Saturday, November 05, 2022

Cautions on ISBN and a bit on DOI

I have been reading through the documents relating to the court case that Hachette has brought against the Internet Archives "controlled digital lending" program. I wrote briefly about this before. In this recent reading I am once again struck by the use and over-use of ISBNs as identifiers. Most of my library peeps know this, but for others, I will lay out the issues and problems with these so-called "identifiers".


The "BN" of the ISBN stands for "BOOK NUMBER." The "IS" is for "INTERNATIONAL STANDARD" which was issued by the International Standards Organization, whose documents are unfortunately paywalled. But the un-paywalled page defines the target of an ISBN as:

[A] unique international identification system for each product form or edition of a separately available monographic publication published or produced by a specific publisher that is available to the public.

What isn't said here in so many words is that the ISBN does not define a specific content; it defines a  salable product instance in the same way that a UPS code is applied to different sizes and "flavors" of Dawn dish soap. What many people either do not know or may have forgotten is that every book product is given a different ISBN. This means that the hardback book, the trade paperback, the mass-market paperback, the MOBI ebook, the EPUB ebook, even if all brought to market by a single publisher, all have different ISBNs.  

The word "book" is far from precise and it is a shame that the ISBN uses that term. Yes, it is applied to the book trade, but it is not applied to a "book" except in a common sense of that word. When you say "I read a book" you do not often mean the same thing as the B in ISBN. Your listener has no idea if you are referring to a hard back or a paperback copy of the text. It would be useful to think of the ISBN as the ISBpN - the International Standard Book product Number.

Emphasizing the ISBN's use as a product code, bookstores at one point were assigning ISBNs to non-book products like stuffed animals and other gift items. This was because the retail system that the stores used required ISBNs. I believe that this practice has been quashed, but it does illustrate that the ISBN is merely a bar code at a sales point.


The ISBN became a standard product number in the book trade in 1970, in the era when the Universal Product Code (UPC) concept was being developed in a variety of sales environments. This means that every book product that appeared on the market before that date does not have an ISBN. This doesn't mean that a text from before that date cannot have an ISBN - as older works are re-issued for the current market, they, too, are given ISBNs as they are prepared for the retail environment. Even some works that are out of copyright (pre-1925) may be found to have ISBNs when they have been reissued. 

The existence of an ISBN on the physical or electronic version of a book tells you nothing about its copyright status and does not mean that the book content is currently in print. It has the same meaning as the bar code on your box of cereal - it is a product identifier that can be used in automated systems to ring up a purchase. 

The Controlled Digital Lending Lawsuit

The lawsuit between a group of publishers led by Hachette and the Internet Archive is an example of two different views: that of selling and that of reading.


In the lawsuit the publishers quantify the damage done to them by expressing the damage to them in terms of numbers of ISBNs. This Implies that the lawsuit is not including back titles that are pre-ISBN. Because the concern is economic, items that are long out of print don't seem to be included in the lawsuit.

The difference between the book as product and the book as content shows up in how ISBNs are used. The publisher’s expert notes that many metadata records at the archive have multiple ISBNs and surmises that the archive is adding these to the records. What this person doesn’t know is that library records, which the archive is using, often contain ISBNs for multiple book products which the libraries consider interchangeable. The library user is seeking specific content and is not concerned with whether the book is a hard back, has library binding, or is one of the possible soft covers. The “book “ that the library user is seeking is an information vessel.

It is the practice in libraries, where there is more than one physical book type available, to show the user a single metadata record that doesn’t distinguish between them. The record may describe a hard bound copy even though the library has only the trade paperback. This may not be ideal but the cost-benefit seems defensible. Users probably pay little attention to the publication details that would distinguish between these products. 


From a single library metadata record


Where libraries do differentiate is between forms that require special hardware or software. Even here however the ISBN cannot be used for the library’s purpose because services that manage these materials can provide the books in the primary digital reading formats based off a single metadata record, even though each ebook format is assigned its own ISBN for the purpose of sales.

