Monday, August 6, 2012

From SNAC to NAAC, or Toward a National Archival Authorities Infrastructure

It’s not often that one sits in a room and feels that history is being made.  But back in May I had the tingly history-is-happening-here feeling.

David Ferriero, Archivist of the United States,
introduces Daniel Pitti, seated, and launches the
National Archival Authorities Cooperative meeting.
May 21, 2012.

The occasion was a meeting at the National Archive organized by archivist Daniel Pitti and his collaborators on the SNAC project. Its purpose: to establish the critical mass to develop a National Archival Authorities Cooperative (NAAC) – a professional group to develop and maintain what librarians and archivists call “controlled vocabularies.” NAAC aims to develop an archival authorities infrastructure, or authoritative records, for archives in the United States and abroad.

On the face of it, this may not seem like a history-makin’ moment.  In fact, for most people, it might elicit a long, refreshing yawn.  But stay with me here a moment.

Controlled vocabularies are the standard names that have long allowed researchers to look up someone or something in a card catalog and have a reasonably good chance of finding relevant materials. They also serve to provide the historical context, for example, information such as a birth date that allows for disambiguation. With authoritative records, you can be sure that the John Muir you’re looking up was the grandfather of the American environmental movement, rather than the fellow who published a Volkswagen repair manual (to use an example provided by SNAC collaborator Ray Larson in his talk). 

Ray Larson, University of California Berkeley,
describes the role of archival authorities in
disambiguating names.

So what would happen if there were uniform names for the folks in all the archival records in the United States?  You’d be able to see how everyone (or at least everyone who’s recorded in an archival record) is connected to everyone else. Many projects, from SNAC to The Crowded Page, to Linked Jazz, and Yaddo Circles are all working toward creating the maps (and underlying data structures) that will help us visualize the intricate links in various communities. Then – to paraphrase John Muir (the environmentalist, not the Volkswagen repair guru) – when we pick out one person by themselves we'll find them hitched to everyone else in the universe.