What is Authority Control?
Authority control is the establishment and maintenance of consistent forms of terms—names, subjects, and titles—to be used as headings in the bibliographic records of the library catalog. Headings must not only be consistent, they must also be unique.
Authority control fulfills two important functions.
- It enables the disambiguation of items with similar or identical headings. For example, two authors who happen to have published under the same name can be distinguished from each other by adding middle initials, birth and/or death dates. Disambiguation enables researchers to find all the material by and about a given person under one form of name.
- It enables the collocation of materials that logically belong together, although they present themselves differently. For example, authority records are used to establish uniform titles, which can bring together all versions of a given work even when they are issued under different titles—Hamlet, Shakspeare's Hamlet, Tragicall historie of Hamlet Prince of Denmarke.
The headings in authority records are dynamic and changes are received weekly from the Library of Congress (LC). Computer files of revised LC authority records are loaded centrally by staff at the Florida Virtual Campus, and librarians at the State University Libraries (SUL) make sure that the headings in our shared database are the same as the authorized headings from LC.
The revised headings are not found only in new cataloging records; they can be found in the records for even the oldest titles held by the libraries. For example, LC finally noticed that the subject term “Cookery” was out of date; they modernized it to “Cooking.” Because FIU has a large Hospitality Management program, this change meant that thousands of headings had to be revised in the library catalog. Fortunately, the computer system used by the SUL permitted us to use a “global change” function for subgroups of the changed headings.
The Library of Congress figured out years ago that they could not create and maintain the authority control databases alone. The national libraries of other countries, such as the British Library and the Library and Archives of Canada, are major partners. Also, selected librarians across North America have been specially trained by regional trainers who were themselves trained by librarians at LC to help with authority work.
FIU catalogers were intensively trained for a full week and then were “under review” for more than a year in order to qualify to be independent contributors to the authority control databases of LC’s Program for Cooperative Cataloging. We contribute authority records for uniform titles and names—personal, corporate and geographic—through the Name Authority Cooperative Program (NACO). We contribute authority records for subject headings through the Subject Authority Cooperative Program (SACO).
In a recent development, the headings in the Library of Congress name authority file are now being added to the Virtual International Authority File. For more information, see viaf.org.