The topic of unique identifiers for authors is getting more and more attention on the Web. Martin Fenner listed some research papers about it and did a quick poll – you can see the results in a short presentation [via infobib]. What striked me about the results is how unknown existing traditional identifier systems for authors are: Libraries manage so called “authority files” since years. The German Wikipedia has a cooperation with the German National Library to link biliographic Wikipedia articles [de] with the German name authority file since 2005 and there is a similar project in the Czech Wikipedia.
Maybe name authority files of libraries are so unknown because they have not been visible on the Web – but this changes. An important project to combine authority files is the Virtual International Authority File (VIAF). At the moment it already contains mappings between name authority files of six national libraries (USA, Germany, France, Sweden, Czech Republic, and Israel) and more are going to be added. At an ELAG 2008 Workshop in Bratislava I talked with VIAF project manager Thomas Hickey (OCLC) about also getting VIAF and its participating authority files into the Semantic Web. He just wrote about recent changes in VIAF: by now it almost contains 8 million records!
So why are people thinking about creating other systems of unique identifiers for authors if there already is an infrastructure? The survey that Martin did showed, that a centralized registry is wished. VIAF is an aggregator of distributed authority files which are managed by national libraries. This architecture has several advantages, for instance it is non-commercial and data is managed where it can be managed best (Czech librarians can better identify Czech authors, Israeli librarians can better identify authors from Israel, and so on). One drawback is that libraries are technically slow – many of them have not really switched to the Web and the digital age. For instance up to now there are no official URIs for Czech and Israeli authority records and VIAF is not connected yet to Linked Open Data. But the more people reuse library data instead of reinventing wheels, the faster and easier it gets.
For demonstration purpose I created a SeeAlso-wrapper for VIAF that extracts RDF triples of the mappings. At http://ws.gbv.de/seealso/viafmappings you can try out by submitting authority record URIs or the authority record codes used at VIAF. For instance a query for LC|n 79003362 in Notation3 to get a mapping for Goethe. Some returned URIs are also cool URLs, for instance at the DNB or the VIAF URI itself. At the moment owl:sameAs is used to specify the mappings, maybe the SKOS vocabulary provides better properties. You can argue a lot about how to encode information about authors, but the unique identifiers – that you can link to – already exist!
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