Finding names in an online library catalog

The strength of a library catalog is something called “controlled vocabulary.” That is, there is one and only one way to express a subject or the name of a person, organized group, or legal jurisdiction in a catalog. You don’t have to know what it is; there is something called an authority file running in the background to  help you.

This article is about names, not just authors. For one thing, it includes not only personal names, but names of groups, companies, government jurisdictions, etc. For another, any of these kinds of names can be not only the author of something, but some other relationship (such as illustrator or editor) to something, or a subject of something.

In an earlier post, I mentioned the former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. The official way to express  his name in a catalog used to be “Ratzinger, Joseph, 1927-,” but as soon as he became Pope, the official way changed to “Benedict XVI, Pope, 1927-.”  No one would ever guess either form, although everyone is used to the convention of last name first from the phone book.

I had no idea what the correct form was until I just looked up “Ratzinger” in a catalog. My search told me both the old and new forms. That is very helpful, because all of the books by or about him that were published before he became pope have “Joseph Ratzinger” on them, and not “Pope Benedict XVI.” Sooner or later, most people forget a Pope’s former name. Fifty years from now, anyone who reads one of those books and wants to find more by or about Cardinal Ratzinger will be able to search for Ratzinger and find him, along with all later material by or about him, under his  papal name.

The rules for determining the one and only way to formulate the official form of a name are complicated, but that’s actually good for the patrons. It used to be that catalogers had to find and use the fullest form of a person’s real name. People looking for the writings of Mark Twain had to search under Samuel Langhorne Clemens. People looking for the music of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart found it only under Johann Chrysostom Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Well, that’s what was in his baptismal records.

Even so, it’s not as bad as it sounds. The idea of an authority file is much older than computers. Before online catalogs, there were card catalogs. If anyone went to “Twain, Mark,” there was a card that told them to look under Clemens. But now, the rules call for using the best known form of a name, such as using initials (H. G. Wells instead of Herman George Wells), nicknames (Jimmy Carter instead of James Earl Carter), and shortened forms of a full name (such as Mozart’s).

A related problem is what to do about names in languages that don’t use the Roman alphabet. You might find the name Chekov, Chehov, Tchekhov, or any number of other variants on a book. Looking up any of them in the catalog will take you to “Chekhov, Anton Pavlovich, 1860-1904.

Unlike personal names, corporate names are given in direct order. That is, “W.K. Kellogg Foundation” instead of “Kellogg, W.K., Foundation;” or “University of Chicago” instead of “Chicago, University of.” Some corporate bodies are part of larger ones. If the name of the smaller group is not distinctive (such as “Music Department”), it is entered after the name of the larger one: “University of Chicago, Dept. of Music.”

The name of a corporate body may not convey the idea of what it is. Marilyn Manson, for example, looks like a woman’s name. There may in fact be several women with that name, but it is also the name of a rock group. In this case, not only is it given in direct order, but there is a parenthetical expression that tells what it is: “Marilyn Manson (Musical group).

There are also geographical names in the name authority file, specifically, countries, states, provinces, counties, cities, villages, or anything else that is capable of authorship. So there are entries for Brazil, Ohio, Lima (Ohio), Lima (Peru), Chicago (Ill.), Grand Canyon National Park (Agency : U.S.), etc., but not for Grand Canyon National Park itself. The park agency can and does produce literature. The canyon itself cannot. It is not in the name authority file, but it is in the subject authority file.

If some of the punctuation and abbreviations for corporate and geographical names looks strange, well, there are lots of rules. People who work in libraries must either get a masters degree in library science in order to begin to learn them or else work in a library cataloging department for a very long time. There are good reasons why the rules are so complicated, but patrons don’t have to worry about them. If they guess wrong, the authority structure is there to help them find what they need. Or they can do a simple keyword search, find whatever names are hotlinks in the records that come up, and click on them.


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