Authority control

Authority control is a term used in library and information science to refer to the practice of creating and maintaining headings for bibliographic material in a catalog. Authority control fulfills two important functions. First, it enables catalogers to disambiguate 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 (or flourished, if these are unknown) dates, or a descriptive epithet to the heading of one (or both) authors. Second, authority control is used by catalogers to collocate materials that logically belong together, although they present themselves differently. For example, authority records are used to establish "uniform titles," which can collocate all versions of a given work together even when they are issued under different titles.


Although theoretically, any piece of information on a given book is amenable to authority control, catalogers typically focus on authors and titles. Subject headings fulfill a function similar to authority records, although they are usually considered separately.

Uniform title

A uniform title in library cataloguing is a title assigned to a work which that has no title or has appeared under more than one title. The phrases conventional title and standard title are sometimes used;[1] the forthcoming Resource Description and Access (see below) uses preferred title.

Anonymous works such as sacred texts and folk tales may lack an obvious title: for instance, the Bible, Gilgamesh, Beowulf or the Chanson de Roland. Works of art and music may contain no text that can be used for reference. A uniform title allows reference to be made to such works and their different versions to be filed together in a catalog.

The Library of Congress provides an example of how books of the New Testament are referred to in the Anglo-American Cataloguing Rules:

- Bible. N.T. Acts
- Bible. N.T. Colossians
- Bible. N.T. Corinthians, 1st
- Bible. N.T. Corinthians, 2nd
- Bible. N.T. Ephesians ...[2]

The complementary situation occurs with a single work that exists with more than one title, especially when translated into another language, excerpted or collected with other works. In this case, the name of the language or a phrase such as 'Selections' is added to distinguish works with the same uniform title.

Resource Description and Access

Resource Description and Access, or RDA, is a set of instructions for the cataloguing of books and other materials held in libraries. RDA is intended to replace AACR2, a standard in widespread use in Anglo-American libraries. It is expected to be released online in 2009.

RDA emerged from the International Conference on the Principles & Future Development of AACR held in Toronto in 1997.[3] It was quickly realized that substantial revision was required, which encouraged the adoption of a new title for what had been envisaged as a third edition of AACR.

RDA departs from AACR in its foundation on the Functional Requirements for Bibliographic Records (FRBR). These principles identify both the 'user tasks' which a library catalog should make possible and a hierarchy of relationships in bibliographic data. Nonetheless, descriptions produced using the instructions of RDA are intended to be compatible with the large number of existing records created under the rules of AACR2.

Authority records

The most common way of enforcing authority control in a bibliographic catalog is to set up a separate index of authority records, which relates to and governs the headings used in the main catalog. This separate index is often referred to as an "authority file." It contains an indexable record of all decisions made by catalogers in a given library (or—as is increasingly the case—cataloguing consortium), which catalogers consult when making, or revising, decisions about headings.

It is to be remembered that the function of authority files is essentially organizational, rather than informational. That is to say, they (ideally) contain a sufficient amount of information to establish a given author or title as unique, while excluding information that, while perhaps interesting to a reader, does not contribute to this goal.

Although practices certainly vary internationally, in the English-speaking world, it is generally the case that a valid authority record must contain:

  • A heading
  • Any cross references
  • Statement(s) of justification

Heading refers to the form of name (or title) that the cataloguer has chosen as the authorized form.

Cross references are other forms of the name (or title) that might appear in the catalog. There are two types of cross-references: see references, which reference forms of the name (or title) that have been deprecated in favor of the authorized form; and see also references, which point to other forms of the name (or title) that are authorized. See also references are most commonly used to point to earlier or later forms of a name (or title).

Statement(s) of justification: In addition to providing a heading and applicable references, a valid authority record should also contain a reference to whatever sources of information the cataloguer used to determine both the authorized and any deprecated forms of the name. This is usually done by citing the title and publication date of the source, the location of the name (or title) on that source, and the form in which it appears on that source.

An example authority record, for author Flann O'Brien, taken from the United States Library of Congress authorities files, is reproduced below. (The original record has been abbreviated somewhat for clarity):

O’Brien, Flann, 1911-1966

Na Gopaleen, Myles, 1911-1966
Knowall, George
Na gCopaleen, Myles, 1911-1966

His At Swim-Two-Birds ... 1939.
His The best of Myles, 1983: CIP t.p. (Myles na Gopaleen (Flann O’Brien))
His Myles away from Dublin, 1985: t.p. (Myles na Gopaleen (Flann O’Brien) selection from the 
column written for ... under the name of George Knowall)
Rhapsody in Stephen’s green, 1994: t.p. (Flann O’Brien (Myles na gCopaleen))

Flann O'Brien's birth name is Brian O'Nolan (Irish: Brian Ó Nualláin), October 5, 1911 – April 1, 1966. He was an Irish novelist and satirist, best known for his novels An Béal Bocht, At Swim-Two-Birds and The Third Policeman written under the nom de plume Flann O'Brien. He also wrote many satirical columns in the Irish Times under the name Myles na gCopaleen.

This example contains all the elements of a valid authority record: the first heading is the form of the name that the Library of Congress has chosen to be authoritative. In theory, every record in the catalog that represents a work by this author should have this form of the name as its author heading. What follows immediately below is a set of see references. These forms of the author's name will appear in the catalog, but only as transcriptions, not as headings. If a user queries the catalog under one of these variant forms of the author's name, he or she would receive the response: "See O’Brien, Flann, 1911-1966." (See also references, which point from one authorized heading to another authorized heading, are exceedingly rare for personal name authority records, although they often appear in name authority records for corporate bodies.) The final four entries in this record constitute the justification for this particular form of the name: it appeared in this form on the 1939 edition of the author's novel At Swim-Two-Birds, whereas the author's other noms de plume appeared on later publications.

Authority control and cooperative cataloguing

Before the advent of digital OPACs and the Internet, the work of creating and maintaining a library's authority files was generally carried out (if at all) by individual cataloguing departments. This meant that there could be a fair amount of disagreement among libraries over which form of a given name was considered authoritative; so long as a library's catalog was internally consistent, differences between catalogs didn't much matter.

However, even before the Internet revolutionized the way libraries go about cataloguing their materials, catalogers began moving toward the establishment cooperative consortia, such as OCLC and RLIN in the United States, in which cataloguing departments from libraries all over the world contributed their records to, and taking their records from, a shared database. This development gave rise to the need for national standards for authority work.

In the United States, the primary organization for maintaining cataloguing standards with respect to authority work operates under the aegis of the Library of Congress, and is known as the Name Authority Cooperative Program, or NACO.[4]



  1. Ray Prytherch, Harrod's librarian's glossary and reference book. 10th ed., p. 662. Aldershot: Gower, 2005. Retrieved May 17, 2008.
  2. Library of Congress Basic Search - Series/Uniform Title Browse Retrieved May 17, 2008.
  3. Joint Steering Committee for the Revision of RDA International Conference on the Principles & Future Development of AACR Retrieved May 17, 2008.
  4. NACO, Library of Congress. Retrieved May 17, 2008.


External links

All links retrieved May 2, 2016.


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