Editing authorities at the speed of four records per minute

This missive outlines and documents an automated process I used to “cleanup” and “improve” a set of authority records, or, to put it another way, how I edited authorities at the speed of four records per minute.

springAs you may or may not know, starting in September 2015, I commenced upon a sort of “leave of absence” from my employer.† This leave took me to Tuscany, Venice, Rome, Provence, Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston, New York City, and back to Rome. In Rome I worked for the American Academy of Rome doing short-term projects in the library. The first project revolved around authority records. More specifically, the library’s primary clientele were Americans, but the catalog’s authority records included a smattering of Italian headings. The goal of the project was to automatically convert as many of the “invalid” Italian headings into “authoritative” Library of Congress headings.

Identify “invalid” headings

pantheonWhen I first got to Rome I had the good fortune to hang out with Terry Reese, the author of the venerable MarcEdit.‡ He was there giving workshops. I participated in the workshops. I listened, I learned, and I was grateful for a Macintosh-based version of Terry’s application.

When the workshops were over and Terry had gone home I began working more closely with Sebastian Hierl, the director of the Academy’s library.❧ Since the library was relatively small (about 150,000 volumes), and because the Academy used Koha for its integrated library system, it was relatively easy for Sebastian to give me the library’s entire set of 124,000 authority records in MARC format. I fed the authority records into MarcEdit, and ran a report against them. Specifically, I asked MarcEdit to identify the “invalid” records, which really means, “Find all the records not found in the Library of Congress database.” The result was a set of approximately 18,000 records or approximately 14% of the entire file. I then used MarcEdit to extract the “invalid” records from the complete set, and this became my working data.

Search & download

alterI next created a rudimentary table denoting the “invalid” records and the subsequent search results for them. This tab-delimited file included values of MARC field 001, MARC field 1xx, an integer denoting the number of times I searched for a matching record, an integer denoting the number of records I found, an identifier denoting a Library of Congress authority record of choice, and a URL providing access to the remote authority record. This table was initialized using a script called authority2list.pl. Given a file of MARC records, it outputs the table.

I then systematically searched the Library of Congress for authority headings. This was done with a script called search.pl. Given the table created in the previous step, this script looped through each authority, did a rudimentary search for a valid entry, and output an updated version of the table. This script was a bit “tricky”.❦ It first searched the Library of Congress by looking for the value of MARC 1xx$a. If no records were found, then no updating was done and processing continued. If one record was found, then the Library of Congress identifier was saved to the output and processing continued. If many records were found, then a more limiting search was done by adding a date value extracted from MARC 1xx$d. Depending on the second search result, the output was updated (or not), and processing continued. Out of original 18,000 “invalid” records, about 50% of them were identified with no (zero) Library of Congress records, about 30% were associated with multiple headings, and the remaining 20% (approximately 3,600 records) were identified with one and only one Library of Congress authority record.

I now had a list of 3,600 “valid” authority records, and I needed to download them. This was done with a script called harvest.pl. This script is really a wrapper around a program called GNU Wget. Given my updated table, the script looped through each row, and if it contained a URL pointing to a Library of Congress authority record, then the record was cached to the file system. Since the downloaded records were formatted as MARCXML, I then needed to transform them into MARC21. This was done with a pair of scripts: xml2marc.sh and xml2marc.pl. The former simply looped through each file in a directory, and the later did the actual transformation but along the way updated MARC 001 to the value of the local authority record.

Verify and merge

backyardIn order to allow myself as well as others to verify that correct records had been identified, I wrote another pair of programs: marc2compare.pl and compare2html.pl. Given two MARC files, marc2compare.pl created a list of identifiers, original authority values, proposed authority values, and URLs pointing to full descriptions of each. This list was intended to be poured into a spreadsheet for compare & contrast purposes. The second script, compare2html.pl, simply took the output of the first and transformed it into a simple HTML page making it easier for a librarian to evaluate correctness.