The product view is what you see on Amazon. The different products have different prices which is one way they are distinguished. A buyer can see the different prices for hard copy, paperback, or kindle book, and often a range of prices for used copies. Unlike the library user, the Amazon customer has to make a choice, even if all of the options have the same content. For sales to be possible, each of the products has its own ISBN. 

Different products have different prices

Counting ISBNs may be the correct quantifier for the publishers, but they feature only minimally in the library environment. Multiple ISBNs on a single library metadata record is not an attempt to hide publisher products by putting them together; it's good library practice for serving its readers. Users coming to the library with an ISBN will be directed to the content they seek regardless of the particular binding the library owns. Counting the ISBNs in the Internet Archive's metadata will not be a good measure of the number of "books" there using the publisher's definition of "book."

Digital Object Identifier (DOI)

I haven't done a deep study of the use of DOIs, but again there seems to be a great enthusiasm for the DOI as an identifier yet I see little discussion of the limitations of its reach. DOI began in 2000 so it has a serious time limit. Although it has caught on big with academic and scientific publications, it has less reach with social sciences, political writing, and other journalism. Periodicals that do not use DOIs may well be covering topics that can also be found in the DOI-verse. Basing an article research system on the presence of DOIs is an arbitrary truncation of the knowledge universe.


The End


Identifiers are useful. Created works are messy. Metadata is often inadequate. As anyone who has tried to match up metadata from multiple sources knows, working without identifiers makes that task much more  difficult. However, we must be very clear, when using identifiers, to recognize what they identify.

Monday, June 27, 2022

The OCLC v Clarivate Dilemma

OCLC has filed suit against the company Clarivate which owns Proquest and ExLibris. The suit focuses on a metadata service proposed by Ex Libris called "MetaDoor." MetaDoor isn't a bibliographic database à la WorldCat, it is a peer-to-peer service that allows its users to find quality records in the catalog systems of other libraries. ("MetaDoor" is a terrible name for a product, by the way.)

What seems to specifically have OCLC's dander up is that Ex Libris states that it will allow any and all libraries, not just its Alma customers, to use this service for free. As the service does not yet exist it is unknown how it could affect the library metadata sharing environment. It may succeed, it may fail. If it succeeds, the technology that Ex Libris develops will be a logical next step in bibliographic data sharing, but its effect on OCLC is hard to predict.

Yesterday's and Today's Technology

WorldCat is yesterday's technology: a huge, centralized database. Peer-to-peer sharing of bibliographic records has been available since the 1980's with the development of the Z39.50 protocol, and presumably a considerable amount of sharing over that protocol has been used by libraries to obtain records from other libraries. Over the years many programs and systems have been developed to make use of Z39.50 and the protocol is built in to library systems, both for obtaining records and for sharing records.

The actual extent of peer-to-peer sharing of bibliographic records already today does not seem to be known, although I did only a brief amount of research looking for that information. It is definitely in use in library environments where participation in OCLC is unaffordable; articles vaunt its use in Russia, India, Korea, and other countries. It is built into the open source library system Koha that is aimed at those libraries that are priced out of the mainstream library systems market. Where libraries have known peers, such as the national library of a country, peer-to-peer makes good sense.

What OCLC's centralized database has that peer-to-peer lacks (at least to date) is consolidated library holdings information. As Kyle Banerjee said on Twitter, the real value in WorldCat is the holdings. This is used by interlibrary loan systems, and it is what appears on the screen when you do a WorldCat search. Cleverly, OCLC has recorded the geographical location of all of its holding libraries and can give you a list of libraries relative to your location. In the past this type of service was only available through a central database, but we may have arrived at point where peer-to-peer could provide this as well.

A couple of other things before I look at some specific points in the lawsuit. One is that WorldCat is not the only bibliographic database used for sharing of metadata. Some smaller library companies also have their own shared databases. These are much smaller than WorldCat and the libraries that use them generally are 1) unable to afford OCLC's member fees and 2) do not have need of the depth or breadth of WorldCat's bibliographic data. For example, the CARL database from TLC company has a database of 77 million records, many less than worldCat's over 500 million.  Even the Library of Congress catalog is only 20 million strong. The value for some libraries is that WorldCat contains the long tail; for others, that long tail is not needed. It's the difference between the Harvard library and your local public library. Harvard may well have need for metadata for a Lithuanian poetry journal, your local public library can do just fine with a peer database of popular works published in the US.

