Online Public Access Computers and the Rediscovery of Authority Control

by Moya K. Mason

An Introduction

In 1876 Charles Cutter presented his three main objectives for library catalogues: to allow the user to find books if author, title, or subject were known; to act as a display for what the library had by any given author, subject, and in any genre of literature; and to give assistance in book selection, providing edition and character information (Wynar 1985,16). Today, these functions involve developing unique bibliographic records using AACR2, and the collocation of works using references to bring together related items (Clack 1990, 2-4). From the time that Cutter described his vision of library catalogues, with its paramount focus on facilitating the public's expectations, his statements have been very influential in the field of librarianship and the genesis for what is known as authority work. As Jennifer A. Younger states in After Cutter: Authority Control in the Twenty-first Century:

Controlled vocabulary for proper names and subjects in the catalog has been a cornerstone of bibliographic control in libraries since the objectives of the catalog were codified by Charles Cutter in the late nineteenth century. Those objectives, as he listed them, provided clear direction to cataloguers who were creating a system for making library holdings known to users (Younger 1995,133).

An Overview of Authority Work

Authority work consists of a series of decisions made by a library's staff to select what form the headings for bibliographic records will take. This is extremely important work because the headings function as access points. Making sure that they are distinct and not in conflict with existing entries is integral to the catalogue. For example, the well-cited case of a library patron looking for the singer Madonna's latest recording found it listed under Mary, Blessed Virgin, Saint (Johnston 1990,45). The other dangers are that an author's work could be split, information scattered, and materials inaccessible unless a user is knowledgeable enough to enter an alternative form (Wynar 1992, 475). 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 must 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. They must verify the proper forms and include the references needed to collocate library materials, to protect the "uniqueness, standardization, and linkages [which] are the foundation of authority work" (Clack 1990,1).

Personal names are not the only ones checked: there are corporate names to consider, as well as titles and subject headings. Since the objective is to maintain a controlled vocabulary in the catalogue, there must be a process to decide how the bibliographic headings will appear. This involves establishing the form that names, titles, and subject headings will take, and often demands research in sources such as bibliographic dictionaries and authority files of national libraries and major bibliographic utilities. Libraries will often have their own in-house authority files to incorporate local materials and their own distinctive cataloguing practices. The purpose of authority files is central to the integrity of a library catalogue because they provide standardized forms for names, subject headings, titles, and the appropriate cross-references -- they provide authority control and are used for preserving and promoting it in a library catalogue (Wynar 1992,4-5). In addition, authority control includes the constant revision of authority files due to changes in both the AACR2 rules, and in the form that names and titles take. As Barbara B. Tillett states, "authority control is the overall term for the concept encompassing the operations of authority work, and emphasizing the control over variant forms of access points" (Tillett 1989,4).

As can be seen, authority work involves the tedious dedication of library staff in the consultation of bibliographic headings in authority files. It is the built-in mechanism for authority control in a library and provides the access points for the catalogue. Without authority control, a library patron would have to think of all the ways the different entries could be represented, and be content with inadequate search results. If libraries have historically been concerned with servicing their users and making the experience as easy as possible, then one would assume that authority control would be the paramount consideration of staff. All libraries understand the necessity and significance of using authority records and updating them, and are well aware of the relevancy of emphasizing policies to avoid the enormous consequences of this unfulfilled work. Nevertheless, this has not always been the case. Why not? Has there been a rediscovery of the importance of authority control, with librarians becoming increasingly concerned with this issue?

The Consequence of Introducing Automation into Libraries

Good libraries have always had strict policies for their librarians to follow in checking an authority file of some kind before any information was entered into the catalogue, or access points chosen. Others, would not justify the expense of authority control in their libraries, and "merely paid lip service to the concept..." (Clack 1990,1). Many things have changed in libraries over the last one hundred years and in particular, the last decade has seen a large-scale transition from card catalogues to online public access catalogues. Computers have changed library environments and gave the process of information retrieval many more avenues, no longer making 'main entry' an author or title record (Wilson 1983,261-262). Computerized catalogues are more flexible, allow many more entry points, and provide additional searching possibilities, but the technology is only as good as the integrity of the information it comprises. As Doris Clack states:

The computer does provide the online catalog with considerable flexibility; however, flexibility without the integrity achieved by authority control produces a very inefficient file (Clack 1990,1).

The coming of computerized catalogues was seen as the answer to the never-ending problems associated with authority control in library catalogues, and the cost of doing such work. Many writers at the time believed and advocated that authority control in cataloguing would be eliminated due to the extremely powerful and sophisticated searching and retrieval capabilities that would be available through computer technology (Johnston 1990,43). Many costly mistakes were made based on these presumptions, as library after library transferred their uncontrolled catalogue records from manual files to machine-readable formation. In this way, they built their online catalogues, believing that the computer could access anything in that form (Clack 1990,1). As Doris Clack writes, "all the computer does is manipulate data provided by human beings" (Clack 1990,7). For example, a computer cannot know that Mark Twain's real name is Samuel Clemens, or that Odysseus should be linked with a see also reference to Ulysses. Without authority control, online catalogues cannot offer the kind of service that library users need.

