The lowdown on authorities and authority files

By Doreen Sullivan

Cataloguing librarian Doreen Sullivan explains how authority files containing name and subject authorities link relevant content within catalogues to optimise users’ search experiences.

You’ve probably heard the term ‘authority files’ used in reference to cataloguing. You might know that they have nothing to do with the long arm of the law, but that’s about it. Or maybe you do know about authorities, but suspect they are something arcane best left to a secret enclave of cataloguers.

If you do belong to a secret enclave of cataloguers, you won’t need to read this article. But if you don’t, read on.

What are authorities and authority files?

An authority is also known as an authority record, and is the authorised or preferred form for a heading — most often names and subjects — in a controlled vocabulary.

An authority file is an index of all authority records of any given agency or library. SCIS provides authority files for Authority File subscribers. Beyond SCIS, other authority files exist, such as the Library of Congress Name and Subject Authority Files.

What are the benefits of authority files?

Consistency of headings

Authority files provide a more precise search. For example, some people may be known by multiple names, or by a more colloquial name or title. In the SCIS catalogue, you will find one record with the author listed as Francis Scott Fitzgerald, but this belongs to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s authority record. This means catalogue users will not miss out on records with variations of names.

Enhanced search

Searching is improved by providing variations of terms and links to other authorised headings, which is known as cross-referencing. Cross-referencing includes the ‘see’ and ‘see also’ links. These may show as related terms, and provide access to broader and narrower terms.

Since we don’t all use the same words when we search, browsing authorised subject headings can help us to find what we are looking for. Say you’re searching for the word fighting within SCIS products. When you look up the word fighting under subject browse, it returns eleven more specific authorised headings for SCIS, the first of which is ‘Battles’.

This also works for names. The author J.K. Rowling, famous for her Harry Potter series, also writes crime novels as Robert Galbraith. The entries for both names show the link between the two.

Provides additional information via scope notes

Scope notes assist users and cataloguers to know how to apply the heading. Say you are looking up information about nests. The SCIS scope note tells you to ‘Use Birds AND Nests’. The benefit of this is twofold: if you are cataloguing the item, you immediately know that you need to enter two separate subject headings. If you’re looking for information via subject headings, you know that you need to combine the headings.

Saves individual cataloguers time

Authority work — verifying headings and adding cross-references — has often been considered one of the more labour intensive and time consuming aspects of cataloguing.

Take the author Daisy Meadows, for example. She writes the Rainbow Magic fairy series and other fairy fiction. But Daisy Meadows is actually a publishing house pseudonym for four different children’s authors: Sue Bentley, Linda Chapman, Narinder Dhami, and Sue Mongredien. One of the resources the Library of Congress used to establish the four-author pseudonym was a now-defunct website. But, assuming this information is not printed on her novels, how would you know that Daisy Meadows is a pseudonym in the first place? Cataloguers may need to look for additional information outside of the item itself.

For name headings that include additional information, the Library of Congress tends to have extensive source citations of where and how names are verified. It is not unusual for the Library of Congress to cite emails to authors and publishers, personal websites, and LinkedIn or Facebook accounts as consultation sources.

But can’t I find everything with keyword search?

While it is true that information can be found via keyword searches, this is not as effective as having authorised headings in place. With a keyword search, you can only find the particular term/s that you are searching for, which means you could miss out on finding what you need.

Maybe you have been swayed by the TV cooking programs and can’t wait to read more about cooking. If you enter the search term cooking, you’ll find results, but you might miss out on any records that lack that particular word. SCIS Authority Files will identify cooking as a non-preferred term, and return items listed with the preferred ‘Cookery’ subject heading.

Maybe you don’t want to be as ambitious as a Michelin-starred or reality-TV chef, but do want to find some recipes. Recipes itself isn’t an authorised term, but ‘Cookery’ is. Cook books is not an authorised term, but will again point to ‘Cookery’. While keywords will work here, by looking under the 'Cookery' heading, you can narrow your search to a more specific term. Maybe you want to cook with a blender — look under ‘Cookery, Food processor’. The same can be understood for search terms that students use, such as in the fighting example above.

SCIS Authority Files

SCIS catalogue records contain SCIS-authorised name and subject headings. SCIS Authority Files enable ‘See’ and ‘See also’ references into your local library management system, to enhance resource discovery in your school.

More information can be found using the following links:

Doreen Sullivan

Cataloguing librarian

Education Services Australia