Names Project Blog

Name authority for dead people

Posted in identifiers, reports by Amanda Hill on 13 July, 2009

A JISC-funded project on the possibilities of using automatically generated metadata in the context of UK higher education has recently been co-ordinated by Intrallect Ltd. The project commissioned a series of reports on different aspects of metadata that might be obtained automatically. These reports are now available on the project’s wiki. They include one on ‘Person Metadata’, which was written by me, based on the experiences we’ve had with the Names Project. The wiki allows for the reports to be annotated with comments, so please chip in if you have any observations.

One area I am keen to see progress in is in building a name authority file that would be a shared resource for the cultural heritage sector. This formed one of the recommendations in my report. Perhaps it might seem a bit off-topic, but I do worry that the needs of institutional repositories have somewhat eclipsed the requirements of archives, museums and galleries in this area. I’ve been peripherally involved in some discussions with the Archives Hub team and others about this. The National Archives (TNA) maintains the kernel of an archival national name authority file as part of the UK’s National Register of Archives (NRA), but this is not easily added to by staff at other institutions and (from my perspective, anyway), there seems little will by TNA to further develop this resource in ways that would make it more useful for the cultural heritage sector and for the users of electronic resources provided by museums, galleries, archives and other organisations with a more historical view of the world.

As is the case with repositories, people mentioned in archives (or creators and owners of archival and museum materials) may not be represented in library authority files. An archival standard for authority files allows for rich description of individuals, families and organisations but as yet there is no easy way for institutions to share this information or to pool these descriptions together. A set of rules developed within the UK archival community in the 1990s gives guidance on creating an authoritative form of a name, but this has not solved the problem, as this screenshot of name index terms in the Archives Hub illustrates:

Browsing the Archives Hub for Alice Green

Browsing the Archives Hub for Alice Green

A way of associating the different forms of a name with a unique identifier would be more useful than ensuring that Alice Green’s name is always written in exactly the same way. That identifier could then be used to group all records relating to Alice together. The National Register of Archives’ page for Alice Green attempts to do just that, but is not open for additions by anyone outside TNA. The NRA’s identifier for Alice is GB/NNAF/P125310 but the number that retrieves her page within the system is an earlier version of this (GB/NNAF/P11998), which isn’t ideal.

There seems to me to be an opportunity here to build a collaborative service that would be of enormous benefit to those documenting our heritage and those seeking to find out about it. The current information in the National Register of Archives could be the core of this, in a service that is open to other institutions to edit and that is made available to both web users and to other systems. Lukas Koster’s overview of ‘Linked Data for Libraries’ describes the principles and the end result I have in mind for such information. Tim Berners-Lee’s TED talk in February this year is a great introduction to this area, too.

Actually, now I’ve written all that, this sounds a lot like what we’re trying to do for the repository sector with the Names project. It’s just that there isn’t a big overlap with the people currently active in UK research and those that the cultural heritage community care about…