Authority control

Last updated

In library science, authority control is a process that organizes bibliographic information, for example in library catalogs [1] [2] [3] by using a single, distinct spelling of a name (heading) or a numeric identifier for each topic. The word authority in authority control derives from the idea that the names of people, places, things, and concepts are authorized, i.e., they are established in one particular form. [4] [5] [6] These one-of-a-kind headings or identifiers are applied consistently throughout catalogs which make use of the respective authority file, [7] and are applied for other methods of organizing data such as linkages and cross references. [7] [8] Each controlled entry is described in an authority record in terms of its scope and usage, and this organization helps the library staff maintain the catalog and make it user-friendly for researchers. [9]


Catalogers assign each subject—such as author, topic, series, or corporation—a particular unique identifier or heading term which is then used consistently, uniquely, and unambiguously for all references to that same subject, which obviates variations from different spellings, transliterations, pen names, or aliases. [10] The unique header can guide users to all relevant information including related or collocated subjects. [10] Authority records can be combined into a database and called an authority file, and maintaining and updating these files as well as "logical linkages" [11] to other files within them is the work of librarians and other information catalogers. 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 names, and subjects, [2] [3] library catalogers typically focus on author names and titles of works. 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. [9]

Benefits of authority control


Differing names describe the same subject

Princess Diana is described in one authority file as "Windsor, Diana, Princess of Wales" which is an official heading. BEST ALL-TIME DIANA! (5113074392).jpg
Princess Diana is described in one authority file as "Windsor, Diana, Princess of Wales" which is an official heading.

Sometimes within a catalog there are different names or spellings for only one person or subject. [10] [13] This can bring confusion since researchers may miss some information. Authority control is used by catalogers 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 Wikipedia, the first wife of Charles, Prince of Wales is described by an article Diana, Princess of Wales as well as numerous other descriptors, e.g. Princess Diana, 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] [3]

  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)

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 [18]
Authority FileHeading / ID
Virtual International Authority FileVIAF ID: 107032638
WikipediaDiana, Princess of Wales [19]
WikidataWikidata identifier: Q9685
Integrated Authority File (GND)GND ID: 118525123
U.S. Library of Congress Diana, Princess of Wales, 1961–1997
WorldCat IdentitiesDiana Princess of Wales 1961–1997
Biblioteca Nacional de España Windsor, Diana, Princess of Wales
Getty Union List of Artist NamesDiana, Princess of Wales English noble and patron, 1961–1997
National Library of the Netherlands Diana, prinses van Wales, 1961–1997 [18]

Generally there are different authority file headings and identifiers used by different libraries in different countries, 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 authority files around the world such as the Integrated Authority File (GND) maintained and used cooperatively by many libraries in German-speaking countries and the United States Library of Congress. The idea is to create a single worldwide virtual authority file. For example, the ID for Princess Diana in the GND is 118525123 (preferred name: Diana <Wales, Prinzessin>) while the United States Library of Congress uses the term Diana, Princess of Wales, 1961–1997; other authority files 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. [18]

The English Wikipedia prefers the term "Diana, Princess of Wales", but at the bottom of the article about her, there are links to various international cataloging efforts for reference purposes.

Same name describes two different subjects

Sometimes two different authors have been published under the same name. [10] This can happen if there is a title which is identical to another title or to a collective uniform title. [10] 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 catalogers 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 catalogers in a given library (or—as is increasingly the case—cataloging consortium), which catalogers 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. [17]

While authority files provide information about a particular subject, their primary function is not to provide information but to organize it. [17] 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 the following information:

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. [20] [21]
  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.
An example of an authority record.png

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. [22] 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.

Card catalog records such as this one used to be physical cards contained in long rectangular drawers in a library; today, generally, this information is stored in online databases. Sample Catalog Record.png
Card catalog records such as this one used to be physical cards contained in long rectangular drawers in a library; today, generally, this information is stored in online databases.
Authority control with "Kesey, Ken" as the chosen heading. Sample Name Authority Record.png
Authority control with "Kesey, Ken" as the chosen heading.

Access control

The act of choosing a single authorized heading to represent all forms of a name is quite often a difficult and complex task, considering that any given individual may have legally changed their name or used a variety of legal names in the course of their lifetime, as well as a variety of nicknames, pen names, stage names or other alternative names. It may be particularly difficult to choose a single authorized heading for individuals whose various names have controversial political or social connotations, when the choice of authorized heading may be seen as endorsement of the associated political or social ideology.

