ACAT Looking for a very short definition of authority control to give to a non-librarian

Posting to Autocat

On 11/21/2014 4:46 PM, Marc Truitt wrote:

On 2014-11-21 1106, Kay,Tina L (CONTR) – NHT-1 wrote:
I am struggling to figure out how to explain authority control in one (long?) sentence to someone who does not work in a library.  Unfortunately, my mind isn’t wrapping around this very complex activity in a way to describe it succinctly.
Any help would be appreciated!

How’s this?:
“Library authority control enables variants of names and titles to be linked to an *authorized* form, so that, for example, a reader can, without any advance knowledge, find the works of Samuel Langhorne Clemens, Quintus Curtius Snodgrass, and Thomas Jefferson Snodgrass all entered under the name of Mark Twain.”

This isn’t a good example because in the case of Mark Twain, you do have to search under all of those different names because of the post-AACR1 rules of “bibliographic identities” and the fact that Twain is considered to be a 20th-century author.

That aside, when there were card catalogs, it was much easier to explain it than today. And it made kind of an impact.

All you had to do was show them the card catalog with dozens or hundreds or thousands of drawers, each containing hundreds of cards, and let the huge numbers sink into their heads for a few seconds. Then show them one, single card for something by, e.g. Peter Tchaikovsky and ask them, “Where should I put this one card among all of these other cards so that people can find it? Under T? Or C? or Ch? Materials by him come out with all of these different forms of his name and many more besides. Should I just file this card under the form found on my item? And then do the same with each form on each other item? That would make me happy because it would make my work a lot easier; but that would also make it a lot harder for you because you would have to find out all those different forms. You’d have to do research to find the different forms of his name, and then you would have to run all around this catalog–just to find what we have by Peter Tchaikovsky! Either that or you could just start browsing the cards, one-by-one. Authority control puts the majority of that work on me so that you have that much less work to do.”

Of course, this assumes that the cross-references work in the catalog, and they don’t. (As I have pointed out several times, just because they appear in an alphabetical listing when someone does a left-anchored text browse, definitely does not mean they work)

Today with our “virtual catalogs,” authority control is just as important but far more abstract. I think relatively few non-catalog librarians really understand it today. Unfortunately, I think it is one of those concepts that is much easier to demonstrate than to explain.