04 March 2009

The trouble with names is they belong to people

I recently read Dorothea Salo's latest article, 'Name authority control in institutional repositories', which will appear in the April issue of Cataloging and Classification Quarterly. (You can find the preprint here).

As a repository manager, Salo is aware that name authority problems have a significant impact, not just for librarians responsible for content management in repositories, but also on repository users and the discoverability of our content. She believes that one of the reasons for the problems we experience managing author names is that we never envisaged our institutional repositories as library-managed databases; they were meant to be 'do-it-yourself' (Salo 2009) author deposit mechanisms. This means we didn't plan how to control our author metadata in the first instance.

But even if we had, how would we have controlled it?

Traditional cataloguing standards like AACR2 are designed by librarians for librarians, and for library systems frankly more concerned with stock inventory than resource discovery. Authors have no input in the way their works are represented in a library catalogue; cataloguing standards treat them as just another piece of descriptive metadata.

Whether we populate our repositories through self-deposit or librarians recruiting content themselves, there's no doubt that authors are much more to IRs than just another metadata element.

For starters, without authors institutional repositories have no content, and without content, they don't exist. And the location of authors at the time they create a work is the sole basis for their inclusion in an institutional repository's collection.

Salo's viewpoint is that the problems with consistency in repository content are tied to software. But a quick glance at institutional repositories using a variety of software solutions shows that name variant problems affect them all. No single repository, regardless of architecture, can escape this issue, because it's not a software but a human element. And people are always much trickier than technology.

Salo believes that eventually institutional repository software will improve, and that '[i]n the meantime, institutional-repository managers can only plan to plow large amounts of staff time into managing names' (Salo 2009). But the truth is that it's not that easy. We've already spent inordinate amounts of time trying to find a way to manage author names in Swinburne Research Bank, and we've drawn a blank.

Salo notes that EPrints software (unlike DSpace and Fedora) has an autocomplete function, which allows depositors to select from names in the repository's existing vocabulary when they create author metadata. But this is not a long-term solution. While it might help with cases where authors use their initials on some papers and their full names on others (assuming we're comfortable with overwriting these differences---and that's a big assumption), it's just not appropriate when authors associate a different identity with a particular name variant (eg a married name, legal change of name, etc).

Names are not just about software. They're about people.
And this is where NicNames comes in.

--Rebecca Parker, NicNames Subject Matter Expert

UPDATE: The article has now been published, and is available here.