An alternative to using authorized headings is the idea of access control, where various forms of a name are related without the endorsement of one particular form. [24]

Cooperative cataloging

Before the advent of digital online public access catalogs and the Internet, creating and maintaining a library's authority files were generally carried out by individual cataloging departments within each library. Naturally, then, there was considerable difference in the authority files of the different libraries. For the early part of library history, it was generally accepted that, as long as a library's catalog was internally consistent, the differences between catalogs in different libraries did not matter greatly.

As libraries became more attuned to the needs of researchers and began interacting more with other libraries, the value of standard cataloging practices came to be recognized. With the advent of automated database technologies, catalogers began to establish 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 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. [25]


There are various standards using different acronyms.

Standards for authority metadata:

Standards for object identification, controlled by an identification-authority:

Standards for identified-object metadata (examples): vCard, Dublin Core, etc.

See also

Related Research Articles

Library catalog Register of bibliographic items

A library catalog is a register of all bibliographic items found in a library or group of libraries, such as a network of libraries at several locations. A bibliographic item can be any information entity that is considered library material, or a group of library materials, or linked from the catalog as far as it is relevant to the catalog and to the users (patrons) of the library.

This page is a glossary of library and information science.

MARCstandards are a set of digital formats for the description of items catalogued by libraries, such as books. Working with the Library of Congress, American computer scientist Henriette Avram developed MARC in the 1960s to create records that could be read by computers and shared among libraries. By 1971, MARC formats had become the US national standard for dissemination of bibliographic data. Two years later, they became the international standard. There are several versions of MARC in use around the world, the most predominant being MARC 21, created in 1999 as a result of the harmonization of U.S. and Canadian MARC formats, and UNIMARC. UNIMARC is maintained by the Permanent UNIMARC Committee of the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA), and is widely used in Europe. The MARC 21 family of standards now includes formats for authority records, holdings records, classification schedules, and community information, in addition to the format for bibliographic records.

Medical Subject Headings (MeSH) is a comprehensive controlled vocabulary for the purpose of indexing journal articles and books in the life sciences. It serves as a thesaurus that facilitates searching. Created and updated by the United States National Library of Medicine (NLM), it is used by the MEDLINE/PubMed article database and by NLM's catalog of book holdings. MeSH is also used by registry to classify which diseases are studied by trials registered in ClinicalTrials.

<i>Anglo-American Cataloguing Rules</i> Library cataloging standard

Anglo-American Cataloguing Rules (AACR) were an international library cataloging standard. First published in 1967 and edited by C. Sumner Spalding, a second edition (AACR2) edited by Michael Gorman and Paul W. Winkler was issued in 1978, with subsequent revisions (AACR2R) appearing in 1988 and 1998; all updates ceased in 2005.

The Library of Congress Control Number (LCCN) is a serially-based system of numbering cataloging records in the Library of Congress in the United States. It has nothing to do with the contents of any book, and should not be confused with Library of Congress Classification.

Controlled vocabularies provide a way to organize knowledge for subsequent retrieval. They are used in subject indexing schemes, subject headings, thesauri, taxonomies and other knowledge organization systems. Controlled vocabulary schemes mandate the use of predefined, authorised terms that have been preselected by the designers of the schemes, in contrast to natural language vocabularies, which have no such restriction.

The Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH) comprise a thesaurus of subject headings, maintained by the United States Library of Congress, for use in bibliographic records. LC Subject Headings are an integral part of bibliographic control, which is the function by which libraries collect, organize and disseminate documents. It first appeared in year 1898, a year later to the publication of Library of Congress Classification(1897). The latest 38th edition was published in year 2016. LOC has ceased the print publication and a weekly updated list, supplement to the 38th edition is published. LCSHs are applied to every item within a library's collection, and facilitate a user's access to items in the catalogue that pertain to similar subject matter. If users could only locate items by 'title' or other descriptive fields, such as 'author' or 'publisher', they would have to expend an enormous amount of time searching for items of related subject matter, and undoubtedly miss locating many items because of the ineffective and inefficient search capability.

