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Authority file

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Authority file

For information on authority control usage within World Heritage Encyclopedia, see Help:Authority control.

In library science, authority control is a process that organizes library catalog and bibliographic information[1][2] by using a single, distinct name for each topic. These one-of-a-kind headings are applied consistently throughout the catalog,[3] and work with other organizing data such as linkages and cross references.[3][4] Each heading is described briefly in terms of its scope and usage, and this organization helps the library staff maintain the catalog and make it user-friendly for researchers.[5] The word authority in authority control derives from its initial use in identifying authors, and does not have the usual meaning of authority as a power relationship, although both senses of the word authority are related etymologically.[6][7][8]

Cataloguers assign each subject—such as an author, book, series or corporation—a particular unique heading term which is then used consistently, uniquely, and unambiguously to describe all references to that same subject, even if there are variations such as different spellings, pen names, or aliases.[9] The unique header can guide users to all relevant information including related or collocated subjects.[9] Authority records can be combined into a database and called an authority file, and maintaining and updating these files as well as "logical linkages"[10] to other files within them is the work of librarians and other information cataloguers. Accordingly, authority control is an example of controlled vocabulary and of bibliographic control.

While in theory any piece of information is amenable to authority control such as personal and corporate names, uniform titles, series, and subjects,[2] library cataloguers typically focus on author names and book titles. Subject headings from the Library of Congress fulfill a function similar to authority records, although they are usually considered separately. As time passes, information changes, prompting needs for reorganization. According to one view, authority control is not about creating a perfect seamless system but rather it is an ongoing effort to keep up with these changes and try to bring "structure and order" to the task of helping users find information.[5]

Benefits of authority control

  • Better researching. Authority control helps researchers get a handle on a specific subject with less wasted effort.[9] A well-designed digital catalog/database enables a researcher to query a few words of an entry to bring up the already established term or phrase, thus improving accuracy and saving time.[11]
  • Makes searching more predictable.[12] It can be used in conjunction with keyword searching using "and" or "not" or "or" or other Boolean operators on a web browser.[10] It increases chances that a given search will return relevant items.[11]
  • Consistency of records.[13][14][15]
  • Organization and structure of information.[9]
  • Efficiency for cataloguers. The process of authority control is not only of great help to researchers searching for a particular subject to study, but it can help cataloguers organize information as well. Cataloguers can use authority records when trying to categorize new items, since they can see which records have already been catalogued and can therefore avoid unnecessary work.[9][10]
  • Maximises library resources.[9]
  • Easier to maintain the catalog. It enables cataloguers to detect and correct errors. In some instances, software programs support workers tasked with maintaining the catalog to do ongoing tasks such as automated clean-up.[16] It helps creators and users of metadata.[11]
  • Fewer errors. It can help catch errors caused by typos or misspellings which can sometimes accumulate over time, sometimes known as quality drift. For example, machines can catch misspellings such as "Elementary school techers" and "Pumpkilns" which can then be corrected by library staff.[5]


Differing names describe the same subject

Sometimes within a catalog there are different names or spellings for only one person or subject.[9][12] This can bring confusion since researchers may miss some information. Authority control is used by cataloguers to collocate materials that logically belong together but which present themselves differently. Records are used to establish uniform titles which collocate all versions of a given work under one unique heading even when such versions are issued under different titles. With authority control, one unique preferred name represents all variations and will include different variations, spellings and misspellings, uppercase versus lowercase variants, differing dates, and so forth. For example, in World Heritage Encyclopedia, the subject of Princess Diana is described by an article Diana, Princess of Wales as well as numerous other descriptors, but both Princess Diana and Diana, Princess of Wales describe the same person; an authority record would choose one title as the preferred one for consistency. In an online library catalog, various entries might look like the following:[2]

  1. Diana. (1)
  2. Diana, Princess of Wales. (1)
  3. Diana, Princess of Wales, 1961–1997 (13)
  4. Diana, Princess of Wales 1961–1997 (1)
  5. Diana, Princess of Wales, 1961–1997 (2)
  6. DIANA, PRINCESS OF WALES, 1961–1997. (1)
  7. Diana, Princess of Wales, — Iconography. (2)[2]

These different terms describe the same person. Accordingly, authority control reduces these entries to one unique entry or official authorized heading, sometimes termed an access point:

Diana, Princess of Wales, 1961–1997[17]
L i b r a r y H e a d i n g
Virtual International Authority File VIAF ID: 107032638
World Heritage Encyclopedia Diana, Princess of Wales[18]
WorldCat Diana Princess of Wales 1961-1997
German National Library Diana Wales, Prinzessin 1961-1997
U.S. Library of Congress Diana, Princess of Wales, 1961-1997
Biblioteca Nacional de España Windsor, Diana, Princess of Wales
Getty Union List of Artist Names Diana, Princess of Wales English noble and patron, 1961-1997
National Library of the Netherlands Diana, prinses van Wales, 1961-1997[17]

Generally there are different authority file headings chosen by different national libraries, possibly inviting confusion, but there are different approaches internationally to try to lessen the confusion. One international effort to prevent such confusion is the Virtual International Authority File which is a collaborative attempt to provide a single heading for a particular subject. It is a way to standardize information from different national libraries such as the German National Library and the United States Library of Congress. The idea is to create a single worldwide virtual authority file. For example, the German National Library's term for Princess Diana is Diana Wales, Prinzessin 1961-1997 while the United States Library of Congress prefers the term Diana, Princess of Wales, 1961-1997; other national libraries have other choices. The Virtual International Authority File choice for all of these variations is VIAF ID: 107032638—that is, a common number representing all of these variations.[17]

World Heritage Encyclopedia prefers the term Diana, Princess of Wales, but at the bottom of World Heritage Encyclopedia's page about her, there are links to various international cataloguing efforts for reference purposes.

