What is the Board of Geographic Names (BGN), and how do catalogers use this resource in establishing geographic places?

BGN and establishing geographic places

ANSS Subject and Bibliographic Access Committee

Question/Answer on Cataloging Issues – July 2018

Question: What is the Board of Geographic Names (BGN), and how do catalogers use this resource in establishing geographic places?

By Isabel Quintana, Harvard Library, Harvard University

When a cataloger has a book, or other material, with a place name on it, we are faced with the question of how we should cite that place name. Although most place names have records already established in our authority files, as anthropologists, archaeologists and sociologists continue to explore new sites, villages, and regions of cities, we are required to create new authority records for these places.

For example, let’s say I am cataloging a book on the culture of Barra de Potosi in Mexico. This small fishing village has a population of less than 400 people, and consists of three main streets intersected by two residential streets. I look up the name in the national authority file, but do not find the town listed. I next have to figure out what is the official name of the town.

Since there are so many names, variant names, and different scripts used in geographic headings, the Library of Congress is very clear on how the cataloger should decide on the authorized access point for a given place. In Library of Congress Subject Heading Manual it states that for both domestic and foreign names, a cataloger should first search the United States Board of Geographic Names (BGN) data at their website. For domestic names, we need to search: http://geonames.usgs.gov/domestic/index.html; and for foreign names one searches: http://geonames.nga.mil/namesgaz/. (The only exception is New Zealand, for which we are instructed to look at the New Zealand Gazetteer of Official Geographic Names, and, for Maori names, the Official Names with Macrons. These are available at this website: https://www.linz.govt.nz/regulatory/place-names/find-place-name)

Both of the BGN sites will give us the “official” form of name for a geographic place. For example, it will tell us to use Spain, instead of Espana, Espagne, or Sepharad. The Board actually does not regulate the use of geographic names in the United States, but instead tries to standardize the use of one dominant form of the name.

To continue with our example of Barra de Potosi, I look it up in the BGN, and find that there is a populated place (BGN speak for a village, town, city, etc.) in the state of Guerrero. I also discover that the approved form of name is: Barra de Potosi, but there is also a variant form which is Barra del Potosi. Finally, I’m given the exact coordinates of the village. This is helpful because, when I establish the heading, I can add the coordinates to the authority record. Having exact coordinates helps us integrate our data with other geographic data.


The LC Subject Cataloging Manual then instructs us to usually search additional authoritative sources such as “Merriam-Webster’s Geographical Dictionary, Columbia Gazetteer of the World, National Gazetteer of the United States of America, national gazetteers issued by the country where the feature is located, standard encyclopedias, atlases, titles in the database, etc.”

We search these additional sources in order to ensure that we have the correct locality, and to resolve conflicts if we have variant forms as the preferred term in various sources. We also want to cite as many variants as we find, so that our users will be directed to the official form of name that we have chosen.

Barra de Potosi is not established yet in the national authority file, but here is an example of the authority record for another city in Mexico.


One can see that the BGN is cited as the second source. The first source is the book about Tequila, which was the reason that the cataloger needed to establish the city.

Once a heading is established, it can be used in subject headings for any other materials on that place. If it is a municipality or other administrative body, it can also be used as a corporate author, if necessary.

The U.S. BGN has a long history, and serves us well. Here is some background on this body from their website: (https://geonames.usgs.gov):

“The U.S. Board on Geographic Names is a Federal body created in 1890 and established in its present form by Public Law in 1947 to maintain uniform geographic name usage throughout the Federal Government. The Board comprises representatives of Federal agencies concerned with geographic information, population, ecology, and management of public lands. Sharing its responsibilities with the Secretary of the Interior, the Board promulgates official geographic feature names with locative attributes as well as principles, policies, and procedures governing the use of domestic names, foreign names, Antarctic names, and undersea feature names.

The original program of names standardization addressed the complex issues of domestic geographic feature names during the surge of exploration, mining, and settlement of western territories after the American Civil War. Inconsistencies and contradictions among many names, spellings, and applications became a serious problem to surveyors, map makers, and scientists who required uniform, non-conflicting geographic nomenclature. President Benjamin Harrison signed an Executive Order establishing the Board and giving it authority to resolve unsettled geographic names questions. Decisions of the Board were accepted as binding by all departments and agencies of the Federal Government.

The Board gradually expanded its interests to include foreign names and other areas of interest to the United States, a process that accelerated during World War II. In 1947, the Board was recreated by Congress in Public_Law_80-242. The Bylaws of the Board have been in place since 1948 and have been revised when needed. The usefulness of standardizing (not regulating) geographic names has been proven time and again, and today more than 50 nations have some type of national names authority. The United Nations stated that “the best method to achieve international standardization is through strong programs of national standardization.” Numerous nations established policies relevant to toponomy (the study of names) in their respective countries.

In this age of geographic information systems, the Internet, and homeland defense, geographic names data are even more important and more challenging. Applying the latest technology, the Board on Geographic Names continues its mission. It serves the Federal Government and the public as a central authority to which name problems, name inquiries, name changes, and new name proposals can be directed. In partnership with Federal, State, and local agencies, the Board provides a conduit through which uniform geographic name usage is applied and current names data are promulgated.

For geographic feature names policies applying to the United States, or to the use of foreign geographic names, Antarctica names, and undersea feature names by the United States, see the respective items in the main menu on the left. Any person or organization, public or private, may make inquiries or request the Board to render formal decisions on proposed new names, proposed name changes, or names that are in conflict. Meetings are open to the public and are held according to schedule. Minutes of the Board’s meetings are available.”

Although creating and maintaining authority records for geographic places can be complicated, the United States BGN is a very helpful source of up to date information.