Cataloging process of listing information resources for inclusion in a database

In library and information science, cataloguing (UK) or cataloging (US) is the process of creating metadata representing information resources, such as books, sound recordings, moving images, etc. Cataloging provides information such as creator names, titles, and subject terms that describe resources, typically through the creation of bibliographic records. The records serve as surrogates for the stored information resources. Since the 1970s these metadata are in machine-readable form and are indexed by information retrieval tools, such as bibliographic databases or search engines. While typically the cataloging process results in the production of library catalogs, it also produces other types of discovery tools for documents and collections.

LIBRIS is a Swedish national union catalogue maintained by the National Library of Sweden in Stockholm. It is possible to freely search about 6.5 million titles nationwide.

An index term, subject term, subject heading, or descriptor, in information retrieval, is a term that captures the essence of the topic of a document. Index terms make up a controlled vocabulary for use in bibliographic records. They are an integral part of bibliographic control, which is the function by which libraries collect, organize and disseminate documents. They are used as keywords to retrieve documents in an information system, for instance, a catalog or a search engine. A popular form of keywords on the web are tags which are directly visible and can be assigned by non-experts. Index terms can consist of a word, phrase, or alphanumerical term. They are created by analyzing the document either manually with subject indexing or automatically with automatic indexing or more sophisticated methods of keyword extraction. Index terms can either come from a controlled vocabulary or be freely assigned.

Metadata Data about data

Metadata is "data that provides information about other data". In other words, it is "data about data." Many distinct types of metadata exist, including descriptive metadata, structural metadata, administrative metadata, reference metadata and statistical metadata.

Virtual International Authority File international authority file

The Virtual International Authority File (VIAF) is an international authority file. It is a joint project of several national libraries and operated by the Online Computer Library Center (OCLC).

A bibliographic record is an entry in a bibliographic index which represents and describes a specific resource. A bibliographic record contains the data elements necessary to help users identify and retrieve that resource, as well as additional supporting information, presented in a formalized bibliographic format. Additional information may support particular database functions such as search, or browse, or may provide fuller presentation of the content item.

Polythematic structured-subject heading system

Polythematic structured-subject heading system is a bilingual Czech–English controlled vocabulary of subject headings developed and maintained by the National Technical Library in Prague. It was designed for describing and searching information resources according to their subject. PSH contains more than 13,900 terms, which cover the main fields of human knowledge.

Corporate Bodies Authority File authority control

The Corporate Bodies Authority File or GKD is a German authority control for the organisation of corporation names from catalogues. It is used mainly for documentation in libraries. Like the Subject Headings Authority File and the Name Authority File, the GKD is looked after and updated by the German National Library (DNB), the Bavarian State Library, the Berlin State Library and, since 1997, the Austrian National Library, several library networks taking part. The responsible editor is the State Library in Berlin. The Common Corporate File was created in the 1970s from the catalogue data of the Journal Database (ZDB). In April 2004 it contained more than 915,000 records.

The Subject Headings Authority File or SWD is a controlled vocabulary index term system used primarily for subject indexing in library catalogs. The SWD is managed by the German National Library (DNB) in cooperation with various library networks. The inclusion of keywords in the SWD is defined by "Rules for the Keyword Catalogue" (RSWK). Similar authority systems in other languages include the Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH) and the RAMEAU. Since April 2012 the SWD is part of the Integrated Authority File.

Faceted Application of Subject Terminology (FAST) is a general use controlled vocabulary based on the Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH). FAST is developed as a part of WorldCat by OCLC, Inc., with the goal of making subject cataloging less costly and easier to implement in online contexts. FAST headings separate topical data from non-topical data, such as information about a document's form, chronological coverage, or geographical coverage.

Social Networks and Archival Context (SNAC) is an online project for discovering, locating, and using distributed historical records in regard to individual people, families, and organizations.

The Répertoire de vedettes-matière de l'Université Laval (RVM) is a controlled vocabulary made up of four mostly bilingual thesauruses. It is designed for document indexers, organizations that want to describe the content of their documents or of their products and services, as well as anyone who wants to clarify vocabulary in English and French as part of their work or research.


