Irreconcilable differences? Name authority control & humanities scholarship

This post is co authored by David Michelson, Vanderbilt University

Over the past year OCLC Research has been working with a group of Syriac studies scholars with the goal of tapping their expertise to enrich the Virtual International Authority File (VIAF), by adding Syriac script to existing names and adding new ones. Syriac is a dialect of Aramaic, developed in the kingdom of Mesopotamia in the first century A.D. It flourished in the Persian and Roman Empires, and Syriac texts comprise the third largest surviving corpus of literature from the fourth through seventh centuries, after Greek and Latin. We anticipated that the issues we addressed could then be applied to scholars in other disciplines. We started with the assumption that the scholars could use the Library of Congress’ Metadata Authority Description Schema, or MADS.

We have learned a lot in the process of building a bridge between scholarly interest in names as a subject of historical research and VIAF’s interest in persistent identifiers for each name in authority files. We found that we shared values for name authorities:

  • Scholars and librarians share a mutual appreciation for each others’ work on identifying names appearing in historical research.
  • Many scholarly projects in the digital humanities are already relying on VIAF for authority control and to anchor Linked Open Data. The Syriac scholars pointed us to digital humanities projects— such as the Fihrist, a union catalog of Islamic manuscripts hosted in the UK, and those listed in the Digital Classicist Wiki under “Very Clean URIs”—that have adopted VIAF URIs as the best method for authority control and to link to other data sets.
  • VIAF can provide part of the cyberinfrastructure for digital humanities, a standard way for linking and querying data, a need identified by The American Council of Learned Societies’ national Commission on Cyberinfrastructure.

We discovered two key issues important to scholars that just don’t mesh well with the library practices represented in name authority files, which VIAF aggregates, due to differences in intended audiences, disciplinary norms, and metadata needs:

  • Scholars eschew a “preferred name”. Libraries need to bring together all the variant forms of a name under one form, choosing a “predominant form” if a person writes in more one language. This approach meets the discovery needs for a specific national or linguistic community. Scholarship is international, and the “preferred name” in one locale will differ from another. Further, the context is crucial for classifying names. For scholars, a “preferred name” needs to also include by whom and for what purpose it is preferred. For example, a Syriac name in use in 600 may be classified as “classical Syriac”; but the same name in use one thousand years later may be classified as a neo-Aramaic dialect. The same Syriac author might have multiple “preferred forms” in multiple languages (Syriac, Arabic, Greek), each used by different or competing cultural communities. This applies to other languages as well. Scholars resist declaring a “preferred form” because it could exclude some historical or cultural perspective. Each form may be “authoritative” depending on the time and place it appears.
  • Scholars need to know the provenance of each form of name. When a name has multiple forms, scholars—especially historians— need to know the provenance of each name, following the citation practices commonly used in their field. Historical and textual scholarship is built on conventions of evidence and values the process of contesting intellectual claims. MADS does not provide the structure for citing these sources or providing the required contextual information. Although library practices require “literary warrant” to justify why one form of name was chosen as the authorized heading or access point, they do not document the context for any of the variant forms. There is not even a field to indicate the language of a name’s form. We can deduce the language of the preferred form only by the source of the authority file. Scholars find little value in name information without provenance data, an equivalent of footnotes.

The good news is that our collaboration has pointed the way for future interaction between VIAF, the VIAF Council, and the scholarly community:

  • Syriac studies colleagues are building their own database where they can describe each personal name with the granularity that meets their scholarly requirements. We will work together to create a crosswalk so that OCLC Research can extract the information that fits into a MADS structure, and can still enrich existing VIAF clusters with Syriac and other script forms or add new names. VIAF and will follow existing protocols for using the namespace in minting URIs for new names not yet in VIAF.
  • For those who need the additional details, people could click a link to the name in the database, much as those who want to read a biography of a VIAF name can click on a Wikipedia link, if present. Thus VIAF can still integrate scholars’ expertise and serve scholarly users without needing to overcome the fundamental differences between library and scholarly practices.
  • will work with OCLC and the VIAF Council to establish a path for other scholarly research organizations to contribute to VIAF.

The screen captures of the current VIAF cluster and a Syriac Reference Portal Demo record for Ephrem below help us imagine how VIAF could be enhanced.

VIAF Cluster
VIAF Cluster
Extract from the Syriac Reference Portal Demo
Extract from the Syriac Reference Portal Demo

David Michelson is the assistant professor of early Christianity at Vanderbilt University and director of The Syriac Reference Portal, a joint project among Vanderbilt University, Princeton University, St. Michael’s College Vermont, Texas A&M University, Beth Mardutho the Syriac Institute and other affiliate institutions, funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

2 Comments on “Irreconcilable differences? Name authority control & humanities scholarship”

  1. Yes, in fact is is EAC-CPF that we will be using at Even with EAC-CPF, however, a work around using local types to link elements and sources is needed to create the equivalent of footnotes. I’d be happy to discuss this further with anyone interested in doing the same.

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