What is VIAF?

ANSS Subject and Bibliographic Access Committee
Question/Answer on cataloging issues – December 2017

By Isabel del Carmen Quintana, Harvard University

Question:       What is VIAF?


According to the VIAF home page: The VIAF® (Virtual International Authority File) combines multiple name authority files into a single OCLC-hosted name authority service. The goal of the service is to lower the cost and increase the utility of library authority files by matching and linking widely-used authority files and making that information available on the Web.

And according to OCLC’s main page on VIAF: VIAF is an international service designed to provide convenient access to the world’s major name authority files. Its creators envision the VIAF as a building block for the Semantic Web to enable switching of the displayed form of names for persons to the preferred language and script of the Web user.

The VIAF is free and available to anyone at https://viaf.org

So VIAF basically is an aggregate of authority data. Many national authority files and agency records are combined in VIAF. For example, here are just some of the national libraries who contribute their authority files to VIAF:

  • British Library
  • German National Library
  • Library and Archives Canada
  • Library of Congress
  • National Diet Library Japan
  • National Library of Chile
  • National Library of Estonia
  • National Library of France
  • National Library of Morocco
  • National Library of Russia
  • National Library of Spain
  • National Library of the Netherlands

There are also “contributors” such as Wikidata, ISNI (International Standard Name Identifier), etc. VIAF data is a combination of 34 agencies from 29 countries.

Searching in VIAF is very simple. You simply select the field you want to search from these choices:

  • All fields
  • Corporate names
  • Geographic names
  • Personal names
  • Works
  • Expressions
  • Preferred headings
  • Exact heading
  • Bibliographic titles

Then you choose what “index” you wish to search. The “index” is the source you will search. You can search an individual library, or contributor; or you can search all of them at once. In many cases searching all of them at once can be the most useful search, because VIAF  has a way of “clustering” search results. The “clusters” band together authority metadata from various sources based on works that the entities have created or contributed to.

As you start to type the search term, the system will display every name that is established with that term. So you can readily click on one of the names that populate the search box.

Once you have chosen a name, you get a search result screen.

Dec Q-A 1

The symbols beside the names let you know which libraries or organizations chose that form of name. To the far right of the screen (not shown above) the titles associated with this person are displayed. So one can scan to find the correct person.

Once you choose a name you get a screen that goes one level deeper and shows you the authority metadata for each library who chose that form of entry. For example, if I choose “Quintana, Angel, 1960-“ I would get this screen:

Dec Q-A 2

If you hover over the flag on the wheel on the right, the name of the national library will display. From here you can pick the authority data that you want to review.

For this example, I’m going to choose the National Library of Catalonia, which is the last one on the screen shot above. I get this data:

Dec Q-A 3

Now I have new information that this author’s matronymic is “Morraja.” Likewise, I could discover other works written by the author, or other biographical details, such as where he lives, or when he was born.

Overall the VIAF can be a good source of additional information, especially when researching identities from foreign countries whose national libraries contribute to the VIAF. Again, the VIAF is free and available to anyone at https://viaf.org

More information about VIAF can be found here: https://www.oclc.org/en/viaf.html

It’s worth it to do some experimenting in VIAF, to see where it might be beneficial for your workflows. As it combines a variety of data from various organizations, it can be useful for workflows for metadata creation, or database maintenance, as well as research and reference consultation.