Person: Identity, Identity Resolution, and Identifiers

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We (Robbie Hott and I) propose a session to focus on the description of persons. Our experience, beginning in 2010, in developing Social Networks and Archival Context (SNAC) (, and my experience as chair of the International Council on Archives Expert Group on Archival Description that is working on a draft archival description standard, have led us to conclude that persistent global identifiers are good and helpful, but they do not help address the more challenging epistemological, social, and practical challenge of identifying and documenting the identity of persons, upon which our capacity to share and process the data depends.

Among challenges which we would like to discuss with others are the following:

  • From a cultural heritage perspective, exactly what is a person?
  • What challenges are presented by the fact that identity descriptions are dynamic, subject to revisions and corrections based on the emergence of new evidence?
  • How do the quantity and quality of evidence and of assertions based on the evidence impact our ability to share and computationally process person-identity data in an open environment?
  • How does identity resolution (identifying and documenting) performed by people compare with identity resolution performed by computers?
    -How do persistent global identifiers help in computational identity resolution?
    -What are the social, practical challenges to computational identity resolution, and how
    do identifiers not help in addressing these challenges?
  • What are the practical implications of discovering that two different persons have been mistakenly identified as one person, leading to two new identity descriptions?

While the cultural heritage communities have long focused on the description of artifacts, over the last few years the description of people and groups of people have become of greater interest. Artifacts, after all, are produced by people. ULAN, VIAF, ISNI, SNAC, ORCID, among others, have brought attention to both the benefits but also the challenges of identifying, documenting, and sharing the description of people. Further, the digital humanities community has demonstrated an increasing interest in biographical and prosopographical research projects, and scholars are interested in sharing data with the cultural heritage communities: creating pathways and connections. It would useful, now that we have broad, diverse experience and a desire to share and interconnect our data, to focus on Identity, Identity Resolution, and Identifiers.

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