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Trust Your Technical Librarian, Authority Control is a Must!

Authority control can be a difficult concept to visualize for those who don’t encounter it regularly. Bibliographic records and authority records look very similar, but while a bibliographic record describes an item within a collection, the authority record describes and regulates specific headings within the bibliographic record. The two are separate but intrinsically connected. When the two are created harmoniously with the other, the patron’s experience is enhanced by the ability to find most successfully what they need.

Let’s break it down even further.

What is Authority Control, and Why Is It Important?

Put as simply as possible, Authority Control (“AC”) is the process that is used to standardize and maintain heading access points in a bibliographic record. Authority records create a web of names, subjects, and related works that are interlinked across the catalog.

For instance, let’s say a patron is looking for CDs by David Jones. No – wait, I mean Ziggy Stardust. Wait. David Bowie? Well, that’s alright, because his authority record ties together resources with the approved form, “Bowie, David.” Patrons searching by other versions of his name will still be routed to the correct works. How does this happen?

Authority records describe the current and previous identifying characteristics of a heading. David Bowie’s authority record includes not just his various aliases, but also the fact that he was a rock musician – a glam rock musician – from England. A cataloger would also see in his authority record that he was an actor, composer, and singer. These fields help to differentiate between similar headings by providing additional biographical information. See for yourself! You might not see those extra notes, but they’re hard at work in your catalog. What’s more, a single, unified heading can be used across multiple media types and works, such as CDs or books, and not only for personal names. Authority records exist for subject terms, geographical locations, and more.

Those 400 notes can serve an additional purpose by providing tags for alternative spellings, bridging the gap between the accepted, authorized form and forms with diacritics, non-Roman characters, and typos. To see this in work, let’s visit a segment of the authority record of Mark Twain.

How does this interoperability serve patrons? These added fields provide layers of access specifically for:

  • Those that may not know the exact spelling of a name, but who have a vague idea.
  • Those whose linguality does not match that of the heading, and for whom the name of a given contributor appears differently than its authorized counterpart.

An authorized heading creates a standard way of referring to a person or subject. The contents of the authority record provide a web that will connect patrons to the materials they require. The more standard your catalog, the more discoverable it is. The more discoverable it is, the better the user experience.

What Is the Authority Control Process?

Lists: keeping lists, checking lists, and verifying lists. Lists!

The AC process is an ongoing effort to regulate headings as much as possible. Books that go into a library’s catalog are assigned headings for different contributors, such as the author, and its subject headings. These headings are checked against the standard – that is, the Library of Congress Authority Heading file, or others, like the Medical Subject Heading (MeSH) file – for the most accurate and accepted version. Sometimes standardized headings don’t exist yet. In those instances, a cataloger will record the information using the format in which the heading is most likely to be established.

What happens when headings change, as with celebrities changing their names? Like Snoop Dogg, or Prince? Do the authorized headings in the bibliographic record change automatically? No, unless a library is using an Integrated Library System (“ILS”) that checks for updates. Even then, not all automated AC is created equally. This goes for brand new authorized headings as well – if there is no AC process, a catalog’s headings will become rapidly outmoded over time.

If an ILS does not automatically check for updates, then the alternatives are: for library staff to manually re-research headings on a routine basis; for libraries to work with an outside company which specializes in pushing ongoing AC updates to catalogs; or, for a catalog to be left alone, decreasing the effectiveness of the patron’s search. For context, keep in mind that the Library of Congress posts weekly updates to its national authority file. Earlier this month, during the week of February 6th alone, there were 4,700 authority records added and 3,600 updated. If we assume that there are 8,000 authority file updates weekly, that means that 416,000 headings are created or edited annually. Imagine trying to keep up with 416,000 heading changes a year!

What Is the Technical Process for Performing Authority Control?

Workflows vary by provider and vendor and the method used can be different depending on the length of time between AC batches. However, the process can be generally outlined as follows:

  • If it’s a library’s first time running their catalog against an authority file, their data will be “normalized” by temporarily stripping out punctuation, diacritics, etc. The same is done with the authority file being merged.
    • Headings that fully match in both files are replaced with the update file’s version.
    • Headings containing unmatching dates or other subfields are not matched, unless a 4XX note in the authority update file matches – then, the heading would change to the authorized form without qualifying subfields.
  • If a library is continuing with ongoing AC, the process is much simpler. Changes will be pushed in from the new file using the LCCN or, in some cases, the heading string as a unique identifier. New entries are added through this process.

Some providers, such as Backstage, have auxiliary files that are used in the background to try and correct common misspellings before the program tries to match headings. During first-time AC matching, or the first time after an extended period of dormancy in running AC updates, Backstage can provide “near match” and “unmatched” reports. This helps librarians review potential typos and make manual connections. In ongoing processing, librarians receive reports about what’s changed; previously unmatched headings may become authorized during an update, or an authorized term may have changed. At both ends of the spectrum, allowing a vendor to perform AC processing takes away a lot of the unnecessary footwork for librarians to manage a healthy catalog.

Why Does Authority Control Matter?

The value of AC should be intrinsically obvious. A principle which has governed library science for centuries is the standardization of data, and it becomes even more important when we consider the interlinked nature of authorized headings.

  • Authority headings provide a branching interconnectedness across different works, manifestations, expressions, and items, pushing a catalog towards a highly improved discoverability.
  • As such, authority headings allow patrons to find items from known information, identify items with limited information, collocate items using a controlled vocabulary, and evaluate the results of their search to select the best item possible.
  • Authority headings are accessibility-minded, with fields that provide aid in research and which break down language and knowledge barriers.
  • Authority headings are constantly changing, evolving, and being added. These adjustments cannot be implemented without an authority control plan in place.

Authority Control is a cornerstone of user experience in the catalog and maintaining a high-quality repository of information. If you’d like to know more or have questions about something described in this blog, call us at 1.800.288.1265, visit us online at, or send an email to 

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