On the Utterly Bizarre Handling of Conflicting Names in Goodreads

As a part of my ongoing interest in reading about death customs in modern and historical societies, I spent some time on Goodreads, recently, adding books to my to-read list. One of these books was Joshua Slocum’s Final Rights: Reclaiming the American Way of Death (2011). However, when adding it, I saw this little blurb about the author in the sidebar:

Joshua Slocum was the first man to sail single-handedly around the world. He was a Nova Scotian born, naturalised American seaman and adventurer, and a noted writer. In 1900 he wrote a book about his journey ‘Sailing Alone Around the World’, which became an international best-seller. He disappeared in November 1909 while aboard his boat, the Spray.

On the one hand, what a delightfully eerie possibility. Slocum disappeared over a hundred years before this book was published. Now he re-emerges to tell us what we’ve got wrong about death. There’s a short story in that. On the other, this is clearly a different Joshua Slocum.

Disambiguation of Authors with the Same Name

This isn’t a new problem. It’s part of whats called “authority control” in librarianship.

  • Who was this masked author?
  • Is the author of Book A the same as Book B?
  • How do we handle expression of and technology around names so that we create clarity around who a particular author is and which works should be attributed to them?

There are various answers. I urge catalogers/metadata librarians to take a couple deep breaths and find their center before reading on.

Goodreads uses spaces.

Goodreads uses spaces.

Goodreads uses spaces

From the librarian manual entry, which took me a while to locate (mea culpa, I’m a librarian on there but rarely use those powers).

Occasionally you may come across an author profile that encompasses two or more authors of the same name. In order to separate these authors and their respective books you will need to identify which books belong to which author. Once you have, leave one author alone and for the second, go into the edit page of each of their books and add an additional space between their first and last name.

Where ^ represents a space:

Catherine^Anderson Catherine^^Anderson Catherine^^^Anderson

Or when there’s also a middle initial…

Catherine^H.^Anderson Catherine^H.^^Anderson Catherine^H.^^^Andersons

…oh and…

Also please note that any new books by the authors of that name will be entered into the main profile by default. They will have to be edited once they are added to Goodreads to shift them to the right profile.

There are some notes on allowing an author (who may post on the librarian forum) to choose the form of the name they’d like. That’s great! I’m just… what I’m stuck on the technological mechanism and the ways in which adding a new book doesn’t even allow you to select from … I don’t know, a drop-down of authors with part of their dates or abstracts?

It Makes a Crude Sense, but…

In an extremely crude database, this makes sense. For example, ruth_tillman, or ruth___tillman, or whatever other form might serve as a system-created identifier. However… these are what the actual author URLs look like:

So, What the Heck?

Is it a leftover of early early days? Is it a sign that Amazon is not interesting in developing it further? Would it be too confusing to the super users to change it?

I don’t think that the answer is to do something like library name authorities and add dates to people’s names. But I have a few thoughts on what kind of end-user functionality could make things better:

When a new book is added, the interface offers some kind of mechanism for determining whether an author exists (and which one they are) or needs to be created.

This could be a drop-down option when the author’s name is typed (with differentiating info such as an author’s image, part of the author’s bio, a short list of most recent books, or somesuch). Or it could be a second screen with similar issue which asks you to confirm the authors before creating the record.

It could also allow you to select “none of the above” and create a new record. This shouldn’t involve putting spaces in an author’s name, although it may have a “did you mean?” moment so you can confirm this really isn’t an existing author.

This would certainly not solve all the issues inherent in handling names in the system. I’m not a Goodreads developer (but Amazon does own it, so they could put a little time into it).

Do you have thoughts on what handling author disambiguation might look like?

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Ruth Kitchin Tillman
Cataloging Systems and Linked Data Strategist

Card-carrying quilter. Mennonite. Writer. Worker.