Scholars' Contributions to VIAF
This activity explores the potential benefits of collaborating with scholars to enrich the Virtual International Authority File (VIAF) with new names and additional script forms for names already represented. The experience and knowledge gained from working with diverse files may inform third parties’ development of authority tools used by scholars.
The Perseus Catalog and the Syriac Reference Portal mark the first collaboration in this area and the first sources for scholarly data added to VIAF. Scholars benefit by receiving VIAF URIs as persistent identifiers for the names they contribute that they can then use in their own databases, linked data applications, scholarly discourse, and name disambiguation in multinational collaborations. VIAF represents a resource for disseminating scholarly research on names beyond scholars’ own communities. Both scholarly societies and libraries benefit because VIAF is enriched by name authority data which would not otherwise be contributed by national libraries.
OCLC has launched this activity by adding the Greek names—with Greek and sometimes Arabic script forms—from the Perseus Catalog and the Syriac names—with Syriac and Arabic script forms, and other language forms—from the Syriac Reference Portal. Additional scholarly communities with databases are invited to contact OCLC to discuss the possibility of also contributing their names to VIAF.
All VIAF contributors to date have been national libraries and other library agencies. Scholars have a stronger affiliation with their discipline than with any one institution. Moreover, some minority languages do not have an agency such as a national library committed to supporting their documentation needs. This activity provides a path for domain experts to contribute their research in the form of authority data to enrich the information already in VIAF. Scholarly projects are often international in scope. Contributing to VIAF makes the data available globally. Since VIAF supports Unicode, scholars can contribute names in scripts that are not represented in the MARC 21 character set that is used in the LC/NACO Authority File.
Many scholarly projects in the digital humanities are already relying on VIAF for authority control and to anchor Linked Open Data. Fihrist, a union catalog of Islamic manuscripts hosted in the United Kingdom, has adopted VIAF URIs as the best method for authority control and to link to other data sets. Similarly, the Digital Classicist Wiki has recognized VIAF by including it as a resource for "Very Clean URIs."
Adding the names and Greek, Arabic Syriac and other script forms from the Perseus Catalog and the Syriac Reference Portal to VIAF will demonstrate the benefits of tapping scholarly expertise to enhance and add to name authorities represented in VIAF. The number of “alternate names” associated with VIAF clusters that include scholars’ contributions will increase, with scripts that are not yet represented. This activity will promote the use of VIAF persistent IDs in scholarly communities.
VIAF can provide part of the cyberinfrastructure for digital humanities, a standard way for linking and querying data, a need identified by The American Council of Learned Societies’ national Commission on Cyberinfrastructure.
Scholarly societies with databases are invited to contact OCLC to discuss the possibility of also contributing their names to VIAF.
The Perseus Catalog aims to provide access to at least one online edition of every major Greek and Latin author from antiquity to 600 CE.
Syriac is a dialect of Aramaic, developed in the kingdom of Mesopotamia in the first century A.D. It flourished in the Persian and Roman Empires, and Syriac texts comprise the third largest surviving corpus of literature from the Roman Empire, after Greek and Latin. The Syriac Reference Portal is a collaborative digital reference project funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation involving partners at Vanderbilt University, Princeton University and other affiliate institutions.
Collaboration with the Syriac Reference Portal revealed a few key issues important to scholars that do not mesh well with the library practices represented in name authority files due to differences in intended audiences, disciplinary norms, and metadata needs:
- Scholars eschew a “preferred name”. Libraries need to bring together all the variant forms of a name under one form, choosing a “predominant form” if a person writes in more one language. This approach meets the discovery needs for a specific national or linguistic community. Scholarship is international, and the “preferred name” in one locale will differ from another. Further, the context is crucial for classifying names. For scholars, a “preferred name” needs to also include by whom and for what purpose it is preferred. Scholars resist declaring a “preferred form” because it could exclude some historical or cultural perspective. Each form may be “authoritative” depending on the time and place it appears.
- Scholars need to know the provenance of each form of name. When a name has multiple forms, scholars—especially historians— need to know the provenance of each name, following the citation practices commonly used in their field. Historical and textual scholarship is built on conventions of evidence and values the process of contesting intellectual claims. Libraries’ name authority files do not provide the structure for citing these sources or providing the required contextual information. Although library practices require “literary warrant” to justify why one form of name was chosen as the authorized heading or access point, they do not document the context for any of the variant forms. There is not even a field to indicate the language of a name’s form. The language of the preferred form can only be deduced by the source of the authority file. Scholars find little value in name information without provenance data, an equivalent of footnotes.
As a result, we encourage scholars to build their own databases where they can describe each personal name with the granularity that meets their requirements. For those who need the additional details, people can follow a link from a VIAF cluster to the name in the scholarly database, much as those who want to read a biography of a VIAF name can click on a Wikipedia link, if present. Thus VIAF can still integrate scholars’ expertise and serve scholarly users without needing to overcome the fundamental differences between library and scholarly practices.
- New names added to VIAF from the scholarly community.
- VIAF clusters enriched with additional script forms of names. For example, the VIAF cluster for Themistius now includes the Greek and Ancient Greek representations contributed by the Perseus Catalog under “Alternate Name Forms”:
See the enriched VIAF cluster for Ephrem with a Syriac-script form added under “preferred forms” and additional Syriac and Arabic-script forms added to “Alternate names” contributed by the Syriac Reference Portal.
- Blog post on hangingtogether: “Irreconcilable differences? Name authority control & humanities scholarship”
- Smith-Yoshimura and Michelson presentation to VIAF Council on 2 May 2013: Scholars’ Contributions to VIAF
Perseus Catalog: Alison Babeu, Digital Librarian, and Anna Krohn, Digital Library Analyst
Syriac: David Michelson, Vanderbilt University, Director of Syriac Reference Portal