The paleoclimate record is information-rich, yet significant technical barriers currently exist before this record can be used to answer scientific questions. Here we make the case for a universal format to structure paleoclimate data. A simple example demonstrates the scientific utility of such a self-describing way of organizing coral data and meta-data. This example is generalized to a universal ontology that may form the backbone of an open-source, open-access, and crowd-sourced paleoclimate database. The format is designed to enable semantic searches, and is expected to accelerate discovery on topical scientific problems like climate extremes, the characteristics of natural climate variability, and climate sensitivity to various forcings.