What’s in a Name: Processing the Daily Worker Biographical Series
It’s been a few months since my last update on the processing of the Daily Worker and Daily World Photographs Collection. Since I last posted, we’ve made great progress, completing the processing the Biographical Series. We’ve also already made a significant (archivally sound) dent in the Subject Series. While they’re still relatively fresh in my mind, I wanted to note a few of the interesting challenges we ran into while working on the Biographical files.
The major challenge that faced me at the outset of processing the Biographical files was determining the appropriate level of description. What form of a person’s name should I use? Should I write it in inverted or natural order? Should I include other information, and if so, how should I structure it? Thankfully, I was able to speak to a number of other archivists working on similar projects to see what I could learn from their experiences. I’m especially grateful to Tanya Hollis and Wendy Welker of the California Ephemera Project, who provided me with excellent input on folder titles, as well as some of their documentation and workflow procedures (their blog is a great resource as well). The result of these conversations was that I decided that the folder titles would effectively act as access points, saving me the time of creating an authority record in the Archivists’ Toolkit for each person in the collection (roughly 19,000). In other words, the form of the names recorded as folder titles would match the form recorded in the Library of Congress’ Name Authority File (LCNAF). While I expected that this would cause some problems, my sense was and is that any difficulties caused by this approach are outweighed by a consistent and transparent naming approach which not only allows researchers to find the folder they’re looking for, but also offers the possibility of linking in to the larger world of bibliographic data outside of the collection’s finding aid.
The first problem I ran into was that LCNAF only attempts to record authorized forms of names for existing works in the bibliographic universe. As a result, people who haven’t written published works, or aren’t famous enough to have had anything published about them, are not represented. This includes some pretty surprising categories of people, including many athletes, members of the clergy, businesspeople and labor organizers. Not to mention, of course, the many “average” people represented in this collection, whose stories are no less interesting or significant than those of the more well-known figures.
The second major problem I ran into with this approach was that, although the forms of names recorded in LCNAF are supposed to resemble the ones that researchers would intuitively search for, I often found that they were far from obvious. For example, the authorized form of chess wizard Gary Kasparov’s name is “Kasparov, G. K. (Garri Kimovich)”. The 14th Dalai Lama has the ungainly authorized form of name “Bstan-dzin-rgya-mtsho, Dalai Lama XIV, 1935-”.
A related issue was the question of trying to provide a method of disambiguation that was both consistent and intuitive, for instance how to distinguish Paul Simon the musician from Paul Simon the congressman. LCNAF tends to disambiguate by adding detail to a name; a middle initial, birth and death dates. Wikipedia takes a different (and arguably more sensible) approach, adding the activity or role for which the person is most well-known in parentheses. In the end, when I needed to distinguish between two very similar or identical names, I opted for the Wikipedia model, assuming that most researchers are more likely to know the occupation of the person they are looking for than the authorized form of name that appears in LCNAF.
I’d love to hear from anyone who has dealt with similar issues, or has ideas on alternative ways to approach this kind of a project. Add a comment below, or drop me a line directly at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’ll be writing more as the processing of the Subject Series continues, so stay tuned!