Last week at a concert, The Sidekicks performed with Ted Leo and the Pharmacists, and So Long Albatross.
The Sidekicks are an Ohio band that I hadn’t heard before so I looked them up on iTunes but their name pulled up other albums by different bands with the same name.
Not all of these are the albums of The Sidekicks that I saw perform. In libraries and their online catalogs, this problem comes up with regularity and has been solved by creating an authority file that allows for authority control of names, subjects, and series. This is a fancy way of saying that there is a single list of unique names, for example, in order to ensure that the correct person gets adds to the correct work; while this is the goal, it’s not always the case in the authority file since there are still undifferentiated records, meaning that the names haven’t been researched and sorted out into separate, distinct records. That is the case with The Sidekicks in iTunes–the album artists are undifferentiated. However, the biography tab is for the Ohio band:
And yet, the genre is listed as country. The band I heard is certainly rock and punk, not full-blown country. After over a decade of dealing with music, iTunes should have its act together. They clearly need a cataloger…or, ahem, a metadata specialist/manager. The bio itself describes the band as punk. Seriously, iTunes doesn’t have a script that checks genre against bios against albums and flags possible differences?
A new way to describe authority files and control is to talk about author id. It is the same idea but instead of relying on particular languages and name translations, the unique identifier is a number and all of the person’s various forms of their name and any known personal information is listed in the record attached to the number. There are several attempts to create a consistent, reliable source that bridges internationally (VIAF) or for researchers use (ORCHID).
This got me thinking, what about other music websites? Do others do a good job separating The Sidekicks or not? How does Amazon.com do? Well, not so hot it turns out:
Also on Amazon, clicking the artist name doesn’t pull up all of their albums together since at least one is listed as Sidekicks instead of The Sidekicks. Clearly they too need to reconcile their metadata. Streaming music websites vary on how they handle the band. With LastFM, The Sidekicks from Ohio are front and center but there is a length note talking about similarly named bands:
Although, maybe not after all because the albums for The Sidekicks also have the country and bluegrass tribute ones listed:
Pandora only has the country band called The Sidekicks:
Guess I won’t be listening to the Ohio The Sidekicks on Pandora. One last streaming option…how about Spotify?
Spotify also has undifferentiated artists, grouping the different The Sidekicks albums together. Again, though, the bio only describes the Ohio band:
Interestingly, this bio on Spotify is the same as the one in iTunes and mentions exactly when they released which albums. Why is that important? It’s the type of information that librarians, catalogers actually, seek out when forming an authority record for a name. Based on this, we can rule out that this band did not play the bluegrass, country, tribute albums. Since the bio doesn’t mention recent works, we would look for other sources of reliable information about the band, such as their website or a professional music/album review, and cite it in the authority record for them. Also, we could then create a record for the country band in the authority file as well to show the distinction. Many libraries these days are unable to do their own in-house authority control for one reason or another but it remains a crucial part of cataloging and metadata because in the end it helps the user find exactly what they are looking for and distinguish that there are people or places, etc., with similar names.
Let’s take a quick look at two different John Smith records in the LC authority file to show how catalogers do authority control:
This is just the top portion of the search results but already we see that there were many John Smiths around the same time period. Each record includes enough information so that anyone looking at it can tell the various people apart. Usually that may include a middle initial or name, a birth year, and sometimes a death year. There can also be additional information tacked on at the end of the authorized heading (the names that we see listed), such as occupation or certification, etc.
Besides the birth and death years, catalogers put in 670 notes to provide evidence for the dates included in the name. The second record even says where the information is from and the date that the cataloger added it to this authority record: “Oxford DNB online, 3 July 2007”. Another common way to obtain information is to reach out to the author, if living, or call the publisher, which is then also noted in 670. Links to websites can also be provided.
Metadata for authority control is crucial, especially on the Internet, in keeping people, places, works unique. Catalogers and librarians already have the skills and training needed to untangle and organize these issues. As linked data becomes a reality and libraries begin incorporating our catalog data into the Internet and search engines, we must hold on to these standards and carry them forward into the web. Programmers behind software, apps, and websites also need to realize that we have this valuable knowledge and know how to do what should be done, like having unique artist ids for musicians and conducting authority control frequently. Maybe this path can create more librarian jobs for the future, using our degrees in a wider capacity and context beyond the library and its catalog.