Sunday, December 16, 2012

Lingo: Authority Control
Some Delicious tags:

These are user-submitted tags to help other users find webpages on a given topic.

Suppose I just found some interesting Legend of Zelda alt art and want to link it on Delicious. Which tag do I use? legendofzelda is popular, but so is zelda. If I want everyone to see my link, I had better use both! Maybe this is good enough, but since there will still be people browsing through the other tags listed above, should I use all of them? How do I know I've even found them all? What if someone starts using the tag zeldaseries next week?

Hey, maybe someone should clean up this mess by designating an official tag for the Legend of Zelda video game series. Or we call this the authorized tag. Here is a great three-part plan:
  1. Decide on authorized tags for every distinct topic on Delicious.
  2. Make sure that all current and future Delicious links use the authorized tags.
  3. Enjoy finding all links related to a topic under one tag (and nothing unrelated)!
In Library Science lingo, steps one and two are called authority work: the behind-the-scenes work that needs to be done to have neatly organized access points to resources. Access points can be titles, names, or topics.
  • The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker (Video Game)  -- a title
  • Miyamoto, Shigeru, 1952-  -- a name
  • Sailing  -- a topic
or a little older:
  • Dracula (Novel)  -- a title
  • Stoker, Bram, 1847-1912  -- a name
  • Vampires  -- a topic
A close synonym to authority work is authority control. I prefer to think of authority control as the goal of authority work. In other words, we do authority work to achieve a state of authority control (as in step three above). But it's more common to combine the concepts:
"Authority control is the process of bringing together all of the forms of name that apply to a single name; all the variant titles that apply to a single work; and relating all the synonyms, related terms, broader terms, and narrower terms that apply to a single subject heading." — Arlene Taylor, The Organization of Information (3rd edition), p. 44
It's not the most intuitive terminology. "Access point control" or "name deduplication" or "not having a pile of inconsistent labels" would all be better.

A Professionals Only Club?

Delicious is not likely to change its tagging system. Authority control has great benefits, but it takes a lot of extra time and effort. Delicious is fantastic for what it offers: quick-and-easy bookmark tagging and decent (if flawed) bookmark discovery.

Does this mean authority control is only in reach for professional librarians? Nope! I can think of a major Web 2.0 site that lets users participate in a kind of authority work: Wikipedia.
Quick! What are these called:

...pommes, chips, French fries? ...pommes frites, slap chips, Belgian fries?

Imagine separate Wikipedia articles for these variations and many more. Not desirable, to say the least. Wikipedia handles this situation by letting users decide on a single article title (e.g. French Fries) and creating redirects for alternate titles.

Why does this work for Wikipedia but not for Delicious? Primarily because of the number of volunteer editors willing to do this kind of behind-the-scenes work for articles. Trying to keep Delicious links organized would be much more maddening with much less payoff.

Controlled Vocabulary Resources

Not every library or website needs to come up with its own authorized titles, names, or subjects. Here are some (more or less) publicly available lists that can at least serve as a starting point:

Library of Congress Subject Headings. A very broad and inclusive set of subject terms. Academic libraries tend to re-use these for their collections. Example: Ships. Smaller libraries often use the Sears List of Subject Headings instead.

Library of Congress Name Authority File. Example: Rice, Anne, 1941-. Also see Getty's Union List of Artist Names. Example: Mondrian, Piet (Dutch painter, 1872-1944).

Library of Congress' Thesaurus for Graphic Materials. Check the three "Browse By" links on the left. Example: Nitrate negatives. Getty's Art & Architecture Thesaurus. Example: Googie.

Individuals might prefer to use vocabularies like these rather than come up with their own blog tags, image tags, or music tags. You can look beyond the library and archives scene too. If I had a music review blog, I would probably use AllMusic's genre name hierarchy. Example: Americana. Right now this doesn't do a lot of good on one blog, but the growth of Semantic Web technologies may mean better use of authorized vocabulary on the public web in the future. Or the SEO leeches might just mess that up too. Either way, you can always visit your library and take advantage of the authority control someone worked so hard to set up there!

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