Assuming the 3,600 records were correct, the next step was to merge/overlay the old records with the new records. This was a two-step process. The first step was accomplished with a script called rename.pl. Given two MARC files, rename.pl first looped through the set of new authorities saving each identifier to memory. It then looped through the original set of authorities looking for records to update. When records to update were found, each was marked for deletion by prefixing MARC 001 with “x-“. The second step employed MarcEdit to actually merge the set of new authorities with the original authorities. Consequently, the authority file increased in size by 3,600 records. It was then up to other people to load the authorities into Koka, re-evaluate the authorities for correctness, and if everything was okay, then delete each authority record prefixed with “x-“.


Summary and possible next steps

In summary, this is how things happened. I:

  1. got a complete dump of original authority 123,329 records
  2. extracted 17,593 “invalid” records
  3. searched LOC for “valid” records and found 3,627 of them
  4. harvested the found records
  5. prefixed the 3,627 001 fields in the original file with “x-“
  6. merged the original authority records with the harvested records
  7. made the new set of 126,956 updated records available

academyThere were many possible next steps. One possibility was to repeat the entire process but with an enhanced search algorithm. This could be difficult considering the fact that searches using merely the value of 1xx$a returned zero hits for half of the working data. A second possibility was to identify authoritative records from a different system such as VIAF or Worldcat. Even if this was successful, I wonder how possible it would have been to actually download authority records as MARC. A third possibility was to write a sort of disambiguation program allowing librarians to choose from a set of records. This could have been accomplished by searching for authorities, presenting possibilities, allowing librarians to make selections via an HTML form, caching the selections, and finally, batch updating the master authority list. Here at the Academy we denoted the last possibility as the “cool” one.

Now here’s an interesting way to look at the whole thing. This process took me about two weeks worth of work, and in that two weeks I processed 18,000 authority records. That comes out to 9,000 records/week. There are 40 hours in work week, and consequently, I processed 225 records/hour. Each hour is made up of 60 minutes, and therefore I processed approximately 4 records/minute, and that is 1 record every fifteen seconds for the last two weeks. Wow!?

Finally, I’d like to thank the Academy (with all puns intended). Sebastian, his colleagues, and especially my office mate (Kristine Iara) were all very supportive throughout my visit. They provided intellectual stimulation and something to do while I contemplated my navel during the “adventure”.


bicycles† Strictly speaking, my adventure was not a sabbatical nor a leave of absence because: 1) as a librarian I was not authorized to take a sabbatical, and 2) I did not have any healthcare issues. Instead, after bits of negotiation, my contract was temporarily changed from full-time faculty to adjunct faculty, and I worked for my employer 20% of the time. The other 80% of time was spent on my “adventure”. And please don’t get me wrong, this whole thing was a wonderful opportunity for which I will be eternally grateful. “Thank you!”

‡ During our overlapping times there in Rome, Terry & I played tourist which included the Colosseum, a happenstance mass at the Pantheon, a Palm Sunday Mass in St. Peter’s Square with tickets generously given to us by Joy Nelson of ByWater Solutions, and a day-trip to Florence. Along the way we discussed librarianship, open source software, academia, and life in general. A good time was had by all.

❧ Ironically, Sebastian & I were colleagues during the dot-com boom when we both worked at North Caroline State University. The world of librarianship is small.

❦ This script — search.pl — was really a wrapper around an application called curl, and thanks go to Jeff Young of OCLC who pointed me to the ATOM interface of the LC Linked Data Service. Without Jeff’s helpful advice, I would have wrestled with OCLC’s various authentication systems and Web Service interfaces.

❀ Actually, I skipped a step in this narrative. Specifically, there are some records in the authority file that were not expected to be touched, even if they are “invalid”. This set of records was associated with a specific call number pattern. Two scripts (fu-extract.pl and fu-remove.pl) did the work. The first extracted a list of identifiers not to touch and the second removed them from my table of candidates to validate.

Published by

Eric Lease Morgan

Artist- and Librarian-At-Large