Name Authority Records (NAR) and the Potential of Linked Data

by Andrea Belair


This post has been adapted from an article submitted to the Museum Section newsletter.


As a longtime archivist, it’s clear that different areas of librarianship don’t talk to each other enough; as we know, parts of an organization, even within a library, don’t always connect similar ideas. Much of the time it’s because we are using different language or descriptive metadata practices. Of course, this issue goes far beyond the compartmentalization within a library, but it can be interesting how much this is an issue for those working inside of a library space with the same ultimate goal. Linked open data offers many opportunities to address issues that occur from using different descriptive practices within an organization. For example, it’s hard to know if there is something that’s not getting on the radar of those who might not have the digital acumen to notice. A NAR, or name authority record, is one interesting opportunity for structured and linked data mining in order to connect entities in a digital space to those within physical collections and ILL systems that have implemented MARC cataloging.

At present, I am in a unique position in an art library within a museum, and I see so many opportunities for connecting the curatorial spaces with the library books and the archives. My current job is a grant-funded, term position as the Library Project Specialist for Collections Management at the art library of the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute (aka “the Clark”) in Williamstown, Massachusetts. One of the primary duties of my position is to create NARs. This position was developed by Andrea Puccio, the Collections Development Librarian at the Clark’s library. Its purpose is to identify and repair some of the gaps of artists from underrepresented or marginalized communities in the collection, since it has been dominated by classically-trained, Western-centric male artists for most of its existence. For many years, I have worked professionally in archival roles, so it has been interesting to see how that work informs and intersects with other areas of librarianship. All that I need to create a NAR is enough information to distinguish one creator from another. Through NACO, a cooperative program within the Program for Cooperative Cataloging, organizations contribute to the Name Authority File which is held and authorized by the Library of Congress. Participants of NACO create NARs through a submission process. Once entered into the Library of Congress, these authority records become LCSH standards and can be used by catalogers across the globe and accessed via their website. Below is a screenshot of a NAR being created for the artist and quiltmaker Mozell Benson, who, at the time of writing this post, is not yet in the Library of Congress authority file. Building this record starts the process, and Mozell Benson will be assigned a LCSH authority heading once this record is approved. Some of the data you can see represents date of birth, place of birth, and occupation; this gives us enough information to know that the record we are creating is unique, so that it will not be confused with a future entry of the same name.

Once added, this name will be available as an authorized heading for catalogers across the globe, it will be searchable in the Library of Congress authority file, and it will be more compatible for syncing with linked open data. It can be attached to other records that might hold her work, and it will increase visibility for her as an artist, as well as allow proper credit to be assigned to her as an artist and creator.

NARs can be harvested and used for other library catalogs and ILL systems, but they also have huge implications for Wikidata, SNAC, and other linked data projects. From what I understand, a WikiData bot runs and grabs new NARs and adds them to Wikidata. You can find NARs online on the Library of Congress website at the LCSH Authority Search page. (As an aside, the clunky, non-user friendly LCSH website search process represents one of the areas of disconnect between open linked data and the established schema of MARC.) An interesting guide to help explore some ways in which these are being used and connected to linked open data has been made available through Faceted Application of Subject Terminology (FAST) which integrates the LCSH headings with OCLC. With an understanding of the possible opportunities of NARs for use with archival work, I thought it might be helpful for archivists to understand a bit more about them and their potential to intersect with parallel projects through linked data.

At the 2022 ARLIS annual meeting, it was clear that there are several ongoing projects that have been using data to create linked open data, such as this list from the Smithsonian Institution. Additionally, there are many initiatives going on that are engaged in work to map LCSH headings to linked data, and there are lots of discussions going on to try to connect independent projects to one another. Over the course of this year, I hope that I can create many authority records that other institutions will use, thereby increasing visibility and exposure of many of these lesser-known artists so that they might receive proper copyright credit for their creations, as well as benefit from more recognition and visibility for their work.

A challenge for archivists and librarians in general is that we know we need to advocate, but we aren’t always advocating to an audience who understands, or cares, about our interests. We might have great intentions, but they might get overlooked by the interests of others, or they might just be falling short in terms of shared language. Opportunities for connecting data might get siloed, or they may be overlooked by collections that do not have the financial or staffing resources to take this on. I am looking forward to seeing how these descriptive practices become aligned as more and more people become aware of them.


Andrea Belair graduated with an MLIS in 2012 from Rutgers University. She has accessioned many hundreds of feet of materials, worked with rare books, organizational records, photographs, audiovisual materials, and special collections and manuscripts. She is based in western Massachusetts, and she will be seeking a position after her current term-limited role. Please feel free to connect on Linkedin.

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