Purpose of Authority Work and Files

by Moya K. Mason

An Introduction

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. However, one thing that has not changed is the commitment displayed by libraries and their staff to provide easy access to information for all users. Libraries do this in a variety of ways that can collectively be called authority work. This essay will look at authority work, the components involved in it, and its purpose. In addition, it will explain the different kinds of authority files, giving examples from the NLC Canadiana Files and the steps needed to develop and maintain one.

An Overview of the Structure of Authority Work

Authority work consists of a series of decisions made by a library's staff. 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 biographical dictionaries. The results are recorded into files called authority files and used for preserving and promoting authority control in a library catalogue. A detailed authority record will sometimes list the sources researched to arrive upon a heading. This can be seen in the National Library of Canada's authority file called the NLC Canadiana Files.

There are different kinds of authority files, including the name authority file. This is essentially an alphabetical list of personal, geographic, corporate, and conference names that are found in a library catalogue and "used ... as main, added, analytic, or subject entries" (Wynar 1992, 520). Supplementary authority files for uniform titles, subject headings, and series may be developed separately, or the entire collection may exist in a single authority file. Their purpose 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 (Wynar 1992,4-5).

The aim of authority work is to select the form that subject headings, titles, and names will take as headings for bibliographic records and to choose the references needed to support those forms. 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. Another example is the Greek hero Odysseus, whom is also known by his Latin name Ulysses. This is an essential part of authority work because if it is omitted, an author's work will be split, information scattered, and materials inaccessible unless a user is knowledgeable enough to enter an alternative form (Wynar 1992,475).

Personal names are not the only ones checked: there are corporate names to consider as well. To illustrate, AACR2 suggests using Franciscans, instead of Order of St. Francis, and the acronym UNESCO rather than United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (AACR2 1988,447). There is an official LC authority file (LCAF) that cataloguers can consult, which is coded in AACR2 form. To make a library's materials as easily and completely accessible as possible, it is always a good practice to use the form of the name that is most commonly seen. Other problems may arise with non-unique names, especially when neither date of birth is available, nor any other helpful information that could be used for differentiation verification. The standard solution is to list all the works of the author on his or her authority record in single-spaces (Clack 1990,76).

The same is true for titles such as Mother Goose Nursery Rhymes, originally entitled Tales of Mother Goose. Provisions have to be made to tie together or develop a syndetic structure by using linking references. Another book that has variations in its title is Frank Baum's Wonderful Wizard of Oz. It has also been called The Adventures in Oz, and The Wizard of Oz, and needs references to link the titles. In addition, authority work demands that the proper forms be used for the names of series. If a library decides to use the series as an access point, the cataloguer will check the authority files to see how the library has chosen to deal with it in the past, and may "group them all under the series title, classify them together as a collection, or disperse them throughout the collection" (Clack 1990,5). Sometimes a series is used as a point of access, and at other times it is not seen as advantageous for users. If there is no series statement on file, an authority record is created and decisions made concerning its structure (Clack 1992,32).

The verification of subject headings is part of the process of maintaining standardized and consistent forms used in catalogues. Once subject headings have been determined for a particular work, the authority file is consulted to match them with their valid forms. If the library is using LCSH, it must continually revise and update its records by integrating LC Weekly Lists and the quarterly reports into its authority files. In that way, it is known when any headings are revised or completely omitted, and the proper forms of controlled vocabulary are in place to be retrieved by library patrons (Clack 1990,33 ).

As can be seen, authority work involves the tedious dedication of library staff in the consultation of bibliographic headings in authority files. These are essentially the records that contain the established forms of names, titles, and subject headings used in a particular library. Another critical component of authority files, and therefore authority work, is the inclusion of references to support the respective records. Authority records have a list of appropriate references that direct users to the authorized forms of names, titles, series, and subject headings. Catalogue headings need references included in the authority record because that is what brings together related items. There are four major categories of references, including see references that direct a user to an author's pseudonyms, or to the proper form of a name (Clack 1990,52).

