ISNI: An Authority for Authors?

Posted by Michael Capobianco for Writer Beware

I’m 0000 0000 6755 1414.

I’ve been assigned this number by ISNI, the International Standard Name Identifier. I could insert a quote from the old televison show The Prisoner here, but in this case I’m ambivalent about being a number (although I also would prefer to stay a free man.)

One of my causes is the creation of a system that would make it easy for authors to be identified and found, partially so that the publication of new editions or derivative licenses could be negotiated, but increasingly to protect these works from being declared as “orphans” and being appropriated if their authors or other rightsholders can’t be located. To me, it seems like the problem of works which are still under copyright, but whose authors cannot be found, is to make it easier to find them.

There were already a number of library-related systems for identifying authors and disambiguating authorship in existence. They are generally referred to as authorities (not what it sounds like; the name is derived from “author,”) but none of them are exactly authoritative. In fact, the authorities are a bewildering tangle of cross-references, assumptions, and links to places like Wikipedia, from which much of their information seems to derive. You have to be a librarian to appreciate them, I suppose.

They tend to be created, maintained, and updated by the library trade, and one can see how they’d be useful to it. One would think that they’d be the ideal system mentioned above. Want to find an author? Just use an authority! There are two problems, though. The entities most likely to be able to identify an author and disambiguate which works were written by him or her and not someone else with the same name is – surprise – the author him or herself. Yet virtually none of these authorities include authors directly in the process of compiling their data.

The other problem is that none of them provide data on how to contact authors, and, in fact, consider that information contrary to their purpose. ISNI’s FAQ states that “It is not intended to provide direct access to comprehensive information about [a] Public Identities, but can provide links to external sources where such information is held.”

So why am I focusing on ISNI as opposed to say, Library of Congress Authorities or Worldcat? ISNI seems to be focused more on identifying people rather than their works, and is designed to consolidate data from those other systems.

I was already in their database, and was pleased to find out that it was comparatively easy to modify my entry when I discovered a few mistakes. It was not instantaneous, however, and the actual updating was done by the “ISNI Quality Team.” Most importantly, although I wasn’t able to attach my email address to the listing, they did include the URL of my website, which is the next best thing to find me. Here’s my listing.

Unfortunately, at this point, there are still many gaps: missing authors and missing books. For some reason, Victoria’s main entry at ISNI only lists the Czech edition of The Burning Land, despite the fact that the sources it links to list many more. My entry was missing only one book, but I noted at least one author who has the same name as me, and has had a number of books published through Authorhouse, was not there at all. Clearly, there is a need for authors to create or clean up their own entries.

I am encouraged that ISNI’s system has much potential. There are questions remaining to be answered, however. The most problematic is who actually qualifies as an author under this system. ISNI claims to already have over seven million entries, most of them taken from other authority databases--but there’s only one way to find out if you’re there or not, and that's to use ISNI's search function.

If you’re not there, the whole process becomes more difficult. You must register through Bowker, the for-profit company that manages ISBN’s, among other things. But will they allow any author to create or modify their own ISNI, or will there have to be some proof of authorship, such as a book or article already somewhere in the system? Will you need an ISBN to have your book placed on your page? Edward Hasbrouck of the National Writers Union, who is an author advocate par excellence, has many problems with ISNI, which he has detailed in an open letter. He feels that ISNI has an obligation to involve authors proactively in the creation of their entries--but I won’t try to summarize. Read Edward’s post for yourself.

The next step, I believe, is for ISNI to engage directly with author groups and communities to solicit authors to come and correct errors and provide additional information, including websites and contact information. Only time will tell if ISNI can live up to its potential and become a useful author information and location tool.

Note: This is the first of an occasional series of posts about author information databases. 


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