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Last edited by Karen Coyle
August 4, 2015 | History

About the Librarianship

The Open Library provides an exciting opportunity for anyone interested in libraries and the future of libraries. The Open Library is a new kind of library, not bounded by any point in space, and with no limits on its visitor hours. It has much in common with traditional libraries, however, in that it has as its goal to connect people to information resources, and to make the journey through the library as interesting and rewarding as possible.

The Open Library wants to provide quality bibliographic information as the basis for its information about resources. Much of the information contained herein was created by library professionals, often in the form of cataloging records in MARC format. Other information comes from non-library sources, such as online bookstores and publishers, and online sources like Wikipedia. Because of its "wiki nature", Open Library can mix and match data from different sources, thus enhancing the traditional library record to include information that helps users find interesting resources and make an informed selection from the large number of published materials that are part of our cultural heritage.

Open Library users themselves can add information to the catalog, and can even add entire works that the Library has not yet received from another source. Collectively we can create a new kind of library catalog; one that not only links users to materials, but that allows users to engage in the knowledge dialog that a library represents.

The "Things" of the Open Library

The international library community has developed a model of library data (called Functional Requirements for Bibliographic Records, or FRBR) that defines the essential things that a library catalog describes. The Open Library embraces the identification of basic things, which in Open Library are called "types." These types are entities like Works, Authors, Editions, and Subjects in Open Library, but in fact anything that can be described can be a type. These types provide a focus for the user view of the Open Library data. For example, a search on an author results in an author "page" that links to works by the author, subjects the author has written on, and related authors. This is similar to the linked data concept that forms much of the current semantic web activity.


FRBR defines the Work as the abstract creative product. For texts, the Work stays the same even when translated. In Open Library, where possible Works have used the work titles provided in library uniform titles. To the extent possible, all of the various editions of a work (in FRBR called Manifestations) are linked to the Work so that the user can retrieve them with a single command and view them together. Merging works still remains a manual process.


One of the more difficult problems, not only in library catalogs, but in all information systems, is that of uniquely identifying individuals. Libraries achieve this with authority control, a process by which a single unique form is devised for each person's name. The Open Library does not natively use the library forms of the name (which tend to be in the format "Smith, John, 1926- "), instead turning the names to natural order ("John Smith") and placing birth and death dates in their own fields. Algorithms are used to compare names and dates, and to the extent possible each author is identified and given a unique entry in the Open Library. The author information can include name variants, as well as biographical information that can help users understand which author's information they are viewing. Links to the identifer or Library of Congress authority record are helpful.


Most libraries in the United States, and some in other countries, use Library of Congress Subject Headings in their catalogs. These subjects headings have evolved over 100 years and attempt to reflect the full complexity of the contents of libraries. There is acknowledgment in the library community, however, that these headings are rarely fully understood by library catalog users. One attempt to simplify these headings was undertaken by the OCLC Research Division in its development of a modified view of LCSH called Faceted Application of Subject Terminology or, FAST. FAST emphasizes the faceted nature of LCSH. Many "next generation" user interfaces for library catalogs have also experimented with separating the long LCSH strings into facets that are presented to users as a way to further refine their searches.

The Open Library took a similar approach and stores each of the LCSH facets as a separate subject entry. The facet types are: subject, person, time, place. Facets that appear related to the same Work can be shown as related in search results, and users can follow the topical train of related facets throughout the web of data that these subject facets create.


As a web-based information resource, it is important that all things are given an identifying URL. It is therefore possible to link to any one of the Open Library things from anywhere on the Internet. These identifiers do not change, although when entries are merged, as does happen, care is taken so that the old URL points to the new one, thus avoiding broken links.


The world of publishing produces many many copies of each book. Like all catalogs with multiple sources of input, Open Library frequently obtains metadata for a book more than once. One of the ongoing efforts of a catalog is to refine algorithms for merging duplicate entries. Open Library continues to work in this area, but is working on providing a way that users can merge editions, authors and works where the algorithm has not done so. As more web-based catalogs are developed, it is hoped that we can all share this information and therefore improve the quality of bibliographic data on the web as a whole.

History Created May 9, 2010 · 17 revisions

August 4, 2015 Edited by Karen Coyle reverted to revision 15
August 4, 2015 Edited by Karen Coyle Edited without comment.
May 27, 2014 Edited by Authors --> suggest linking to viaf or LoC authority record; Works --> note that merging Works is still manual
November 4, 2012 Edited by Edited without comment.
May 9, 2010 Edited by Edited without comment.