Metadata collection during digitizing archival resources is not a straightforward task. Names, places, events listed in the documents often diverge from current spelling. There are variants, aliases, spelling errors etc. Modern search engines like Google often have synonyms or common spelling errors and can correct them:

Showing results for Kowalski
Search instead for Kowakski

But it works best for common names and spelling errors. In a project in which we would like to present the metadata as Linked Open Data we would want to have a clean list of entries, free of spelling errors and with identified variants, if any.

Let us take as an example names of people (we also collect places, historical events and more). The name alone does not typically identify the person - obviously there can be many people with the same name. Once the person is fixed, we find that very often his or her name exists in many variants. There are versions in various languages, the person could use pseudonym (or several) at some period of his life, change her name (before or after marriage), add titles to the name etc. Subjects and citizens name their leaders by their monikers, persons How to find your data in this mess?

For persons that are mentioned in the archival documents, we have selected several rules. The rules are somewhat arbitrary, but we had to start somewhere:

  1. We use one standard name for one person. The alternative names or names in different languages are also collected to help in search. We are typically guided by the name used in Polish, if possible, and use the Wikipedia spelling (in Polish or other language) when appropriate.

  2. We list the name as Last Name, First name(s) in this order. This sometimes causes difficulties as it is not always easy to figure out given names. The rule has exception for people known only by their full name, as Kings, Popes etc.; in this case we list the full name as it is commonly used or officially known.

  3. We assign each person a unique identifier which we create from scratch. If possible, we correlate this identifier with two of the most common registries: WikiData and VIAF. There are people who do not have their articles in Wikipedia in any language, and hence no WikiData ID. There are people who never wrote a book and are not in the library index represented by VIAF. For those we create a short description, add references and assign our own identifier.

The next step is to review some 80 thousand name records that we have collected till now to bring the names to this standard. We work in chunks, typically one archival fonds at a time, but it is still tens of thousands of records. One can work with spreadsheet, which is an universal tool, and by using such functions as sort, filter, global find-and-replace one can do a lot of work. However, we found that a specialized tool called OpenRefine can be much more useful for this task. OpenRefine (an Open Source software) grew from Google project and was originally called Google Refine. It was strongly connected with a project called Freebase1, now defunct, which collected data from several different databases as well as allowed users to add their own. OpenRefine was created expressly for the task of cleaning up or refining mixed quality data.


OpenRefine is a sophisticated piece of software with very powerful tools. It can be installed on a personal computer and runs as a web server, which means that you interact with it via a browser. The data is stored locally, and does not leave your computer; you can work on sensitive data without problems with sharing. It also means that one can only work on one computer at a time, but it is rather easy to export the project and carry it on a memory stick.

OpenRefine is a rich in options, functions and capabilities. I will not attempt to describe all of them here. My goal is to introduce OpenRefine and show some features using the example of names of people collected in digitizing archival fonds of the Pilsudski Institute of America.

Zapraszamy na na wykład połączony z promocją książek dr. hab. Piotra Kardeli pt. „Stowarzyszenie Polskich Kombatantów w Stanach Zjednoczonych”. 20 czerwca (wtorek) o godz. 18:00

Stowarzyszenie Polskich Kombatantów, polsko-amerykańska organizacja działająca w latach 1952-2012, zrzeszająca byłych żołnierzy Polskich Sił Zbrojnych na Zachodzie podczas drugiej wojny światowej. Należała do Światowej Federacji Stowarzyszenia Polskich Kombatantów. Jednym z osiągnięć SPK w Stanach Zjednoczonych było skłonienie amerykańskiego Kongresu do uchwalenia Polish Veterans Rights Legislation, aktu podpisanego przez prezydenta Geralda F. Forda w roku 1976. Prawo to dało polskim byłym żołnierzom przywilej hospitalizacji w szpitalach weteranów.