We are all unique, but for most of us, our names are not. The same is true for authors, actors, and even major or minor historical figures who share the same or similar names. So how do libraries, archives and museums collocate the right name to the right item or collection? The answer is authority control, a library science term that simply means creating and using a single, distinct spelling of a name or a unique numeric identifier for each name or topic.
The Library of Congress Authorities provides an authoritative list of names, events, geographic locations and organizations and is used by most institutions as the international standard. The individual record for a person, place, or organization is called the Library of Congress Name Authority File (LCNAF). If you are part of the galleries, libraries, archives, and museums (GLAM) community, you are likely already familiar with LCNAF, but if not, you’ve probably benefited from it, even if you didn’t realize it! If you’ve ever looked up a book by author name in your local library catalog, the name was standardized using the LCNAF.
The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) is a repository for federal records; therefore, most of our creators are federal agencies rather than individuals. However, we do create person name authorities for select people who are referenced in, or contributed to, records in our collection. We also have donated collections of personal papers in our presidential libraries and create person authority files for donors.
So what is a person name authority, and how does it work? A Name Authority File (NAF) establishes a standardized spelling and form of the name. At the National Archives, we typically select the fullest form of the name including the first name, middle name, and last name to link to related records. Whenever possible, life dates–date of birth and date of death (if applicable)–are included to disambiguate from another person with the same name. Other names associated with the person–nicknames, maiden names, alternative spellings– are included in the authority file as variant names. Including the variant names in the NAF ensures researchers that these names also reference the same individual.
As an example, John Fitzgerald Kennedy is referenced using several forms of his name and title including President Kennedy, John F. Kennedy, Jack Kennedy and J.F.K. It would be confusing if every reference to President Kennedy in the National Archives Catalog was under a different version of his name, so we’ve selected “Kennedy, John F. (John Fitzgerald)” as the preferred name, but included multiple variants, even foreign spellings of the name such as “Kenedi, Dzhon.”
However, most of the people for whom we create name files are not universally known and may not have a LCNAF or an entry in Wikipedia. Creating the personal name files for the less well known requires a deeper dive into the available resources. For former government officials and executives, historical copies of the Congressional Directories can be used to verify both preferred name and government service. Similarly, old agency websites, sometimes containing helpful organizational charts, can be viewed through the Internet Archives Wayback Machine. To establish birth or death dates, we use resources familiar to genealogists, primarily Ancestry.com and Findagrave.com, as well as analog resources like the wide variety of “Who was Who” and other biographical reference books.
Birth and death dates provide critical information because names, even seemingly unique names, can be passed down through the generations. One of our authorities, Aaron Vail, shared not only a name with his father, but both also served as American diplomats abroad. The senior Aaron Vail (1758-1813) served as a U.S. consul in Lorient, France while the younger Aaron Vail (1796-1878) held several positions in the Department of State including chief clerk and served abroad as chargé d’affaires in England and Spain. Life dates were critical in ensuring that the correct Aaron Vail was related to the appropriate records in the National Archives Catalog.
Although most of the records in the National Archives do not have associated person names, more name authorities are being added every day. You can also search for authorities using the advanced search option in the National Archives Catalog. We are constantly exploring new ways to streamline our authority work and create authorities that will enrich our Catalog and complement our record descriptions.