  1. Block, R. (1999). Authority control: What it is and why it matters. Retrieved on 27 October 2006.
  2. 1 2 3 "Why Does a Library Catalog Need Authority Control and What Is it?". IMPLEMENTING AUTHORITY CONTROL. United States: Vermont Department of Libraries. 2003. Archived from the original on 2015-06-07. Retrieved 2015-05-22. ... However! : if the link [URL] in this footnote is a dead link, then ... please [feel free to] see the next footnote, which links to a web page having the exact same title that does still exist (at a slightly different URL).
  3. "auctor [sic; see note below] (search term)". Online Etymology Dictionary. Douglas Harper. 2013. Retrieved 2013-07-19. author (n) c.1300, autor "father," from O.Fr. auctor, acteor "author, originator, creator, instigator (12c., Mod.Fr. auteur), from L. auctorem (nom. auctor) ... –
    authority (n.) early 13c., autorite "book or quotation that settles an argument," from O.Fr.auctorité "authority, prestige, right, permission, dignity, gravity; the Scriptures" (12c.; Mod.Fr.autorité), ... (see author). ...
    Note: root words for both author and authority are words such as auctor or autor and autorite from the 13th century.
  4. Memidex. (2012). "authority (control)" . Retrieved 7 December 2012. Etymology ... autorite "book or quotation that settles an argument", from Old French auctorité...
  5. Merriam-Webster Dictionary. (2012). "authority" . Retrieved 7 December 2012. See "Origin of authority" – Middle English auctorite, from Anglo-French auctorité, from Latin auctoritat-, auctoritas opinion, decision, power, from auctor First Known Use: 13th century...
  6. 1 2 "Authority Control at the NMSU Library". United States: New Mexico State University. 2007. Archived from the original on 4 June 2010. Retrieved 25 November 2012.
  7. "Authority Control in the Card Environment". Implementing Authority Control. United States: Vermont Department of Libraries. 2003. Retrieved 22 May 2015.
  8. 1 2 3 Wells, K. (n.d.). "Got authorities? Why authority control is good for your library". Tennessee Libraries. Retrieved 23 January 2020.
  9. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 National Library of Australia. (n.d.). "Collection description policy" . Retrieved 23 January 2020. The primary purpose of authority control is to assist the catalogue user in locating items of interest.
  10. 1 2 3 "Authority Control at LTI". LTI. 2012.
  11. 1 2 3 NCSU Libraries. (2012). "Brief guidelines on authority control decision-making". Archived from the original on 13 January 2013.
  12. 1 2 Rutgers University Libraries. (2012). "Authority Control in Unicorn WorkFlows August 2001" . Retrieved 23 January 2020. Why Authority Control?
  13. Burger, R.H. (1985). Authority work: The creation, use, maintenance, and evaluation of authority records and files. Libraries Unlimited. ISBN   9780872874916.
  14. Clack, D.H. (1990). Authority Control: Principles, Applications, and Instructions. UMI Books on Demand. ISBN   9780608014432.
  15. Maxwell, R.L. (2002). Maxwell's Guide to Authority Work. American Library Association. ISBN   9780838908228.
  16. 1 2 3 Calhoun, Karen (June 1998). "A Bird's Eye View of Authority Control in Cataloging". Cornell University Library. Retrieved November 25, 2012.
  17. 1 2 3 Virtual International Authority File records for Princess Diana, retrieved March 12, 2013
  18. Note: this is the article title as of March 12, 2013
  19. Mason, Moya K (November 25, 2012). "Purpose of Authority Work and Files".
  20. Wynar, BS (1992). "Introduction to Cataloguing and Classification" (8th ed.). Littleton, CO: Libraries Unlimited.Cite journal requires |journal= (help).
  21. "Authorities files". Library of Congress.Cite journal requires |journal= (help); the original record has been abbreviated for clarity.
  22. 1 2 Calhoun, Karen. "A Bird's Eye View of Authority Control in Cataloging". Cornell University Library.Cite journal requires |journal= (help).
  23. Note: See Linda Barnhart's Access Control Records: Prospects and Challenges from the 1996 OCLC conference entitled ; "Authority Control in the 21st Century " For more information.
  24. "NACO Home: NACO (Program for Cooperative Cataloging (PCC), Library of Congress)". Retrieved 2015-03-16.
  25. Library of Congress Network Development and MARC Standards Office. "MARC 21 Format for Authority Data: Table of Contents (Network Development and MARC Standards Office, Library of Congress)". Retrieved 2011-12-18.
  26. "ISAAR(CPF): International Standard Archival Authority Record for Corporate Bodies, Persons, and Families, Second edition". Archived from the original on 2007-06-05. Retrieved 2008-09-11.CS1 maint: BOT: original-url status unknown (link)
  27. "ICArchives : Page d'accueil : Accueil". Retrieved 2011-12-18.