of property name. For example, the property denoting an individual’s sex and the class of possible sexes might both naturally be called (or differ only in capitalisation). This is an example of when the term namespace should be used.

FHISO standards should respect the convention that property names have a lower-case first letter; some example properties include and

Properties shall not have default values, and no information shall be assumed from the absence of a property.


Once standardised, the definitions of terms must only be change in a backwards-compatible way. As term names have no version number embedded in them, this means their meaning must essentially stay unchanged, and neither expand nor contract in scope in a future standard.