And another: we're slowly moving to a less "thing"-based world to a "data"-based world. Yes, scholars still need books and journals, but increasingly our information seeking returns tiny bites, not big thoughts. You can rue that, but I think it's only going to get worse. It's like the difference between a Ken Burns 10-part documentary on the Civil War and TikTok. The metadata creation activity for the deep thoughts of books and articles is not viable for YouTube, Instagram, TikTok or even Facebook. Us "book people" are hanging on to a vast repository that is less and less looking forward and more and more becoming dusty and crusty. We don't want to lose that valuable archive, but it is hard to claim that we are not a fading culture.

OK, to the lawsuit.

What is the Nut of this Case?

OCLC claims in its suit that Clarivate is undertaking MetaDoor as a malicious act, targeting WorldCat with a desire to destroy it. I don't think you need to be malicious to come up with a project to create an efficient system for sharing bibliographic records. Creating a shared database at this time is simply a logical need for any data service. 

The main fact behind OCLC's suit is that uploading library catalog bibliographic records to MetaDoor is a violation of the libraries' contracts with OCLC, and that Clarivate/Ex Libris is encouraging libraries to violate their contracts. As Clarivate has no such contract with OCLC, the suit uses terms like "conspiracy" and a lot of "tortious" to describe that Clarivate/Ex Libris is breaking some law of competition by encouraging OCLC customers to violate their contracts. 

I'm not sure how that will play in court but you can see on the Clarivate site that one of their main areas of expertise is in intellectual property around data. Regardless of the outcome of this suit we may get to see some interesting arguments around data ownership. It's still a wide-open area where some smart discussion would be very welcome.

The ILS Market

The lawsuit complains that Clarivate has become the largest player in the ILS market through its purchase of systems like Ex Libris and ProQuest. (It isn't clear to me how "large" is defined here.) It also bemoans the consolidation of the library market. The library market is hardly unique in this; consolidation of this type is a normal course of things in our barely-regulated capitalism. It is, as always, hard to understand just what Clarivate owns because Clarivate owns Proquest which owns Ex Libris which owns Innovative Interfaces which owns SkyRiver and VTLS, among others. The number of players in the library market, which once was a handful of independent companies, is shrinking at a rapid rate, and this has been a worry in the library world now for decades.

On its web site Clarivate presents itself as a research data and analytics company. It includes Proquest and Web of Science in its list of offerings, but interestingly makes no mention of Ex Libris. I've always wondered why anyone with any business sense would want to enter the library cataloging systems market. In fact, Clarivate inherited Ex Libris when it purchased Proquest, and the Clarivate press release upon acquiring Proquest makes no mention of Ex Libris or other library systems.

Speaking of market consolidation, one must remember that at one time OCLC had two rather large competitors in the library cataloging market: the Western Library Network and Research Libraries Information Network. OCLC purchased both of these, and they then ceased to exist. That was itself a consolidation that concerned many because at the time few library cataloging systems provided a significantly large database to support the cataloging activity. Also, take a gander at this chart from Marshall Breeding's Library Tech Guides that shows the "mergers and acquisitions" of OCLC:

(more readable on Marshall's site, so hop over there fore details)

What is a WorldCat record?

The lawsuit speaks of the "theft" of WorldCat records by Ex Libris for their MetaDoor product (which isn't well explained as the records will be voluntarily offered by the participating libraries). The peer-to-peer action of MetaDoor, however, does not touch the WorldCat database directly. As I understand it from the Ex Libris web site, libraries using the Ex Libris system agree to have that system harvest records from their database. Information from those records will be indexed in MetaDoor but the records themselves will not stored there. Users of MetaDoor will discover records they need for cataloging through MetaDoor, and the records will be retrieved from the library system holding the record. Without a doubt, some of those records will have been downloaded by libraries during cataloging on OCLC. The lawsuit refers to these as "WorldCat records."