Same name describes two different subjects

Sometimes two different authors have been published under the same name.[9] This can happen if there is a title which is identical to another title or to a collective uniform title.[9] This, too, can cause confusion. Different authors can be distinguished correctly from each other by, for example, adding a middle initial to one of the names; in addition, other information can be added to one entry to clarify the subject, such as birth year, death year, range of active years such as 1918–1965 when the person flourished, or a brief descriptive epithet. When cataloguers come across different subjects with similar or identical headings, they can disambiguate them using authority control.

Authority records and files

A customary way of enforcing authority control in a bibliographic catalog is to set up a separate index of authority records, which relates to and governs the headings used in the main catalog. This separate index is often referred to as an "authority file." It contains an indexable record of all decisions made by cataloguers in a given library (or—as is increasingly the case—cataloguing consortium), which cataloguers consult when making, or revising, decisions about headings. As a result, the records contain documentation about sources used to establish a particular preferred heading, and may contain information discovered while researching the heading which may be useful.[16]

While authority files provide information about a particular subject, their primary function is not to provide information but to organize it.[16] They contain enough information to establish that a given author or title is unique, but that is all; irrelevant but interesting information is generally excluded. Although practices vary internationally, authority records in the English-speaking world generally contain:

  • Headings show the preferred title chosen as the official and authorized version. It is important that the heading be unique; if there is a conflict with an identical heading, then one of the two will have to be chosen:
Since the headings function as access points, making sure that they are distinct and not in conflict with existing entries is important. For example, the English novelist William Collins (1824–89), whose works include the Moonstone and The Woman in White is better known as Wilkie Collins. Cataloguers have to decide which name the public would most likely look under, and whether to use a see also reference to link alternative forms of an individual's name.
—Moya K. Mason.[19][20]
  • Cross references are other forms of the name or title that might appear in the catalog and include:
  1. see references are forms of the name or title that describe the subject but which have been passed over or deprecated in favor of the authorized heading form
  2. see also references point to other forms of the name or title that are also authorized. These see also references generally point to earlier or later forms of a name or title.
  • Statement(s) of justification is a brief account made by the cataloguer about particular information sources used to determine both authorized and deprecated forms. Sometimes this means citing the title and publication date of the source, the location of the name or title on that source, and the form in which it appears on that source.

For example, the Irish writer Brian O'Nolan, who lived from 1911 to 1966, wrote under many pen names such as Flann O'Brien and Myles na Gopaleen. Catalogers at the United States Library of Congress chose one form—"O'Brien, Flann, 1911–1966"—as the official heading.[21] The example contains all three elements of a valid authority record: the first heading O'Brien, Flann, 1911–1966 is the form of the name that the Library of Congress chose as authoritative. In theory, every record in the catalog that represents a work by this author should have this form of the name as its author heading. What follows immediately below the heading beginning with Na Gopaleen, Myles, 1911–1966 are the see references. These forms of the author's name will appear in the catalog, but only as transcriptions and not as headings. If a user queries the catalog under one of these variant forms of the author's name, he or she would receive the response: "See O’Brien, Flann, 1911–1966." There is an additional spelling variant of the Gopaleen name: "Na gCopaleen, Myles, 1911–1966" has an extra C inserted because the author also employed the non-anglicized Irish spelling of his pen-name, in which the capitalized C shows the correct root word while the preceding g indicates its pronunciation in context. So if a library user comes across this spelling variant, he or she will be led to the same author regardless. See also references, which point from one authorized heading to another authorized heading, are exceedingly rare for personal name authority records, although they often appear in name authority records for corporate bodies. The final four entries in this record beginning with His At Swim-Two-Birds ... 1939. constitute the justification for this particular form of the name: it appeared in this form on the 1939 edition of the author's novel At Swim-Two-Birds, whereas the author's other noms de plume appeared on later publications.

Access control

The act of choosing a single authorized heading to represent all forms of a name is often difficult, sometimes arbitrary and on occasion politically sensitive. An alternative is the idea of access control, where variant forms of a name are related without the endorsement of one particular form.[23]

Authority control and cooperative cataloging

Before the advent of digital Online public access catalogs and the Internet, creating and maintaining a library's authority files was generally carried out by individual cataloging departments within each library—that is, if such cataloguing was done at all. This often resulted in substantial disagreement between different libraries over which form of a given name was considered authoritative. As long as a library's catalog was internally consistent, differences between catalogs did not matter greatly.

However, even before the Internet revolutionized the way libraries go about cataloging their materials, catalogers began moving toward the establishment of cooperative consortia, such as OCLC and RLIN in the United States, in which cataloging departments from libraries all over the world contributed their records to, and took their records from, a shared database. This development prompted to the need for national standards for authority work.

In the United States, the primary organization for maintaining cataloging standards with respect to authority work operates under the aegis of the Library of Congress, and is known as the Name Authority Cooperative Program, or NACO Authority.[24]


There are various standards using different acronyms.

  • ISAAR (CPF) – International Standard Archival Authority Record for Corporate Bodies, Persons, and Families.[25] Published by the International Council on Archives[26]
  • MARC standards for authority records in machine-readable format.[27]
  • Metadata Authority Description Schema (MADS), an XML schema for an authority element set that may be used to provide metadata about agents (people, organizations), events, and terms (topics, geographics, genres, etc.).
  • Encoded Archival Context, an XML schema for authority records conforming to ISAAR (CPF)

See also


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