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Magazines > ONLINE > January/February 2009
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Online Magazine

Vol. 33 No. 1 — Jan/Feb 2009

Question Authority
By Marydee Ojala
Editor • ONLINE

In today’s online world, replete with social networks, virtual world avatars, and digitization of almost everything, it’s getting harder to sort out who is really who (or whom). Lilly Tomlin’s character Ernestine, the telephone operator on the 1960s comedy show Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In, today might sit in front of computer screen and ask, “Is this the party for whom I searching?”

It’s a challenge to ascertain whether the John Doe you found is the John Doe you think it is. Not to mention the JohnD, JDoe, JD, JohnnyDear, and DeerinHeadlights that also might be the person you want. An academic might publish as John Dear Doe but be known to his friends as Johnny and on Twitter as DeerinHeadlights. Plus, bibliographic databases, particularly those legacy files dating from when storage was pricey and limited, tend to use Doe JD in the author field. That could be John, Julia, or Jian. What if Jian is a transliteration that appears as Xian somewhere else, making a search for Doe JD miss Doe XD? These are issues with which librarians have long grappled. Their answer: authority files.

How to search for a person’s name was a recurrent question during WebSearch University last September. One attendee was concerned about transliteration from Cyrillic alphabets. Yeltsin? Jeltsin? Another was worried about the spelling of Chinese names, particularly when an English first name is added. From the audience came the persistent comment: authority files.

If the person in question is an author, the librarians’ knee-jerk reaction of “authority files” is, perhaps, correct. But there are multiple authority files. The Library of Congress has one ( It disambiguates one author in this issue: Hong (Iris) Xie, co-author of the article on Help features, is cross-referenced from Xie, Hong to Xie, Iris in LC’s Authority file. Scopus (Author ID) and Thomson Scientific (ResearcherID) have been building name authority files, but these are for published authors. The idea of a Digital Author Identifier (DAI) is also in the works. Again, it’s for published authors.

Authority files miss nonauthors. I want to know about the John Doe who didn’t publish, the John Dear (or is it Deere?) Doe who wants to sell me something, is dating my daughter, or was in a news story. No authority file contains this John Doe.

The 2.0 emphasis on user-generated content contributes to the dilution of authority files. Tagging is idiosyncratic. A Flickr photo of John Doe could be tagged Johannes. A blog post about him could be tagged The DoeDoe. Reverse that: What if the photo tagged John Dear Doe isn’t John but someone completely different? It’s Sammy Stag. Who to believe?

Renrou search, as described by Jingfeng Xia, brings a frightening new twist to people searching. If the vigilantes are after someone with your name, what’s to keep amateur searchers from confusing you with the “bad guy”? Yeah, you, Deer in Headlights. When the “wisdom of crowds” becomes a witch hunt, stylized authority files don’t help.

Bottom line: Question authority (files).

Marydee Ojala is the editor of ONLINE. Comments? E-mail letters to the editor to

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