Here's the hitch: these are records are distributed among individual library databases. Each MARC record is a character string in which any part of that string can be modified using software written for that purpose. That software may be part of the library catalog system, or it may be standalone software like the open software MARCedit. Other software, like Open Refine, has been incorporated into batch workflows for MARC records to make changes to records. Basically, the records undergo a lot of changes, both the "enhancements" in WorldCat that the lawsuit refers to but also an unknown quantity of modifications once individual libraries obtain them.

Note that some libraries do not use OCLC and therefore have no WorldCat records, and many libraries have multiple sources of bibliographic data. It simply isn't possible to say "all your MARC belong to us." It's much more complicated than that. Although there is nominally both provenance and versioning data in the MARC records, these fields are as editable as all others. In addition, some systems ignore these and do not attempt to update those details as the records are edited. This means that there is no way to look at a record in a library database and determine precisely from where it was originally obtained prior to being in that database. If library A uses OCLC to create a catalog record and library B (not an OCLC cataloging customer) uses its catalog system's Z39.50 option to copy that record from Library A, modifying the record for its own purposes, then library C obtains the record from Library B ... well, you see the problem. These records may flow throughout the library catalog universe, losing their identity as WorldCat records with each step.

OCLC appears to claim in its suit that the OCLC number confers some kind of ownership stamp on the records. In one of the later paragraphs of a very insightful Scholarly Kitchen blog post, Todd Carpenter reminds us that OCLC has not claimed restrictions on the identification number. Also, like everything else in the MARC record, that number can be deleted, modified, or added to a record at the whim of the cataloger. (OK, I admit that "whim" and "cataloger" probably shouldn't be used in the same sentence.) 

Rather than flinging lawsuits around, it would be very interesting to use that money to hire one of those people who looks out 20 years to tell you what the environment will be and what you should be investing in today. I can cover a certain amount of the past, but the future is a fog to me. I hope someone has ideas.


As with many lawsuits, there's a lot of flinging documentation back and forth. Check out this site to keep an eye on things. I welcome recommendations of other resources.

Wednesday, January 26, 2022

What's in a Name?

This is an essay about the forms of names and their representation in metadata. It is not by any means complete, nor am I an expert in this very complex area. These are my observations and a few suggestions for future work. All comments welcome.

[Because this is huge, and printing from here is oddly difficult, here's a PDF.]

If you do anything online, and surely you do, you have filled in countless forms with your name and address. Within the Western and English-speaking world, these have some minor (and occasionally annoying) variations. You might be asked for a first name and last name, or a given name and a family name, or just a name in a particular order.

There are variations, of course. Some recognize the practice of giving a person a "middle" name, that is a second, and perhaps secondary, additional name.

Because these forms are often used in commercial sites and the companies wish to have a polite relationship with their customers, you might be asked about your preferred form of address. 

These forms of address have cultural significance, and the list itself can reveal quite a bit about a culture. This is the list from the British Airways site:

We'll come back to some of these below.

The above examples come from commerce sites. The use of names at those sites are mostly social. Even on a site like a bank, the name has only a minor role in regards to identification because security relies on user names, passwords, and two-factor identification. Names themselves are  poor identifiers because they are far from unique across a population. Even if you think you have an unusual name, you will find others with your name in the vastness of the Internet.*

If you think about times that you've been on the phone with some bank or service, they invariably ask you to provide a telephone number, an email address, or a unique identifier like a social security number as a way to identify you. Only after they have located a record with that identifier do they use your name as both a confirmation that you've given (and they've entered) the correct number, but also so that they can cheerily refer to you by your name.