See also references link bibliographic records and provide direction from one heading to another to show relationships (Clack 1990,53).They also connect titles to newer titles, especially for series. Information references are used by cataloguers when important information must be documented, requiring more than a see/see also explanation. These are constructed by staff members and provide instructions for users to go "from one access point to several different ones" (Clack 1990,55). Also composed by the cataloguers are explanatory references that offer explanations for such things as pseudonyms, acronyms, and multiple names. Finally, there are the series of references that subject headings use (UT, BT, NT, RT, SA), which perform a variety of functions.

The Construction of an Authority File

There are a series of steps involved in the construction of authority files. The most basic one is to check all available data for the form that titles, subject headings, series, and all names usually follow. Decide upon a form that the headings and cross references will take, and then check if the library has already assigned them. If so, that form is used for the cataloging process. If not, the LC, NLC, or other authority files are consulted. If the name, title, and so on is found, it will be copied for the library's files and used for future entries. When the information is not found, it is best to examine sources to see what form they use. Once a form or forms is established, an authority record is made, with inclusion of references and source verifications. The final step is to enter the authority records into an authority file and link it to the bibliographic file. Sometimes this is an implicit linkage, and in other catalogues "a direct internal linkage exists between a heading stored in the authority file and the same heading stored in the bibliographic file" (Wynar 1992,483).

The NLC Authority Files

Canada's National Library maintains the Canadiana Authority Files and it provides the authority control for works in their collection. These authority records are filled with features that assure standardized entries, including an impressive system for detailing the sources used to compile information for the records. Under Collins, Michael Albert James there is a source note explaining that the form of this name has been verified by the author's book Installation Drawings. For the non-unique name Weber, Richard, the source note is used to differentiate him from the editor of another book called Arbeitsbuch Thomas Brasch. It does this by listing the works written by Richard Weber in the record. This step is quite important when no date of birth is available. Another feature that contributes to standardization is the use of dates of birth in authority records, since having data that gives some uniqueness to a particular author is very beneficial for users and librarians.

Returning to the earlier question of what to do about Wilkie Collins, the National Library has decided upon the name Wilkie, based on information from his book The Black Robe. In addition, the record has a see reference to Collins, W. that could be important. Cross references lay the foundation for a well-organized catalogue by bringing together authorized and unauthorized headings so users do not have to (Wynar 1992,17). The Wild Blueberry Association of North America lists a see reference of WBANA, and an equivalent form of the name in French. Cross references will also be used for names that have initials in them like R.0. Wells to ensure that he is also identified by Raymond O'Neil Wells.

Usually authority records have more than one feature used to control the vocabulary and to help users with their information needs. For example, Noranda Technology Centre records say that the name was changed from Noranda Research Centre in 1988, with a see also for the original corporate name so that it can be used as an access point. Its equivalent French name is given because of Canada's bilingual status, and also the source for the verification. Finally, there are many instances of authors who anglicize either their first or last names. These changes need to be noted on authority records to remove as much confusion as possible. For example, Ng, Le Chon has changed to Ng, Morris. The NLC files also give the date of all entries, which is helpful in establishing current accuracy.


The NLC authority files are necessary tools for doing any kind of cataloguing work, and must be used through every step to ensure that the proper form of personal and corporate names, titles, series, and subject headings are entered into authority records. This is essential because the records make up the authority files, which are the built-in mechanisms for authority control in a library and are used as access points. 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. Good libraries have strict policies concerning their cataloguers checking an authority file of some kind before any information is entered into the catalogue or access points chosen. They must verify the proper forms and include the references needed to collocate library materials, so as to protect the "uniqueness, standardization, and linkages [which] are the foundation of authority work" (Clack 1990,1).

Related Papers

Automation: Has it Deprofessionalized the Work of Cataloguing Librarians?
Copy Cataloguing: Our Quest for Perfect Copy
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Historical Development of Library Catalogues: Their Purpose and Organization
How Useful are Library of Congress Subject Headings?
Online Public Access Computers and the Rediscovery of Authority Control
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Grey Literature: History, Definition, Acquisition, and Cataloguing

Reference List

Anglo-American Cataloguing Rules. 2nd ed. 1988 revision. Ottawa: CLA.

Clack, D.H. 1990. Authority control: Principles, Applications and Instructions. Chicago: ALA.

Wynar, B.S. 1992. Introduction to Cataloguing and Classification. 8th ed. Littleton, Co.: Libraries Unlimited.

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