In information science, authority control is a process that organizes information, for example in library catalogs,[1][2][3] by using a single, distinct spelling of a name (heading) or an (generally alphanumeric) identifier for each topic or concept. The word authority in authority control derives from the idea that the names of people, places, things, and concepts are authorized, i.e., they are established in one particular form.[4][5][6] These one-of-a-kind headings or identifiers are applied consistently throughout catalogs which make use of the respective authority file,[7] and are applied for other methods of organizing data such as linkages and cross references.[7][8] Each controlled entry is described in an authority record in terms of its scope and usage, and this organization helps the library staff maintain the catalog and make it user-friendly for researchers.[9]

Catalogers assign each subject—such as author, topic, series, or corporation—a particular unique identifier or heading term which is then used consistently, uniquely, and unambiguously for all references to that same subject, which removes variations from different spellings, transliterations, pen names, or aliases.[10] The unique header can guide users to all relevant information including related or collocated subjects.[10] Authority records can be combined into a database and called an authority file, and maintaining and updating these files as well as "logical linkages"[11] to other files within them is the work of librarians and other information catalogers. Accordingly, authority control is an example of controlled vocabulary and of bibliographic control.

While in theory any piece of information is amenable to authority control towards such as personal and corporate names, uniform titles, series names will be placed , and subjects,[2][3] library catalogers typically focus on author names and titles of works. Traditionally, one of the most commonly used authority files globally are the subject headings from the Library of Congress. More recently, links to articles and categories of Wikipedia emerged to function as an authority file due to the popularity of the encyclopedia, where each article is a notable topic or concept similar to other authority files.[citation needed]

As time passes, information changes, prompting needs for reorganization. According to one view, authority control is not about creating a perfect seamless system but rather it is an ongoing effort to keep up with these changes and try to bring "structure and order" to the task of helping users find information.[9]

Benefits of authority control


Diverse names describe the same subject

Princess Diana is described in one authority file as "Windsor, Diana, Princess of Wales" which is an official heading.

Sometimes within a catalog, there are diverse names or spellings for only one person or subject.[10][13] This variation may cause researchers to overlook relevant information. Authority control is used by catalogers to collocate materials that logically belong together but that present themselves differently. Records are used to establish uniform titles that collocate all versions of a given work under one unique heading even when such versions are issued under different titles. With authority control, one unique preferred name represents all variations and will include different variations, spellings and misspellings, uppercase versus lowercase variants, differing dates, and so forth. For example, in Wikipedia, the first wife of Charles III is described by an article Diana, Princess of Wales as well as numerous other descriptors, e.g. Princess Diana, but both Princess Diana and Diana, Princess of Wales describe the same person so they all redirect to the same main article; in general, all authority records choose one title as the preferred one for consistency. In an online library catalog, various entries might look like the following:[2][3]

  1. Diana. (1)
  2. Diana, Princess of Wales. (1)
  3. Diana, Princess of Wales, 1961–1997. (13)
  4. Diana, Princess of Wales 1961–1997. (1)
  5. Diana, Princess of Wales, 1961–1997. (2)
  6. DIANA, PRINCESS OF WALES, 1961–1997. (1)

These terms describe the same person. Accordingly, authority control reduces these entries to one unique entry or officially authorized heading, sometimes termed an access point: Diana, Princess of Wales, 1961–1997.[18]

Authority File Heading / ID
Virtual International Authority File VIAF ID: 107032638
Wikipedia Diana, Princess of Wales[19]
Wikidata Wikidata identifier: Q9685
Integrated Authority File (GND) GND ID: 118525123
U.S. Library of Congress Diana, Princess of Wales, 1961–1997
WorldCat Identities Diana Princess of Wales 1961–1997
Biblioteca Nacional de España Windsor, Diana, Princess of Wales
KANTO – National Agent Data (Finland) Diana, Walesin prinsessa / KANTO ID: 000104109
Getty Union List of Artist Names Diana, Princess of Wales English noble and patron, 1961–1997
National Library of the Netherlands Diana, prinses van Wales, 1961–1997[18]

Generally, there are different authority file headings and identifiers used by different libraries in different countries, possibly inviting confusion, but there are different approaches internationally to try to lessen the confusion. One international effort to prevent such confusion is the Virtual International Authority File which is a collaborative attempt to provide a single heading for a particular subject. It is a way to standardize information from different authority files around the world such as the Integrated Authority File (GND) maintained and used cooperatively by many libraries in German-speaking countries and the United States Library of Congress. The idea is to create a single worldwide virtual authority file. For example, the ID for Princess Diana in the GND is 118525123 (preferred name: Diana < Wales, Prinzessin>) while the United States Library of Congress uses the term Diana, Princess of Wales, 1961–1997; other authority files have other choices. The Virtual International Authority File choice for all of these variations is VIAF ID: 107032638 — that is, a common number representing all of these variations.[18]

The English Wikipedia prefers the term "Diana, Princess of Wales", but at the bottom of the article about her, there are links to various international cataloging efforts for reference purposes.