Names in Cultural Heritage

Where commercial organizations use names to effect a relationship with their current customers, cultural heritage institutions have a different set of needs. They often cover not only names of modern persons but persons worldwide and of previous eras. An organization must be able to encode this full range of names in a way that is useful today but that is, to the extent possible, faithful to the cultural and historical context of the person. Royalty, religious figures, even characters in mythology all have a very tender place in their respective cultures. To treat them otherwise is to dismiss their cultural importance. You wouldn't want to provide metadata for Benedict XVI without also including that his title and his role in the church is "Pope". You most certainly would not simply name him "Joseph Ratzinger" unless you were giving a very specific, pre-Pope, context.  I don't know what name Queen Elizabeth II would provide when signing up for an Amazon account ("Elizabeth Windsor"?) as there is unlikely to be an input box appropriate for her royal name, but culturally and historically she is Elizabeth II, Queen of Great Britain.

There is also the question of giving people their due rank in whatever hierarchy the particular culture values. As you can see with the example above for the list of the titles offered by British Airlines, whereas US-based airlines limit the titles to Mr., Mrs., Ms. and Dr., that titles of nobility are important in the UK. We can presume that to "mis-title" a person would be a social faux pas in most cultures, but there is also a historical context included in titles that one would not want to lose.

The "firstname, lastname" Problem

Not all names fit the "firstname, lastname" model. A primary reason to identify these parts of names is to support displays in alphabetical order by the "last name". This assumes that the last name is a family name, and that common usage is to gather together all persons with that family name in a display. In reality, this singular "family name" is only one possible name pattern. 

As the term "family name" implies, this positions a person within a group of persons with a particular relationship. In the dominant Western world, the name is paternal and denotes a line of inheritance. But this is by no means the only name pattern that exists. There are cultures where the child's name includes the family names of both the mother and the father, and sometimes other ancestors in the family line. This is how Juan Rodríguez y García-Lozano and María de la Purificación Zapatero Valero, have a son named José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero. Treating "Rodríguez Zapatero" as the family name would not bring together the alphabetical entries of the father and son.

There are other cultures that have a given name and a patronymic. While a patronymic may look like a family name, it is not. The singer Björk may have seemed to be using a single name as part of her art, like Cher or Madonna, but in fact in the Icelandic culture persons are known by a single name. When a more precise designation is needed, that name is enhanced with a name based on the given name of their father. In this case, Björk has a more "official" name of Björk Guðmundsdóttir, which is "Björk daughter of Guðmundur". Her father's name was Guðmundur Gunnarsson, he being the son of Gunnar. The author Arnaldur Indriðason is "Arnaldur the son of Indriði." In this practice, creating an order based on the patronymic would result in just a jumble of individual parental names, and persons are almost always called solely by their "first-and-only" name.

Yet another exception to the firstname/lastname conundrum relates to the names of royalty as mentioned above. Charles, Prince of Wales is the son of Elizabeth II. Their names do not connect them which is somewhat ironic given how important family relationships are to royal lineage. Both are of the house of Windsor but you wouldn't know that from their names. Like a Pope, the cultural or political position in these cases outweighs the personal. In addition, the title by which someone is officially known can change over time, making identification even more confusing, with titles being inherited or bestowed as circumstances change. Some people hold a plethora of titles: in addition to Prince of Wales, Charles is Earl of Chester, Duke of Cornwall, Duke of Rothesay, Earl of Merioneth and Baron Greenwich. This is as bad as the name proliferation in Russian novels, and just as confusing.

And there are the "one name" instances.  We have historical figures with only a single name ("Homer", "Aesop") but there are also current cultures in which members have only one name.

Any metadata that strictly requires both a given name and a family name will be unable to accommodate these and it is not unusual for people with only one name to be required to provide a second name to conform to the given/family name expectation in other cultures. There may even be local traditions for how one invents such a name. Yet they would not use that invented name in their own home country.

Names and Language

It is hard to separate language from culture, but there are some name situations in which the name is translated into the "receiving" language. Catherine (the Great) is Catherine in French, Caterina in Italian, etc.  The same is true of Popes:

Papa Franciscus (Latin)

Papa Francesco (Italian)

Papa Francisco (Spanish)

Pope Francis (English)

Another twist is that scientists and other cognoscenti of the late medieval and early modern times communicated with each other in Latin, and, probably as a form of showing that they were members of this elite club, often converted their names to a Latin form. Thus, one Aldo Pio Manuzio, a Venetian scholar and a very early book printer, took the name Aldus Pius Manutius. Francis Bacon published his "Novum Organum" (which was in Latin) as "Franciscus Baconis". 

