How authority files can make archive catalogues more like IMDB

The replacement of paper catalogues like Giles’ with digital databases has allowed archivists to cram ever more information into them, and made them more flexible for researchers to use. The digital elements I’m working on up until Christmas are called “authority files”.

When we catalogue a record, one of the things we record is its creator. This is because much of the value of archives comes from knowing about the context in which they were made: why, how, when, and by who etc. So, a catalogue entry might say Creator: City Treasury.

That’s all well and good but what exactly is the City Treasury? When did it operate? What did it do and why? Is it still around? Traditionally, a researcher would have to go away and look it up in other sources, or the cataloguer might have written an introduction to help you out.

But with databases we can be a bit more cunning. We create an “authority file” for each creator (which may be a person or family but for us will be mainly corporate bodies) with relevant information and then every time we catalogue a relevant record we link it back to that one place. It’s like an actor record on IMDB, that you can click to from the IMDB entry for a film they were in.

This is really efficient because I only have to research and describe the City Treasury once, then every record that has something to do with the Treasury will link back to it. This is important as I reckon I’ve got about 170 to create!

To complement our cataloguing standard for records, we have one for authority files called ISAAR (CPF) [PDF]. This specifies a list of fields (metadata) to pick from. They include the name, dates of operation, location, and more technical things like any legal documents that founded or altered the authority.

As well as linking authority files to records, you can link them up with each other to show relationships. For example, here are three phases in the life of one of the CYC committees:

Public assistance committee (1929-1948)–>

Welfare Committee (1948-1970) –>

Social Services Committee (1971-1974)

I know this because I’ve looked it up, but what about a researcher using the catalogue for the first time? A search for “Welfare Committee” will only return records from 1948-1970, which is frustrating if you are looking for older or newer records that you know should exist. If there are authority files attached to the records, then there will be an explanation of the changes over time and links to click to find the other versions.

Authority files serve three purposes:

  1. They provide an additional browseable pathway for discovering and exploring a collection. 
  2. They consolidate information in one central place. The cataloguer only needs to research and describe once and users  can see the information at a glance, or click, from any relevant record. 
  3. They show the complex relationships between records creators, and how they change over time. In this collection (which contains the records of an unusually large number of both public and private authorities) they can show precisely when and how responsibility for various functions shifts into the council, and out again and back in again over hundreds of years.

For example, the Yorkshire Museum was run by the York Philosophical Society during the 1830s-1960s,  then by the Council 1960s-2000s and then transferred to the York Museums Trust 2000s-the present. One function but with three very separate authorities creating records.

Authority files are sometimes seen as luxury extras by archivists but for this project they are absolutely essential. The whole point of a traditional organisational structure is that it arranges records under their respective creators, but I just don’t think it can adequately handle complexity over time.  Authority files give me a separate (and better) way of expressing the concrete facts and relationships of the record creators, freeing me up to take a different tack with my structure.

By using authority files you can even move away from hierarchical catalogues altogether if you want to, which is the norm in Australia (arguably the world leaders in archives and records theory).

We are a bit more attached to our traditional ways in the UK but in this project we’re deliberately taking elements from various international approaches and using them as building blocks to create what we think is the best solution in our circumstances. Realising that there isn’t one right way of doing it, but a tool box of options, has been incredibly liberating and fingers crossed will result in a catalogue we can be proud of and build on in the future.

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