Same name describes two different subjects

Sometimes two different authors have been published under the same name.[10] This can happen if there is a title which is identical to another title or to a collective uniform title.[10] This, too, can cause confusion. Different authors can be distinguished correctly from each other by, for example, adding a middle initial to one of the names; in addition, other information can be added to one entry to clarify the subject, such as birth year, death year, range of active years such as 1918–1965 when the person flourished, or a brief descriptive epithet. When catalogers come across different subjects with similar or identical headings, they can disambiguate them using authority control.

Authority records and files

A customary 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—cataloging consortium), which catalogers consult when making, or revising, decisions about headings. As a result, the records contain documentation about sources used to establish a particular preferred heading, and may contain information discovered while researching the heading which may be useful.[17]

While authority files provide information about a particular subject, their primary function is not to provide information but to organize it.[17] They contain enough information to establish that a given author or title is unique, but that is all; irrelevant but interesting information is generally excluded. Although practices vary internationally, authority records in the English-speaking world generally contain the following information:

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.

— Mason, M.K., Purpose of authority work and files,
  1. see references are forms of the name or title that describe the subject but which have been passed over or deprecated in favor of the authorized heading form
  2. see also references point to other forms of the name or title that are also authorized. These see also references generally point to earlier or later forms of a name or title.

For example, the Irish writer Brian O'Nolan, who lived from 1911 to 1966, wrote under many pen names such as Flann O'Brien and Myles na Gopaleen. Catalogers at the United States Library of Congress chose one form—"O'Brien, Flann, 1911–1966"—as the official heading.[20] The example contains all three elements of a valid authority record: the first heading O'Brien, Flann, 1911–1966 is the form of the name that the Library of Congress chose as 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 the heading beginning with Na Gopaleen, Myles, 1911–1966 are the see references. These forms of the author's name will appear in the catalog, but only as transcriptions and 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." There is an additional spelling variant of the Gopaleen name: "Na gCopaleen, Myles, 1911–1966" has an extra C inserted because the author also employed the non-anglicized Irish spelling of his pen-name, in which the capitalized C shows the correct root word while the preceding g indicates its pronunciation in context. So if a library user comes across this spelling variant, he or she will be led to the same author regardless. 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 beginning with His At Swim-Two-Birds ... 1939. 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.

Card catalog records such as this one used to be physical cards contained in long rectangular drawers in a library; today, generally, this information is stored in online databases.[17]
Authority control with "Kesey, Ken" as the chosen heading.[17]

Access control

The act of choosing a single authorized heading to represent all forms of a name is quite often a difficult and complex task, considering that any given individual may have legally changed their name or used a variety of legal names in the course of their lifetime, as well as a variety of nicknames, pen names, stage names or other alternative names. It may be particularly difficult to choose a single authorized heading for individuals whose various names have controversial political or social connotations, when the choice of authorized heading may be seen as endorsement of the associated political or social ideology.

An alternative to using authorized headings is the idea of access control, where various forms of a name are related without the endorsement of one particular form.[21]

Cooperative cataloging

Before the advent of digital online public access catalogs and the Internet, individual cataloging departments within each library generally carried out creating and maintaining a library's authority files. Naturally, there was a considerable difference in the authority files of the different libraries. For the early part of library history, it was generally accepted that, as long as a library's catalog was internally consistent, the differences between catalogs in different libraries did not matter greatly.

As libraries became more attuned to the needs of researchers and began interacting more with other libraries, the value of standard cataloging practices came to be recognized. With the advent of automated database technologies, catalogers began to establish cooperative consortia, such as OCLC and RLIN in the United States, in which cataloging departments from libraries all over the world contributed their records to, and took their records from, a shared database. This development prompted the need for national standards for authority work.

In the United States, the primary organization for maintaining cataloging standards with respect to authority work operates under the aegis of the Library of Congress Program for Cooperative Cataloging. It is known as the Name Authority Cooperative Program, or NACO Authority.[22]


There are various standards using different acronyms.

Standards for authority metadata:

Standards for object identification, controlled by an identification-authority:

Standards for identified-object metadata (examples): vCard, Dublin Core, etc.