Certainly, Keyword/Boolean searches, truncation, textword searching, and other possible methods enrich and improve online catalogue searching (Younger 1995,135), however, they are clearly best incorporated with an authority-controlled database (Page 1991,10). Using consistent headings works better than using keyword searching in a catalogue with no authority control, and authority control is needed for the collocation function (Fox and Kanafani 1989,8). In card catalogues, at best, one could expect to find references to narrower or related terms, but no system for complex sets of references could be managed manually (Page 1991,8). Occasionally, variant headings might be filed close enough that a library user would happen to come across them with some luck.

That all changes in an online environment because computers are not capable of guessing at what a user is looking for, nor how items are related (Hine 1991,3). If authority control is excluded in an online public access catalogue, it makes the job of a reference librarian that much more difficult and time-consuming (Hine 1991,3). Access points must be consistent and collocated if a library does not want its catalogue records scattered under endless, inaccessible headings (Page 1991,9). In Considerations for Control in the Online Environment, Barbara B. Tillett writes that:

In order to accomplish the finding and gathering functions, the catalog must have authority control. Authority control is inherent to a catalog and without it, a file cannot be considered a catalog (Tillett 1989,2).

Authority control is needed for the maintenance and development of databases and is required for dealing with the endless and complex realities of pseudonyms and name changes, for instance (Johnson 1990,43). It is required for effective online retrieval in library catalogues.

Another major reason for the explosion of authority control standards is the trend toward the networking of databases between libraries, and the sharing of resources due to economic constraints. Authority control and standardization are prerequisites for participation in network systems, along with the necessity to cooperate, to be aware of changes to cataloguing rules, and to put aside local cataloguing practices that hurt the overall integrity of a database. It is often true that networking libraries do not use the same cataloguing methods and sometimes these variations are enough to make the shared database unusable.

The Library of Congress has established itself as the standard for authority control in the library world, and it makes its records accessible to all library systems and bibliographic utilities. Consequently, standards have risen and reductions in authority control costs have been experienced at libraries which use LC files (Clack 1988,42). It also initiated the National Coordinated Cataloguing Operations Project (NACO) in 1977, which is made up of a number of libraries working with LC to compile a huge authority file (Tillett 1989,7). As well, there is the Linked Systems Project (LSP) that allows various computer systems to communicate and work together by sharing authority files. This helps to alleviate the costs of authority work, with automation "diminishing many of the time-consuming and labor-intensive manual procedures associated with authority control (Clack 1990,8). Authority records are created at participating libraries and their quality is checked by LC and amalgamated into its own authority file. These same files will be transmitted throughout the library networks, bibliographic utilities, and to vendors, but can only be modified or added by LC staff or a NACO library. This differs from the databases of the major bibliographic utilities like OCLC or WLN, which operate interactively with the libraries they are involved with. They all have their own authority control procedures and have made an effort to put some standardization into their databases. Many libraries count on one of the major utilities for their cataloguing records, but others use vendors who do not always offer a comparable level of quality control. It is necessary for all libraries to do research and choose the best service that they can for their money, since the overall credibility of their most valuable possession is at stake.


There is a direct connection between the introduction of online public access catalogues and the rediscovery of the importance of authority control. Libraries and their staff have always been interested in serving their patrons in a professional and conscientious manner. From the time of Cutter, there has been a definitive ideology that places the needs and the convenience of the public before anything else, including the cataloguers' preferences. Time constraints, labor shortages, lack of proper funds, and an overall inability to know how to go about the awesome and never-ending task of authority control has hampered the public in their quest for information and has caused long periods of anxiety for librarians. Dealing with a manual system of catalogue cards, most libraries could barely keep up with the daily necessities.

The introduction of computers changed the way libraries perform their operations. At their advent, many believed they could collectively breathe a sign of relief and leave the worry of authority control to the mysterious inner workings of the computers. If a library had done little toward the achievement of authority control, it always had the awareness that whole sections of their inventory were inaccessible to all but a handful of experienced users, and Cutter's vision was not being carried out to the fullest degree possible. The new technology was their panacea. It did not turn out that way of course, and libraries were forced to realize that for the first time, authority work could not be allocated to the back burner -- without it, computerized library catalogues are for the most part inaccessible and a huge barrier for its users. Librarians are now becoming increasingly aware of the realities and have bravely accepted that time and money must be spent on authority control if they are to keep up with the technology of the twenty-first century. The great consolation is that all the work does not have to be done in--house anymore and many changes and updates are made easier with computer technology; help is only as far as the online authority files or as close as a networking library!

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