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…


6 Responses

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  1. Joy Palmer said, on 27 July, 2009 at 10:31 am

    Hi Amanda,
    A belated response to your post. As you know I have a somewhat different perspective on this, but I think fundamentally we’re in agreement — we need to be able to share and reuse data across the sector. The lack of a single naming authority does present significant issues for services and their users, and the example you give above from the Hub is an all too typical example. It’s clear that technically speaking we need to solve this problem. I have two distinct concerns, however. The first is a philosphical one — the archival standard for Name Authority files is about more than agreeing a naming convention (which I don’t have a problem with) — it is about providing biographical, historical and interpretive information about that person and the significance of their life. While we might all agree that this is simply an instance of historical interpretation, the fact is that is this becomes ‘The’ authority file, as written by Archivists, then it will carry a great deal of weight. Of course, such information could be very useful, but it’s the centralisation and standardisation of this ‘authority’ file as what might be perceived as a factual document that I have a problem with. I concede that a wiki could well allow for more flexibility and fluidity in this regard (if we could get archivists to embrace the mindset of multiplicity, that is). If such records could also link to related contextual information outside of the archive, then this would also be useful.

    My second concern relates to the practicalities of getting archivists to collectively contribute to such a system, and whether we in fact need yet another centralised system to handle this problem. It would be an interesting experiment to see if we could get archivists (and non archivists) to contribute to a wiki to solve this issue, and whether a community could evolve out of this work, but this would require a great deal of effort, mobilisation, and handholding (but you’re right — we could try:-)). The ‘simple’ solution of a wiki is not-so-simple if you want it to be actually used. In the meantime, I wonder if semantic technologies, better search, and also an open mind around the linking of archival content to contextually related content ‘out there’ and conversly, opening up archival data for use ‘out there’ might offer better solutions, and might be a better place to direct energies.

    Lots to think about, certainly. I appreciate you forcing me to stretch my non-archivist brain a bit on this one!

  2. Amanda Hill said, on 27 July, 2009 at 12:30 pm

    I appreciate your concern about deciding upon a definitive biography for an individual and putting the weight of archival authority behind it. The archival standard certainly allows for very full description. But the key point there is that although such full histories are permitted, they are not mandated. The core elements of an archival authority file can as simple as the names and dates of an individual, family or organisation, along with the identifier.

    My feeling is that it is this identifier that is the key, rather than lengthy biographical histories. I don’t think archivists have a lot of time to create full authority records (although it will be interesting to read the results of the survey that was recently sent out to UK archivists on this topic). A bare-bones record with an identifier could link out to all sorts of other resources. The important thing is to have a mechanism for creating that identifier in the first place and for making it persistent and providing useful information when it is accessed (the linked data principles, in other words). There isn’t an easy way of creating and sharing those identifiers right now, in the cultural heritage sector, as far as I can see. Wikipedia, for example, has ‘notability guidelines’ which would exclude many of the people we would want to identify.

    I didn’t mention using a wiki in this post, although I did in our side discussion on Twitter! It just occurred to me that a way of making it possible for the community to create a shared resource would be to pre-populate a semantic wiki of some kind with the National Register of Archives’ data, and build on it from there.

  3. Joy Palmer said, on 27 July, 2009 at 12:51 pm

    I think we’re certainly on the same page, Amanda — this needs to be about identifiers and not biographical histories. My reference to wiki software might have been a bit of a red herring, I realise now — I agree with your point that what *is* needed is a mechanism for sharing/linking the peristent identifier data.

  4. Jamie Norrish said, on 8 September, 2009 at 12:58 am

    Coming very late to this, I’d like to mention that the EATS system I’ve developed for the New Zealand Electronic Text Centre is designed to act both as a repository of entity authority data, and as a mechanism by which authority records from multiple systems can be linked — without the twin perils of privileging one system, form or piece of information over another, and without requiring any system to give up their existing identifiers.

    I know that the Names project is aware of the EATS work (I believe it’s mentioned in one of the reports, and I’ve talked with Daniel about it), but it can’t hurt to mention it here. We (the NZETC) are currently in the process of incorporating records from the Auckland War Memorial Museum into our instance of EATS; we’re hoping this will be the start of similar collaboration with other groups within the cultural heritage sector in New Zealand (and Australia too, with luck).

  5. Amanda Hill said, on 10 September, 2009 at 6:23 pm

    Thanks Jamie – I think your approach is exactly the right one. My concern with the situation in the UK cultural heritage context is that there is no easy way for practitioners to assign and share unique identifiers for individuals in the first place, so there is a lot of duplication of effort going on and consequent problems with retrieval of relevant information about the same individual from different systems. There is a lot of work now under way (by publishers and others) on uniquely identifying living researchers but my concern is that the cultural heritage sector is not involved in this in the UK. It sounds like this has received a bit more consideration in New Zealand!

  6. Jamie Norrish said, on 6 October, 2009 at 8:11 pm

    Thanks for the kind words, Amanda (and sorry for the late response; I think the comment notification thing must have had a hiccup). I think you’re giving New Zealand too much credit – while there is a some degree of understanding regarding the importance of authority control/access, it’s apparently a giant leap from that to actually doing something.

    That said, Te Papa Tongarewa (the Museum of New Zealand) is engaged in some authority control work with regards to parts of their collection, to be exposed on their site, and of course you know about People Australia. Libraries tend to have the information, but operate in splendid isolation even when the information is good.

    More shameless self-promotion: those who aren’t familiar with the NZETC’s EATS system might like to read for a description.

    In the context of your concern regarding duplicated work and the problem of retrieval from multiple sources, this is a obviously a difficult issue. Everyone has their own system and doesn’t want to change, so any solution has to either be forced on them, or involve a second system that links and coordinates the others. EATS is intended as the second; I’d love to hear if anyone has a third option that I haven’t thought of!

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