Finding authors, or rather, names in a library catalog

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The most basic information in any record in a library catalog is the title, subject, and author. I have to put author last, because there are several categories of books that, strictly speaking don’t have an author. An anthology has several, compiled by an editor. Other books have a corporate author. That is, one might say on the title page that it’s written by the Red Cross. We all know that a person or group of persons wrote it, but they might not be identified by name anywhere. The author of a book of court cases will be the particular court, say, the 4th district court of a particular state or one of the federal appeals court circuits.

Also, names (personal, corporate, or geographic) can occur other places in the record besides as author. They can be among the subject headings, for example. That editor who’s not actually the author has to be listed somewhere, as must all of the co-authors if there is more than one. In fact, a person or corporation or jurisdiction might have any number of relationships with an item that would warrant mention in the cataloging record.

Personal names

Library catalogs display personal names last name first, just like a phone book, encyclopedia, or any number of other common resources. Unlike these others, there is one and only one way of expressing a name. For that matter, there is one and only one way of expressing a subject or preferred title. The concept is called “controlled vocabulary,” and the prescribed forms must be taken from an authority file. In the United States, the Library of Congress maintains the authority files, one for names and titles, and the other for subjects.

Suppose you want something by Frank Smith. How many Frank Smith’s do you suppose there are? We can differentiate them by middle initial, middle name, and date of birth, so here are some Frank Smiths from the Library of Congress Name Authority File:

  • Smith, Frank, 1854-1940
  • Smith, Frank, 1852-1942
  • Smith, Frank, 1927-
  • Smith, Frank, 1928-
  • Smith, Frank A. (Frank Albert), 1922-
  • Smith, Frank, b. 1854
  • Smith, Frank C., 1947-
  • Smith, Frank Charles, 1937-
  • Smith, Frank L., of Canterbury,  Conn.

Notice that “Smith, Frank, b. 1854″ and Smith, Frank, 1854-1940” are two different people. If “Smith, Frank Albert, 1922-” were an authorized heading, he would be a different person from “Smith, Frank A. (Frank Albert), 1922-.” On the other hand, “Smith, Frank A. (Frank Allan), 1927-” is not an authorized heading. If you select him from a list of names, you will be directed to “Smith, Frank, 1927-” Why is the fuller form not preferred in this case? Beats me.

These things can be arbitrary. Confusing? Maybe, but not as confusing as the list of Frank Smiths; with and without middle names, initials, and dates; that you would find in the various Who’s Who books or nearly anything else besides a library catalog! If you’re looking for something by Frank Smith, you will probably not look by author alone. Librarians usually recommend a keyword search combining the author’s name with distinctive words from the title.

Library of Congress Name Authority File

screen from the Library of Congress Name Authority File

Names in the authority file are not chiseled in stone. They can and do change. Does anyone remember Joseph Ratzinger? He was a well-known and controversial Catholic theologian. A prolific author and subject of books by other authors, the authorized form of his name was “Ratzinger, Joseph, 1927-“. Within the past few years, the Library of Congress has started adding death dates. After all, “Lennon, John, 1940-” began to look awfully strange twenty years after his murder. But Ratzinger did not die. Over night, the authorized form of his name became “Benedict XVI, Pope, 1927-.”

What if someone finds a book with “Ratzinger” on it, published before he became Pope, and doesn’t realize that Joseph Ratzinger and Benedict XVI are the same person? What if that person searches under Ratzinger? The old heading will turn up in the search results, and when he clicks on it, he will be taken to the new heading. Think how hard it would be to find all the books by or about anyone at all if the authorized form of the name did not change as needed and if the old form did not remain in the catalog as a cross reference?

The authority file also comes to the rescue in cases of names originally not in the Roman alphabet? Russian names, for example, are expressed in the Cyrillic alphabet. It is now possible to search the catalog using the Cyrillic alphabet, but it’s pointless to do so unless you’re looking for a book in Russian. What if you want Russian plays in English or some other Western European language. You know the author’s name, but is it spelled Tchekhov, Chehov, Chekov? You might find any of those on a title page. Whatever spelling you use for your search will take you to “Chekhov, Anton Pavlovich, 1860-1904.”

Corporate and geographical names

Corporate names, unlike personal names, are given in direct order. Thus, “University of Chicago” instead of “Chicago, University of,” or “W.K. Kellogg Foundation” instead of “Kellogg, W.K., Foundation.” Some times, a corporate name will be part of a larger entity. If the smaller name is distinctive, it will be entered in the Name Authority File under that name. For example, look for Scripps Institution of Oceanography under Scripps. . . , not as a subgroup under the University of California at San Diego. “Music Department,” however, is not a distinctive name. In that case, you will need to look for it under whatever larger institution it belongs to.

Sometimes, a corporate name doesn’t seem like a corporate name. Or, there may be more than one corporation that uses the same or different name. For example, there might be any number of women named Marilyn Manson, but that is also the name of a musical group. Therefore, it is entered in direct order with a parenthetical expression to identify it: “Marilyn Manson (Musical group).” “Three Brothers” could be almost anything. The Name Authority File has three:

  • Three Brothers (Bark)
  • Three Brothers (Calif.)
  • Three Brothers (Ship)

Geographical names can be either in the Name Authority File or the Subject Authority File, depending on whether they are capable of authorship. The Grand Canyon National Park cannot write a book or even a short pamphlet. It belongs in the Subject Authority File. The federal agency that runs the Grand Canyon National Park can and has, so the Name Authority File includes Grand Canyon National Park (Agency : U.S.).”

Countries, states or provinces, cities, villages, and other geographic areas that are also some kind of jurisdiction are capable of authorship. They issue laws, regulations, codes, treaties, tourist information literature, and much more. Here are a selection of authorized names.

  • Buena Vista (Ala.)
  • Buena Vista (Colo.)
  • Buena Vista County (Iowa)
  • Buena Vista (El Paso, Tex.)
  • Buena Vista (Ichilo, Bolivia)
  • Buena Vista Social Club (Musical group) — There might actually be a Buena Vista Social Club in some town or county named Buena Vista, but this ain’t it!
  • Buenavista (Saltillo, Coahuila, Mexico)
  • Great Britain
  • Lima (Ohio)
  • Lima (Peru)
  • Lima (Peru : Province)
  • New South Wales
  • New York City
  • New York City Adult Literacy Initiative
  • New York (State)
  • New York (State). Accident Records Bureau
  • Utah
  • United States
  • United States. Congress. House
  • United States. Court of Appeals (10th Circuit)
  • Yorkshire (England)

If any of these headings or the punctuation used in them look strange, that’s because there are a lot of rules. Describing a complicated reality requires complicated rules. All those rules explain why professional librarians must have a special masters degree in library science. Fortunately, patrons don’t need to know the rules. They don’t even need to know the authorized headings. Once you find a cataloging record that suits your purpose, all the authorized forms are hot-linked to everything else in the catalog that has them.

Until then, you can use keyword searches, name keyword searches, title keyword searches, and subject keyword searches. Just get away from that screen that has only one search box and use the advanced search. It’s actually easier and faster. Oh, and if you get stuck, ask a librarian. If you’re in the library, talk to one in person. If you’re at home, just call–or use chat, instant messaging, etc. They’ll be glad to  help you.


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