Authority Control in the Library Catalog: e-Forum Summary

Authority control has been an integral part of library catalogs since the inception of the modern library. As library catalogs are being revolutionized in their construction and use, the question is often asked if it is still important. This e-Forum examined questions relating to the past and future use of authority control. The discussion is archived at

Discussion Summary

Searching styles and tools are changing but the need for control of terminology is still essential. Authority control facilitates both social tagging and retrieval.  Keyword searching is more successful when authorized forms of names and subjects appear in the bibliographical record and are augmented by authority records with variants and additional information for dis-ambiguation and identification. Catalogers, archivists, and other specialists trained to accurately describe materials are key to developing a catalog in any format environment.  Without the catalog the materials are just lost in a warehouse.

Cost/Benefit studies are needed to show the value of authority control and to identify the areas which would most benefit from authority control. Different collections and types of users need different emphasis on controlled terms. Libraries with small--unique collections and specialized users will need a specialized control of searching terms so may not benefit from a cooperative/national level authority control. Shared catalogs such as OCLC’s WorldShare Management Services (MWS) need to focus on controlling/linking access points when cataloging because all updates to the authority record automatically populates in the bibliographic record. The downside of this shared catalog is losing headings if another library removes an access point and no way to enrich with local authority information. Libraries with independent systems and data need to establish practices to manage the loading and updating of the data to keep the catalog functioning efficiently by removing errors and obsolete terminology. The increased control of data requires an increase in commitment to managing the data.

Systems and discovery tools must be designed to take full benefit of the data that is provided. The discussion showed a lack of ILS developments to use the new MARC fields that NACO participants are encouraged to add to authority records.

Changes in format or granularity of stored data or improving cooperation and workflows for creating and linking data will not improve discovery if software is not developed to maximize manipulation of the increased data. Catalogers and vocabularies/thesauri produce a Lamborghini and then turn it over to an operator who never turns the key on but just harnesses it to a carriage—and claims the money would have been better spent on a blanket for the carriage. Equally important is for librarians to know their systems. Sometimes after exerting considerable manual labor to make changes, librarians discover a tool exists in their library system that can automate or at least improve the process of authority control. Questions to ask: Is there a way to protect local additions to the authority records? Is there a way to link bib headings to authority records so the changes automatically happen when the authority record is updated? Can pre-coordinated bib headings be linked to shorter string authority records? Is there a way to select the thesaurus to search [i.e., can I specify genre, children’s headings, audience, etc.]?

Frequent changes in formats and authority records requires attention to bib and authority data so everything continues to function. Some libraries regularly check the LC MARC Standards webpage for changes that need to be incorporated in the catalog, especially the load tables. Other libraries find it works to just continue on as normal until their system reports a load error and at that time review for additional fields and subfields. Libraries with local systems have basically three ways of dealing with authority control:

  1. Serendipity. If someone notices a term should be added, changed, or deleted, it happens, otherwise they don’t worry about it.
  2. Dedicated manual review. Libraries use the regular lists supplied by the thesaurus source, such as LCSH weekly lists, or OCLC NAF change lists and compare these to headings/access points in their catalog and make the changes
  3. Authorities services. Computer programs can easily match access points in bib records to authority records and then track those authority records to keep them current with the most recent version. Libraries that subscribe to these services find this frees them up to do the intellectual work needed to enrich their catalogs in ways a computer program cannot.

The changes to authority records to provide more granularity and detail, to improve searching capabilities, means both catalogers and systems need more attention to data control. Significant changes such as the removal of undifferentiated names will require manual review. There are an increasing number of authorized list of terms for the various search criteria. These lists are no longer just for names, subjects, and genre. Terms are also controlled for medium of performance, demographic groups, content, media, carrier, etc.  Libraries are watching the changes in authority control to see what changes will most benefit their users and what steps they need to take to improve their catalogs without breaking the bank. Linked data has the potential to greatly reduce the cost of authority control but there are many technical details that still need to be defined to make this feasible.

—submitted by and e-forum moderated by Mary L. Mastraccio and Mary Charles Lasater. This e-Forum was held February 11–12, 2014.