Authority control is the practice of creating and maintaining index terms for bibliographic material in a catalog in library and information science. 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. It is thus an example of controlled vocabulary.

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.

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))

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, 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.

Access control[]

The act of choosing a single authorized heading to represent all forms of a name is often difficult, sometimes arbitrary and on occasion politically sensitive. An alternative is the idea of access control, where variant forms of a name are related without the endorsement of one particular form. See Linda Barnhart's Access Control Records: Prospects and Challenges from the 1996 OCLC conference 'Authority Control in the 21st Century'.

Authority control and cooperative cataloging[]

Before the advent of digital OPACs and the Internet, the work of creating and maintaining a library's authority files was generally carried out by individual cataloging departments (if it was done at all). 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 did not matter greatly.

However, even before the Internet revolutionized the way libraries go about cataloging their materials, catalogers began moving toward the establishment of 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 gave rise to 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, and is known as the Name Authority Cooperative Program, or NACO[1] Authority.


  • ISAAR (CPF) — International Standard Archival Authority Record for Corporate Bodies, Persons, and Families.[2] Published by the International Council on Archives[3]
  • MARC standards for authority records in machine-readable format.[4]
  • Metadata Authority Description Schema (MADS), an XML schema for an authority element set that may be used to provide metadata about agents (people, organizations), events, and terms (topics, geographics, genres, etc.).
  • Encoded Archival Context, an XML schema for authority records conforming to ISAAR(CPF)

See also[]

  • Universal Authority File (Gemeinsame Normdatei or GND), authority file by the German National Library
  • Knowledge Organization Systems
  • Simple Knowledge Organization System (SKOS) for representation of thesauri, classification schemes, taxonomies, subject-heading systems, or any other type of structured controlled vocabulary.
  • Virtual International Authority File (VIAF), an aggregation of authority files currently focused on personal and corporate names.


External links[]

This page uses content from the English language Wikipedia. The original content was at Authority control. The list of authors can be seen in the page history. As with this Familypedia wiki, the content of Wikipedia is available under the Creative Commons License.