The Virtual International Authority File (VIAF) is one of the distinguished showcases of international library community projects. Since more then five years, name authority files from different countries are mapped in VIAF. With VIAF you can look up records about authors and other people, and see which identifiers are used for the same person in different national library catalogs. For some people there are also links to bibliographic articles in Wikipedia (I think only English Wikipedia, but you can get some mappings to other Wikipedias via MediaWiki API), and I hope that there will be links to LibraryThing author pages, too.
However, for two reasons VIAF is not used as much as it could be: first not enough easy-to-understand documentation, examples, and simple APIs; and second difficulties to adopt technologies by potential users. Unfortunately the second reason is the larger barrier: many libraries cannot even provide a simple way to directly link to publications from and/or about a specific person, once you got the right person identifier from VIAF. If you cannot even provide such a fundamental method to link to your database, how should you be able to integrate VIAF for better retrieval? VIAF can do little about this lack of technical skills in libraries, it can only help integrating VIAF services in library software to some degree. This brings me to the other reason: you can always further improve documentation, examples, the design of you APIs, etc. to simplify use of your services. As a developer I found VIAF well documented and not very difficult to use, but there are many small things that could be made better. This is natural and a good thing, if you communicate with your users and adopt suggested changes, as VIAF does.
For instance yesterday Jeffrey A. Young, one of the developers behind VIAF at OCLC published a blog article about proposed changes to the RDF encoding of VIAF. I hope that other people will join the discussion so we can make VIAF more usable. There is also a discussion about the changes at the library linked data mailing list. And earlier this month, at the Code4Lib mailing list, there was a a controversial thread about the problems to map authority records that are not about people (see my statement here).
I appreciate the simplification of VIAF RDF and only disagree in some details. The current proposal is illustrated in this picture (copied from Jeffrey’s original article):
This looks straightforward, doesn’t it? But it only suits for simple one-to-one mappings. Any attempt to put more complex mappings into this scheme (as well as the existing VIAF RDF scheme) will result in a disaster. There is nothing wrong with simple one-to-one mappings, with SKOS you can even express different kinds of mappings (broader, narrower, exact, close), but you should not expect too much preciseness and detail. I wonder why at one side of the diagram links are expressed via foaf:focus and at the other side via owl:sameAs. In my opinion, as VIAF is about mapping authority files, all mapping links should use SKOS mapping properties. There is nothing wrong in declaring an URI like http://viaf.org/viaf/39377930/ to stand for both a foaf:Person, a rdaEnt:Person, and a skos:Concept. And the Webpage that gives you information about the person can also get the same URI (see this article for a good defense of the HTTP-303 mess). Sure Semantic Web purists, which still dream of hard artificial intelligence, will disagree. But in the end RDF data is alway about something instead of the thing itself. For practical use it would help much more to think about how to map complex concepts at the level of concept schemes (authority records, classifications, thesauri etc.) instead of trying to find a “right” model reality. As soon as we use language (and data is a specific kind of language), all we have is concepts. In terms of RDF: using owl:Thing instead of skos:Concept in most cases is an illusion of control.
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