One of the things VIAF does is to provide a uniform identifier for entities named in library authority files. Currently, VIAF covers personal, corporate and jurisdictional names, but other names such as those for works, expressions, families, trademarks, and non-jurisdictional geographic names are all within the scope of VIAF.
Of course named entities in libraries overlap with those used other places. This is especially obvious for personal names, where there are many ways to identify people. In fact, OCLC is involved in at least two new ways of identifying people, the International Standard Name Identifier (ISNI) and the Open Researcher & Contributor ID (ORCID) and how VIAF relates to these is a common question. As VIAF has been around for several years and ISNI and ORCID have yet to go public, the relationship is evolving, but I'll try to describe at least how I see it.
But first, why should there be multiple identifier schemes? Couldn't we all just agree on a single one and have everyone use it? Well, no we couldn't. Even within a single organization that can be difficult, and there are many not just organizations, but many communities interested in identifying entities such as people. Using people for the example, here is a quick list of reasons why we can't just all share one identifier scheme:
- Historical reasons: So many groups have their own lists of people that most new naming schemes are made by merging existing lists. Existing policies are already in place that have to be respected but sometimes conflict across communities.
- Different ideas of what we are identifying: Are pseudonyms allowed? How about collective personal authors? Dead people? Deities? Imaginary characters? Are we describing public names or actual people?
- Different information: Information is needed to differentiate the names. Do we have dates (e.g. library authority files) or institutional affiliations (e.g. article authors) or other information? Merging files without consistent common information is fraught with difficulty.
- Who creates the names: Does the system need real-time updating? Can anyone add a name at any time? What about editing, splitting and merging names?
- Different range of entities: Creators or subjects? Current or historical? ORCID and ISNI are much more interested in live authors than historical figures.
- Different priorities and control: Who's in charge? Every system will have more requirements than can be implemented any time soon. Setting priorities for what comes next can be critical in gaining acceptance of a scheme. Even cohesive groups have difficulty setting priorities; across more disparate groups it becomes impossible.
Experience has shown that no single scheme can accommodate the myriad array of requirements that different communities have. VIAF tries to satisfy the global library community. While that is a challenge, at least the participants come with similar expectations and data. Who is supporting a scheme and what they hope to accomplish are important clues as to what a scheme will provide.
ISNI is part of the ISO's international standard identifier program and is run by the ISNI International Agency. It's first supporters are mainly rights organizations with a strong element of library participation through the Conference of European National Librarians. In fact, the entities it plans to identify (especially entities with current rights, such as authors, performers and publishers) overlap quite highly with library authority files. OCLC is currently implementing ISNI and will be adminstering the system. Since OCLC has also implemented VIAF, it is not too surprising that VIAF is working closely with ISNI, although the participation of the French National Library and the British Library in ISNI was just as important in making this happen. ISNI will be using a copy of VIAF, along with other files, as its base file. As ISNIs are assigned to entities that have VIAF IDs, that information will be fed back to VIAF, so there will be links between the two files. Also, as ISNI processing discovers errors in the VIAF file (such as two names that should be merged) ISNI will inform VIAF.
ORCID grew out of Thompson-Reuters' Researcher ID system. It has the support of a number of major publishers, scholarly organizations and universities and is most interested in current authors, especially of scholarly articles and books. A not-for-profit organization (ORCID, Inc.) has been formed to run it. Since many authors of articles do not produce material that libraries control, the overlap with library authority files is limited. Also, partly due to its roots in the Researcher ID system, it is very interested in author-created and claimed IDs, a concept not yet widely accepted by libraries. Although VIAF is interested in ORCID (e.g. I am OCLC's representative on the ORCID Board), it is not yet obvious how the two systems will interact.
In my mind, ORCID and ISNI have quite a bit in common. They are both new organizations organizing large and overlapping parts of the identity problem for publshed information. The two organizations talk, but so far no easy way of working together has been found. Since both are in the midst of implementation of their initial systems (ISNI expected in the fourth quarter of 2011, ORCID some time later), closer cooperation right now is difficult, but I expect that longer term, ways will be found for the two systems to work together. All three systems will get mutual benefits from linking, so I predict that eventually they will be linked.
That VIAF and ISNI will be closely related is good news for libraries, since it will make our identifiers much easier to link to ISNIs, which can be expected to be encountered in many places in the future. Providing bridges between systems is a major role for VIAF. While VIAF is not only about libraries (the Getty Union List of Artist Names is included), ISNI will be our first formal relationship outside the cultural-heritage sphere. We hope it will not be the last.