This article has been reproduced in a new format and may be missing content or contain faulty links. Contact to report an issue.

It’s not often that you go to a conference and have a major realization about the need to re-organize how you do your work and how your library functions, but I did at this year’s ALA. Through the course of several sessions on RDA, the new cataloging code that is slated to replace AACR2, I came to realize that we very much need to implement and maintain authority control at ZSR. This is not easy to say, as it will necessarily involve some expense and a great deal of time and effort, but without proper authority control of our bibliographic database, our catalog will suffer an ever-diminishing quality of service, frustrating patrons and hindering our efficiency.

You may ask, what is authority control? It’s the process whereby catalogers guarantee that the access points (authors, subjects, titles) in a bibliographic record use the proper or authorized form. Subject headings change, authors may have the same or similar names, and without controlling the vocabulary used, users can be confused, retrieving the wrong author or not retrieving all of the works on a given subject.

Here at ZSR we have historically had no authority maintenance to speak of. Our catalog records were sent out to a company to have the authorities cleaned up some time shortly before I started working here, and I started working here eight years ago this month. I have long thought that it was a problem that we have no authority control system, however, it did not seem to be a crisis. However, that was until RDA came along.

RDA (or Resource Description and Access) is, as you probably know by now, the new cataloging code that is supposed to replace AACR2. AACR2 focuses on the forms of items cataloged, whether the item is a book, a computer file, an audio recording, etc. The description gives you plenty of information about the item, the number of pages, the publisher, etc. If you do not have authority control (as we don’t), you may have a book with a similar title to another book, but you can distinguish it by saying, the book I need has 327 pages, with 8 pages of color prints, it’s 23 cm. high and it was published by Statler & Waldorf in 1998. In RDA, the focus is on points of access and in identifying works. Say you have a novel (a work) that has been published as a print book, as an audio book, and as an electronic book (by three different publishers on three different platforms). With RDA, you want to create a record to identify the work, the novel as an abstract concept, not the specific physical (or electronic) form that the novel takes. It’s not as easy to resort to the physical description (as with AACR2), because there may be no physical entity to describe at all. In that case, who wrote the book, the exact title of the book, and the subjects of the book become of paramount importance for identifying a work. RDA essentially cannot function without proper authority control (I had realized this fact during the course of the presentations I attended, but on my last day, a speaker’s first conclusion about preparing for RDA was “Increase authority control.”).

RDA is still being implemented, and the Library of Congress is currently undergoing a test to decide by March 2011 if they will adopt RDA. However, that test period seems a mere formality. There appears to be considerable momentum for the adoption of RDA, and I believe it will be adopted, even if many catalogers do have reservations about it. We may have another year to two-years before the momentum will force us to move to RDA, but in the meantime, I believe we need to get some sort of authority control system in place.

The advantages of authority control will be felt almost immediately in our catalog. The use of facets in VuFind will be far more efficient if the underlying data in the subject headings is in proper order. Also, as we move to implement WakeSpace, which will make us in essence publishers of material, we will need to make sure that we have our authors properly identified and distinguished from others (we need to make sure that our David Smith is the one we’ve got listed as opposed to another David Smith). Also, should we ever attempt to harvest the works of our university authors in an automated way to place them in WakeSpace, we will need to make sure that we are identifying the proper authors. The only way to do that is through authority control.

This issue will require some research and study before we can move forward with implementing authority control and maintenance. We will need some training for our current catalogers (definitely including me), we will need to have our current database’s authorities “cleaned up,” and we will have to institute a way to maintain our authorities, possibly including the hiring of new staff. It won’t be easy, and it won’t be cheap, but if our catalog is to function in an acceptable manner, I think it’s absolutely necessary.

Needless to say, I’ll be happy to talk about this with anyone who wants to.