background image
Authority control "presents a host of issues, all of which become more pronounced as
individual resources (...) are made available through `gateways' and `portals' (...).These
discrete resources use different terms to describe similar concepts (`author',`creator' and
`composer'), or even use identical terms to mean very different things, introducing con-
fusion and error in their use." (Miller, 2000) The solution to this problem is the attempt to
describe digital cultural resources in common and agreed-upon terms to enable successful
searches in remote databases, i.e. authority control.
"It is safe to say that no other type of descriptive standard is currently receiving more
attention nor undergoing greater change than are the various controlled vocabularies
embedded in thesauri and other kinds of authority lists." (Society of American Archivists,
This demand for authority files, i.e. internationally agreed-upon files on geographic
places, names, corporate bodies, etc., thesauri and most importantly, multilingual authority
controls has not yet decreased, as experts participating in the DigiCULT study confirmed.
The development of authority controls is a highly specialised area that demands, first and
foremost, a consensus building process between the institutions in a particular field. It
involves work within specific groups by clustering like-minded institutions that might share
certain vocabularies and domain ontologies. Peer discussion and peer reviews are important
steps in this process to also develop a sense of common ownership and increase acceptance
of emerging standards within the community.
The controlled vocabularies in use today target the highly specialised and knowledgeable
academic community, with the effect, that if offered online indexes are rarely used. As
Sandy Buchanan, Resource Manager at SCRAN, UK, knows from experience:"80% of our
users use text searches, and only 20% make use of structured searches such as indexes.What
we need are tools that are comfortable for people. It is not about adapting the users to the
Internet, but the other way around." (DigiCULT ERT, Amsterdam, September 25-26, 2001)
As the audience base is broadening with offering cultural heritage resources online,
archives, libraries and museums are under pressure to also offer terms and vocabularies these
new audiences would expect to see. For example, if the users were teachers, cultural
institutions would need to offer curriculum-related search vocabularies.To Sarah Flynn,
Access to Archives-Project, Public Records Office, UK, the key is knowing ones audience:
"We have to learn more about the users, because professionals care about things users do
not use.Therefore, we need technologies that would allow users to bring in their interests
and work on them." (DigiCULT ERT, Amsterdam, September 25-26, 2001)
This demands a highly user-centred, bottom-up approach to the task of building special
vocabularies. As Michael Lesk, Division Director, National Science Foundation, USA, took
it:"Agreement will come by people `voting with their feet' [or computer mice?] rather than
by elaborate committee meetings." (DigiCULT Delphi, July 16, 2001)
Today, cross-sectoral work on authority controls is still in its infancy and extremely
difficult as organisations even within one sector have different interests.Yet, any future
work in this area needs to take users into account.