Smith, John 1709
Smith, John 1936
Smith, John A.
There are some problems with the current method used by libraries to realize authority control, not the least of which is that it is a difficult and expensive process and the number of authors is growing rapidly as we all become creators in this information age. I want to address here 3 aspects of name authority control that are especially non-functional: 1) the use of dates as distinguishing characteristics is not easy for the catalogers creating the authority record 2) the use of dates as distinguishing characteristics does not help the users 3) the name heading is not a legitimate identifier because it may change.
Date of Birth is Hard for Catalogers
We hear that authority control, including name authority control, is responsible for upwards to 40-50% of the time it takes to catalog a book. Part of this is in determining if you do indeed have a new author to enter into the system. Another part is in creating the unique entry. Take the case of Michael Fitzergerald, editor of a book called Touching All Bases. Touching all Bases is a collection of columns by sports writer Ray Fitzgerald. His sons, Michael and Kevin gathered the columns after their father's death in 1982 and published them. Because there have been other Michael Fitzgerald's as authors, the year of his birth had to be added to his name. Here's the authority record for Michael:
LC Control Number: n 83124260
Cancel/Invalid LCCN: n 97055382 no 90013838
HEADING: Fitzgerald, Michael, 1955-
Found In: Fitzgerald, R. Touching all bases, c1983 (a.e.) CIP t.p.
Call to publisher, 6/27/83 (Accountant, b. 2/22/1955)
Michael Fitzgeralds seem to be in great abundance. There was even another one who wrote a book and was also born in 1955. To distinguish between them, Michael Fitzgerald 1955 #2 has his full date of birth added to his name
His book, Creative Circle, is about art, music and literature from a Baha'I perspective. We see that at the time the authority record was created he was teaching at Shenandoah College.LC Control Number: n 2003097483
LC Class Number: PS3556.I8345
HEADING: Fitzgerald, Michael, 1955 June 11-
Found In: The Creative circle, 1989: t.p. (Michael Fitzgerald) p. 241
(teaches at Shenandoah College in Virginia)
Earth circle, c2003: CIP t.p. (Michael Fitzgerald) data
sheet (b. 06-11-55)
So here we have two authors whose works would never be mistaken for each other, yet who have the same name. The authority records are evidence of why it is so time consuming to create these identifiers. Because the date of birth is generally not one of the pieces of information about an author that is included in the book nor in the promotional material provided by publishers, the librarians establishing the name heading often must resort to contacting the publisher or the author or the author's institution to determine that information.
Date of Birth May Not Help Users
In a time when few people wrote books, and when users may have come to the library with some knowledge of the famous intellectual whose works they were seeking, the distinction between two John Smiths, one born in 1709 and one born in 1936, may have been an obvious one. We are now, however, in a time of author abundance. Anyone can, and many do, write books, and many of those writing are not known in wider circles. Reading is now considered a "popular" activity, as the bookshelves of any chain bookstore will evidence. So a user of a library catalog may find himself facing a daunting choice among authors, such as these, all named "Michael Fitzgerald":
Fitzgerald, MichaelThe Michael Fitzgerald born June 11, 1955, will be able to find himself in this list, but other than members of his immediate family, no one else will know which of these he is. Catalogers have to call publishers or authors to find out the author's date of birth because it's not included on the book, so there is no reason to believe that the date is available to users of the library catalog. All of that time and effort is expended to create a distinction that often doesn't help the user.
Fitzgerald, Michael, 1768-1831
Fitzgerald, Michael, 1859-
Fitzgerald, Michael, 1918-
Fitzgerald, Michael, 1937-
Fitzgerald, Michael, 1946-
Fitzgerald, Michael, 1955-
Fitzgerald, Michael, 1955 June 11-
Fitzgerald, Michael, 1957-
Fitzgerald, Michael, 1958-
Fitzgerald, Michael, 1959-
Fitzgerald, Michael, 1970-
FitzGerald, Michael A.
All That, and It's not Even a Valid Identifier
The final blow to name authority control is that the name heading (as the name entry is called, e.g. Smith, John A.) can change. Sometimes it might change because a mistake was made in creating the heading, or even in the printing of the book, other times it changes because the library rules for creating name headings change. The heading performs multiple functions: it is the display form in displays of the book's data, it is used as the string to search on in a catalog, and it identifies the author. If a new display form is needed, then the identifier itself changes. When this happened on a grand scale a few decades ago, due to a change in the library cataloging rules, all of the connections between names and books broke, and names in library records all over the country (and beyond) had to be changed. A true identifier only identifies, and if display forms change the identifier stays the same. John Smith is the same person even if the library entry changes from Smith, John A. to Smith, John Arthur.
It seems pretty clear that we won't be able to deal with our author abundance using the current name authority methods. There are too many new authors appearing for us to spend time calling around to determine birthdates. There are also too many new authors for those dates of birth to be useful as a way to distinguish between persons. To add to that, we really need a true identifier for authors.
Library catalogs attempt to maintain uniformity throughout, so the idea of treating contemporary authors differently from historical ones is a very disruptive concept. However, the notion is beginning to circulate that we could have contemporary authors identify themselves in some way. Something to the effect of: Yes, I am the same Michael Fitzgerald who authored that book on Art, and that's the identifier for me. After all, who better than the author knows his own identity?
That doesn't solve the problem that users have of identifying the author they seek from a long list of persons with essentially the same name. Perhaps the days of looking at lists of authors' names is over. Maybe users need to see a cloud of authors connected to topic areas in which they have published, or related to books titles or institutional affiliations. In this time of author abundance, names are not meaningful without some context.