Things get doubly complex as people and their names move from one culture to another. Many people of Chinese origin reverse the order of their names from family name first then given name to the preferred order in Western countries that places the family name last. In some cases, as with science fiction author Liu Cixin, a change for the Western marketplace creates a bit of confusion for anyone wanting to correctly encode this Chinese name.

Note that his translator, Ken Liu, an American, uses the Western form of his own name. So this book cover is a good illustration of the name problem across cultures.

Names in Metadata

How we handle names in metadata design depends mainly on the intended application functions for the data. I give below some key functions that use names, but this is an incomplete list. I can see these four as key purposes for names and their encoding in metadata:

1. Display - Names get displayed in a number of different contexts, from phone books to faculty listings on a web site to conference name tags. Displays may use all or only part of a name, and there are a variety of ways that one can order the name parts.

2. Disambiguation - Which Mary Jones is this? How do I identify and find the one that I am looking for?

3. Addressing - We do want to address people appropriately, and we also want to talk about them appropriately.

4. Finding - Searching via keyword is without context, so I'll assume that all name forms can be searched in that way. I will describe "finding" as meaning a search for a specific, known name.

I'll trace these through some metadata schemas to illustrate the metadata capabilities one might have.

Library of Congress (and other libraries)

Libraries have been dealing with names and name forms for, well, forever; as long as there have been libraries. The set of rules for determining what name to enter for someone in the library catalog is many, many tens of pages long, and there are separate rules for personal names, corporate names, and family names. Yet library name practices have their limitations, in particular that names are entered as strings that are to be used to create a specific alphabetical sort order that begins with the surname, followed by a comma, and then the forename(s). 

Dempsey, Martin, 1904-
Dempsey, Martin E.
Dempsey, Mary.
Dempsey, Mary A.

Display by family name works well for Western names with family names, but not for Eastern names that place the family name first.

  Mao, Zedong

Following Chinese name practice his name would naturally be given as "Mao Zedong" because the family name is always given first. If one attempts to use the comma to revert names to their natural order, say from "Smith, Jane" to "Jane Smith" then you would also end up with "Zedong Mao" which is not correct in that cultural context. A culturally sensitive "natural order" display is not supported by this metadata. 

The primary display form is the Western one of lastname-comma-first names, but there are exceptions for entry by forename, which is given specific coding: 

Arnaldur Indriðason, 1961-

As I've shown in the Mao Zedong example, the encoding of name parts in library data does not provide what you might need to create other display forms. In the case of Arnaldur Indriðason, outside of the library need to alphabetize its entries, you may want to know that  Indriðason is a patronymic if you intend to use the name to address the person as he would be addressed in his culture. The example of "Mao, Zedong" is lacking the information that this is a name in a culture that regularly refers to people with their surname preceding their given name (and without a comma). You would want to know that this should be rendered as "Mao Zedong" when used in that context. 

As you can see in the examples above, the Library of Congress name practice goes beyond just the name and adds elements that are meant to inform and clarify. It includes dates (birth, death); titles and other terms associated with a name (Pope, Jr., illustrator); enumeration (II); and fuller form of the name, which fills in portions of the name that use initials ("Boyle, Timothy D. (Timothy Dale)").  Interestingly, the "III" in Pope Pius III is an enumeration, while the "III" in "John R Kennedy, III" is an "other term associated with a name." I'm going to guess that this primarily relates to the positioning of the "III" in the display. This illustrates a tension between identifying parts of the name and providing the desired display of those parts.

There is a another problem with "title and other terms" because it is a catchall element that doesn't distinguish between some very different types of data. The documentation lists:

  • titles designating rank, office, or nobility, e.g., Sir
  • terms of address, e.g., Mrs.
  • initials of an academic degree or denoting membership in an organization, e.g., F.L.A. 
  • a roman numeral used with a surname
  • other words or phrases associated with the name, e.g., clockmaker, Saint.

