The Library of Congress Cataloging Policy and Support Office recently announced a review and request for comments on a potential change of policy regarding addition of dates to existing personal name headings. Currently, dates are only added in certain situations, and once a heading is established, dates are never added to it after the fact. Personal name headings are frequently created while an individual is alive, leading to headings such as (from the CPSO proposal):
100 1# $a Bernstein, Leonard, $d 1918-
This heading then was not changed when Bernstein died in 1990. The CPSO proposal notes that libraries, including LC, receive frequent comments and complaints from users regarding the "out of date" nature of headings of this sort.
In discussion of this policy on the AUTOCAT listserv, the question arose as to whether name authority files served to simply generate unique headings for an person, or if they served a wider biographical function. Certainly historically the former is true. But many, including the CPSO, are recognizing that increasingly we may be well served by delving into the latter. We have an opportunity here to become more useful and relevant to the wider information community. To take that opportunity might seem to be a no-brainer.
However, the current cataloging infrastructure makes the implementation of this change challenging, to say the least. As authority data is replicated in local catalogs and the shared environment, and most integrated library systems store actual heading strings in bibliographic records rather than pointers to authority records, changing a heading would then require notifying all libraries that a change has been made, propagating that change from one library to the rest, then continuting to propagate that change in every local system to all affected bibliographic records. Clearly this mechanism is anachronistic in today's networked world, where relational databases are so entrenched as to be considered almost quaint. I fully understand the practical implications of the CPSO implementing this policy. Yet I believe that it is the right thing to do. We as librarians simply must have a vision for what we're trying to accomplish, and work tirelessly towards that goal. While we must keep the practical considerations in mind, we can't let them dictate all of our other decisions. Let's set the policy to do the right thing, and insist on systems that support our goals.