See also


  1. ^ Block, R. (1999). Authority control: What it is and why it matters. Retrieved on 27 October 2006.
  2. ^ a b c "Why Does a Library Catalog Need Authority Control and What Is it?". IMPLEMENTING AUTHORITY CONTROL. Vermont Department of Libraries. 2003. Archived from the original on 7 June 2015. Retrieved 22 May 2015., then ... please [feel free to] see the next footnote, which links to a web page having the exact same title that does still exist (at a slightly different URL).Pages across the work refer in their text to 2003 as the most recent year, as no other date is specified.-->
  3. ^ "auctor". Online Etymology Dictionary. Douglas Harper. 2013. Retrieved 19 July 2013. author (n) c. 1300, autor "father," from O.Fr. auctor, acteor "author, originator, creator, instigator (12c., Mod.Fr. auteur), from L. auctorem (nom. auctor) ... –
    authority (n.) early 13c., autorite "book or quotation that settles an argument," from O.Fr. auctorité "authority, prestige, right, permission, dignity, gravity; the Scriptures" (12c.; Mod.Fr. autorité), ...
    Note: root words for both author and authority are words such as auctor or autor and autorite from the 13th century.
  4. ^ "authority (control)". Memidex. 2012. Archived from the original on 30 September 2019. Retrieved 27 February 2022. Etymology ... autorite "book or quotation that settles an argument", from Old French auctorité...
  5. ^ Merriam-Webster Dictionary. (2012). "authority". Retrieved 7 December 2012. See "Origin of authority" – Middle English auctorite, from Anglo-French auctorité, from Latin auctoritat-, auctoritas opinion, decision, power, from auctor First Known Use: 13th century...
  6. ^ a b "Authority Control at the NMSU Library". United States: New Mexico State University. 2007. Archived from the original on 4 June 2010. Retrieved 25 November 2012.
  7. ^ "Authority Control in OPAC". LIS BD Network. 27 October 2018. Archived from the original on 28 February 2022. Retrieved 27 February 2022.
  8. ^ a b c Wells, K. (n.d.). "Got authorities? Why authority control is good for your library". Tennessee Libraries. Archived from the original on 13 January 2013. Retrieved 23 January 2020.
  9. ^ a b c d e f g h i National Library of Australia. (n.d.). "Collection description policy". Archived from the original on 13 January 2013. Retrieved 23 January 2020. The primary purpose of authority control is to assist the catalogue user in locating items of interest.
  10. ^ a b c "Authority Control at LTI". LTI. 2012. Archived from the original on 15 December 2013.
  11. ^ a b c NCSU Libraries. (2012). "Brief guidelines on authority control decision-making". Archived from the original on 13 January 2013.
  12. ^ a b University Libraries (2012). "Authority Control in Unicorn WorkFlows August 2001". Retrieved 23 January 2020. Why Authority Control?
  13. ^ Burger, R.H. (1985). Authority work: The creation, use, maintenance, and evaluation of authority records and files. Libraries Unlimited. ISBN 9780872874916.
  14. ^ Clack, D.H. (1990). Authority Control: Principles, Applications, and Instructions. UMI Books on Demand. ISBN 9780608014432.
  15. ^ Maxwell, R.L. (2002). Maxwell's guide to authority work. Garfield Library Association. ISBN 9780838908228.
  16. ^ a b c d e Calhoun, Karen (22–23 June 1998). "A Bird's Eye View of Authority Control in Cataloging". Proceedings of the Taxonomic Authority Files Workshop. Workshop on the Compilation, Maintenance, and Dissemination of Taxonomic Authority Files (TAF): a comparison of authority control in the library science and biodiversity information management communities. Washington, D.C.: California Academy of Sciences. Retrieved 25 November 2012.
  17. ^ a b c Virtual International Authority File. Records for Princess Diana, Retrieved on 12 March 2013
  18. ^ Note: this is the article title as of March 12, 2013
  19. ^ "Authorities files". Library of Congress.; the original record has been abbreviated for clarity.
  20. ^ Barnhart, L. (n.d.). Access Control Records: Prospects and Challenges, Authority Control in the 21st Century: An Invitational Conference. Retrieved on 28 January 2020.
  21. ^ Library of Congress. "Program for Cooperative Cataloging". Library of Congress. Retrieved 16 March 2015.
  22. ^ "MARC 21 Format for Authority Data". Library of Congress Network Development and MARC Standards Office. Retrieved 18 December 2011.
  23. ^ International Council on Archives. "ISAAR (CPF): International standard archival authority record for corporate bodies, persons, and families" (2nd ed.). Archived from the original on 5 June 2007.
  24. ^ International Council on Archives. "ICArchives : Page d'accueil : Accueil". Retrieved 18 December 2011.