As you can see, some of these would display before the name in a "natural order" display:

  • Sir Paul McCartney
  • Mrs. Harriet Ward

While others display afterward:

  • John Kennedy, Jr.
  • John Kennedy, III

 And some can be either or both:

  • Dr. Paul Johnson, DDS
  • Dr. Sophie Jones, Ph.D., F.I.P.A.

There is always the need to disambiguate between people with the same name. Some of these "other terms"  work well in identifying a person:

Boyle, Tom (Professor)

Boyle, Tom (Spiritualist)

However, the clarification between identical names used most often in library name data is the dates of birth and death. These used to be included only when necessary to distinguish between identical names but the information is now included whenever it is available to the cataloger. This makes the dates an integral part of the name, much as the roman numerals of the names of Popes. 

Pius I, Pope, d. ca. 154 

Pius II, Pope, 1405-1464

Although perhaps once useful for the purpose of distinguishing otherwise identical names, the sheer number of people who are included in library catalogs has greatly limited the utility of these dates for disambiguation.

Kennedy, John, 1919-1945
Kennedy, John, 1921-
Kennedy, John, 1926-1994
Kennedy, John, 1928-
Kennedy, John, 1931-
Kennedy, John, 1931-2004
Kennedy, John, 1934-2012
Kennedy, John, 1939-
Kennedy, John, 1940-
Kennedy, John, 1947-
Kennedy, John, 1948-
Kennedy, John, 1951-
Kennedy, John, 1953-
Kennedy, John, 1956-
Kennedy, John, 1959-
Kennedy, John, 1963-
Kennedy, John, 1965-
Kennedy, John, 1973-
Kennedy, John, -1988.

There is provision for alternate versions of names in library practice although these reside in a separate file and are not always linked to the primary name in library databases.

Boyle, Thomas John
    see: Boyle, T. C. 

The library name practices, although probably the most detailed of any metadata name schemes, are not very generalizable; they serve one designated application, which is the alphabetical order of the entries in the library catalog. 

Dublin Core

Dublin Core is absolutely minimal when it comes to names, as "core" implies. It provides only one property, dct:creator, without further detail. It also does not distinguish between persons and organizations: both can be coded as "creator" with an implicit class of Agent. Any further intelligence must be provided elsewhere in a metadata scheme that makes use of Dublin Core.

Dublin Core does allow for the value of the dct:creator property to be either a literal or an IRI or Bnode, and the encoding of the value of the IRI could be a more precise name form. Using an IRI could also be a method for providing a unique identity for the creator.


The "Friend of a Friend" vocabulary is about people, their names, and some modern social connectivity: email address, web site, etc. FOAF has three name properties:

  • foaf:name - which can be used to an entire name, undifferentiated in terms of types of name
  • foaf:familyName & foaf:givenName - intended to be used together (but with no mechanism to enforce that) this allows an obvious separation between the names. How they would display is left to the applications that make use of them. 

The  foaf:familyName and foaf:givenName cover a limited set of name forms. In the context of many online sites this may suffice, especially where there is no enforcement of "real" names. Given that FOAF was developed for use within and between online social sites, it avoids the need for historical forms of names.

All of these are defined as taking literal values, which we know does not provide an unambiguous identity for a person. There are properties defined in FOAF under the "Social Web" rubric, such as an email address, that should serve to disambiguate persons in a particular social context. These are not, however, part of the name itself.

The vocabulary was developed to provide "structured data on the Internet". (This is exactly the original impetus behind Dublin Core. How that went south, and what attempts to do instead, is beyond this post.) The vocabulary listed under the person schema is extensive, although only a few elements are directly related to names:

sdo:familyName, sdo:givenName, sdo:additionalName

sdo:givenName, is defined as the "first name" and sdo:familyName, is defined as the "last name". sdo:additionalName, is "An additional name for a Person, can be used for a middle name".  This latter is highly flexible but at the same time non-specific. It also creates some confusion in terms of the order of names for anyone whose name does not fit the exact "first-middle-last" pattern. As shown above, it's not totally uncommon to have more than one name that can fit into any of those particular buckets. Presumably the properties are repeatable, but they are defined with the singular term "name". It also does not clarify a display order. 

