The author’s authority

The uses of personal data

One morning, a woman pops in to her local store to buy a packet of cigarettes. However, the female shop assistant has vanished. An unfamiliar man is behind the counter, who tells her that her account has been frozen.

She watches in shock as the man tries her account number again and again. She calls her credit company, but cannot get through.

In Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, an authoritarian government uses personal information to freeze the bank accounts of all women. Halfway through 2017, Atwood’s dystopia seems just a digital footstep away.

Wherever we go, we leave detailed electronic footprints. As Brewster and Hine point out in Legibility, privacy, and creativity: Linked data in a surveillance society (pdf, 185KB), our words and movements are collected by websites, internet service providers, and governments. Even libraries record personal details, ranging from a user’s borrowing history to an author's date of birth, occupation, gender, and contact details.

(Authority) information wants to be free!

Such information may be republished and merged with other data, creating possibilities that are both fascinating and potentially frightening. Libraries and related organisations are seeing what they can do with linked open data, structured ways of releasing and sharing information in a free, open, and standard way.

In theory, this should be a wonderful thing, underpinning diversity, equity democracy. Libraries have traditionally supported freedom of information. Here at the National Library, our team is pretty enthusiastic about sharing information relating to works and their creators.

Public service librarians raising their hands to vote to go on strike.Public service librarians vote to go on strike, 1980. Ref: PAColl-4920-3-5-01.

This sharing includes creating what we call ‘authority records’, a weighty name for something quite simple. These are clusters of personal data that identify creators uniquely (even if they use multiple names), and help library users find them.

We locate authors, musicians, and artists in time and space through aspects such as birth and death date, occupation, place, corporate or iwi affiliation, and languages spoken.

Authority record for Ariana Tikao.Research Librarian Māori Ariana Tikao's authority record. Hey, why not check out her exhibition, Wāhine?

These authority records are also shared internationally. Projects like VIAF (the Virtual International Authority File) connect our data to other national libraries.

Sharing our authority data offers exciting possibilities. One day soon, a user in China will be able choose to view the Mandarin translation of New Zealand author Rewi Alley’s name, while in Aotearoa another might prefer the English version. Both will be able to see the same information.

Rewi Alley standing beside a book shelf, reading.Rewi Alley at Beijing, China, 1954. Ref: PA1-f-148-249-3.

Similarly, a researcher fluent in te reo Māori could search either for Te Rangi Hīroa, or Sir Peter Buck, and get the right result. We could list creators with a particular iwi affiliation, or all the books by National Library staff members. New Zealand authors and artists will be more visible.

Adding standard identifiers to authority records lets us seamlessly connect books, manuscripts, reviews, and museum collections. Researchers will be able to flick from Janet Frame’s novel Intensive care to the original manuscript – and further to Frame’s friend Frank Sargeson and biographer Michael King.

How we acquire personal information

Libraries have a proud history of safeguarding the privacy of library users. More recently, libraries have begun reflecting on how they can best protect the personal details of creators.

At the National Library we acquire the personal information we use in our authority records in two main ways.

First, we send email requests for personal information to creators. When requesting personal information we follow the Information Privacy Principles from the Privacy Act 1993, advising individuals about how they information they supply will be used and where our authority records go. We also advise people that they do not have to provide personal information, and also that they have the right to see and correct any personal information we may hold.

Secondly, we look for personal information which is already publicly available, for example in books written by the creator, websites, electoral roles, etc.

Visibility can mean vulnerability

Once created, our authority records are shared internationally, and are integrated into the mass of online data available for others to use.

Shows a suited man with a long nose, labelled 'Prohibition Crank'. He is opening the door of a home wherein are 'your private affairs'. In his pocket he has a document entitled 'Prohibition reinforcement', and has with him a listening-in set 'extra sensitive'.John Henry Gilmour, "Your private affairs", 1925. Ref: Eph-F-ALCOHOL-Continuance-1925-01-024-3.

This responsibility for working with and making personal information available means that we’re thinking more about privacy at National Library. When we contact a creator or publisher, we explain how their personal details may be used. We suggest a range of possibilities to distinguish authors with the same name.

Personal information can be very sensitive. How do we describe gender, in all its fluidity and diversity? Right now, we note a creator’s gender if this is stated in the item catalogue, or disclosed through an email exchange.

Arguably, recording such information respectfully could make marginalised communities more visible. But are we making individuals vulnerable?

Librarians Amber Billey, Emily Drabinski and K.R. Roberto feel that ‘the trouble caused by encoding gender outweighs any retrieval or disambiguation function’. They point out that ‘by blithely noting an author’s gender transition via authority record, cataloguers remove that person’s agency to choose when and if to be out about their transgender and/or gender-nonconforming status.”

Should we record gender at all? We’re still unsure. Check out Billey et al.’s paper for a thoughtful exploration.

Striking a thoughtful balance

These are significant questions, and it’s important to keep talking. As cataloguers, we try to work in ways that are respectful and empowering. Our authority records need to negotiate the tension between offering information freely, and protecting the privacy of individuals. We are working to develop policies and guidelines, to share online with other libraries.

The television series based on A Handmaid’s Tale finally showed up on New Zealand screens in June. The Commanders of Gilead may not look like your local librarians, and fortunately there are many differences. But shared data is double-edged.

If managed sensitively, sharing information helps promote liberty and oppose censorship. It can be a tool to avert a more authoritarian world. This is a debate that authors and library users need to be part of, and we’d love to hear your opinion.

By Catherine Amey

Catherine is a cataloguer and Authority Record Coordinator who is surprised and delighted that her job involves looking through everything from children's books to early printed books.

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