sdo:givenName "T."
sdo:familyName "Boyle"
sdo:additionalName "C." does have properties for both pre-name and post-name honorifics. The examples given for these are: sdo:honorificPrefix (Dr., Mrs.); sdo:honorificSuffix (M.D., PhD).  These examples don't make it clear if it might be possible to encode:

sdo:givenName "Charles"
sdo:honorificSuffix "Prince of Wales"


sdo:givenName "Pius"
sdo:honorificPrefix "Pope"
sdo:honorificSuffix "II"

In any case it appears that this would not distinguish between the informal honorifics like "Esq." and those that are essential parts of the name such as titles of nobility. There also does not seem to be an obvious way to encode non-honorific suffixes, such as "Jr." or "III". 

Without some strong guidance, it would be hard to know which of these properties would be used for the parts of a name like María de la Purificación Zapatero Valero. We'll see a possible solution to this with Wikidata, below.


Wikipedia has probably millions of articles for people and therefore has to deal with the question of names. Their search does not distinguish between names and other article topics, and all are searched in left-to-right natural order in a drop-down box. Names are article titles just as any topic can be an article title.

There is no special coding of the name or parts of the name - it is simply a string of characters. Where more than one person has the same name article creators must add something to disambiguate the name which is usually done by adding an area of activity and perhaps a location associated with that activity:

Wikipedia also has a special type of page where topics that have common terms, including names, can be further defined.

These pages allow an explanation to distinguish between people who share a name. It goes beyond the parenthetical phrases that are used to create unique article names for persons with the same name, and is much more human-friendly than the birth and death dates that library cataloging relies on. Yet while Wikipedia excels in disambiguation, its encoding for names is limited to a single property, "name", in the infobox for a person, although it also allows for honorifics and for alternative forms of the name. 

Because the various Wikipedias are divided by language, there are properties for translations and transliterations of names, and it allows for name changes over the course of a person's life. 


Wikidata began by extracting data points from the Wikipedia entries, primarily from the infoboxes, but has grown beyond that to a database of facts that is edited directly. Perhaps because it is massively crowd-sourced, a long list of name properties have been developed. In addition to the usual given name and family name  there are terms like demonym (a name representing a place), second family name in Spanish name, Roman cognomen (ancient surname), patronym or matronym (names representing the person's father or mother), first family name in Portuguese name, and many others. 

Also because it is crowd-sourced there should be no expectation that this list is complete or balanced. It most likely represents a modicum of self-interest on the part of participants.

Conclusion (?)

Any solution in this area needs to recognize that one size does not fit all. For some applications a single "name=[string]" will be sufficient and it would be seriously counter-productive to force those folks to engage in detailed encoding. Another barrier to detailed encoding is that few people have knowledge to encode the universe of name forms at a detailed level. Requiring metadata creators to make distinctions outside of their understanding would only result in error-ridden metadata. Better a blind single string than mis-coded details. Yet there will be applications and their metadata communities that can or must make use of the subtleties of name details that are not of interest to others.

Because of both the great variety of name forms and the variability of applications that make use of names, I recommend a metadata vocabulary that follows the principle of minimum semantic commitment. This means a vocabulary that includes broad classes and properties that can be used as is where detailed coding is not needed or desired, but which can be extended to accommodate many different contexts.

The trick then is to define broad classes that aid in defining semantics but do little restriction. Classes for things like "Agent", with subclasses for "Person", "Groups of Persons", and perhaps "Non-persons". Properties could begin with "name" which could be subdivided into any definable part of a name that people find useful. Further specificity can be provided by application profiles that define such requirements as cardinality or value types for the various properties. Applications themselves could contain rules for the displays that are needed for their use cases.

The challenge now is to find a standards group that is interested to take this on.


* With perhaps a few exceptions. I once heard Lorcan Dempsey opine that person's names would be much more useful if parents would just give their children unique names, "... like Lorcan Dempsey."