There is a legal-historical approach to this conundrum that is at odds with library practice but more solidly grounded. It goes something like this:
1) Unlike mere self-constituted groups such as garage bands or criminal gangs, a formal bureaucratic subdivision can only be created by the action of such hierarchically higher body that is legally empowered to create it. In principle, that body too is the creation of a higher authority, and so on back in a chain to someone or something possessing sovereign power, such as a monarch or legislature.
2) In order for the creation to be valid and undisputed, the creating body needs also to create a record or otherwise register its decision, such as in the minutes of a meeting, resolution, law, decree, memorandum, bulletin, etc.
3) The form of the name thus registered is THE valid name, unless changed later in the same fashion, irrespective of how it might be transposed, abbreviated, truncated or confused in colloquial speech and writing, as for example, when journalists might alternately refer to the Secretary of the Treasury or Treasury Secretary. In the same way, my name is always what it says on my birth certificate, no matter what variation of elements I use in a specific signature aimed at a specific audience.
In a case like this, the answer may lie in the records of the higher body. Institutional catalogs or directories might indicate if the higher university administration has a uniform usage for the names of its subdivisions, if a foundational document cannot be found.
Frankly, it is hard to think an archive lacks an authoritative source, unless it is a mere fragment or artificial collection of documents, such as those preserved by an individual employee. The minutes and other foundational documents or digests constructed from them constitute THE authoritative source of an organization’s existence, name and structure. With these, it is very easy to create, as we do, accurate descriptions of large corporations having thousands of parts. Without them you are groping in the dark or depending upon mere gossip and need to employ legal-historical rules of evidence to judge the reliability of sources and witnesses.
Also, a caveat on web sites. Most web sites, especially the more prominent ones, are really a form of advertising. They tell you what the organization wants you to think about it and entice you into buying what it is offering, which is often less than the whole truth and much less than precise. I was just creating a name authority record for the local Wilmington Friends School, which apparently called itself simply the Friends School at an earlier time in its history. Its web site proclaims that it was founded in 1748. No doubt some provision for Quaker education may have been made at that date, but almost certainly the institution received its present form and governance much later. The site is big on ethos, ambience and educational opportunity, and short on hard facts, such as the exact circumstances of its creation, performance statistics, etc. Corporate web sites are often like this, trying to convince the reader that some giant, opaque conglomerate is simply carrying on from some 19th century local shopkeeper or artisan whose business has been bought and sold ten times over. Often the real name is in the fine print as the owner of copyrights and trademarks used in the body of the text. A companion check of an official registry, in this case the data base of the Delaware Division of Corporations, reveals the Wilmington Friends School, Inc., to have been created in 1971. This confirms that the current name begins with “Wilmington.” However, since only current names are in the free online data base, there is no hard evidence outside the undigitized files of the Division of Corporations or of the School itself as to the name and nature of the organization between 1748 and 1971.
Christopher T. Baer
Hagley Museum and Library
Thank you for all the contributions so far! Yes, we recognize that the department web site is an appropriate source, and it was very helpful to have this fact pointed out. Obviously, opinions vary, from those who would follow a uniform pattern for the sake of consistency between departments, to those who insist on basing headings on source documents regardless of consistency (an application of literary warrant). My colleague is working with an archival collection having no such authoritative source. I even thought of asking the department for a copy of their letterhead stationery!
Below is another message sent privately and forwarded with permission. Any further comments and insights will continue to be welcome. - Ian
George Mason University
[log in to unmask]
From: Mark H Danley (mdanley) <[log in to unmask]>
To: Ian Fairclough <[log in to unmask]>
Sent: Monday, July 25, 2011 10:16 PM
Subject: RE: [PCCLIST] sources to use for establishing certain academic departments
The exchange on the PCC list is interesting, and in following it I noticed something:
Is this not the department's actual webpage? At first I thought I was just looking at a cached page, but I followed it from several links on your university's current website.
So would that now allow you to establish the NAR with "Dept." ...?
Just wondered! (The question you asked on the PCC list is still a valid one, though, and might help other institutions.)
Mark H. Danley, Ph.D.
Catalog Librarian/Associate Professor
University of Memphis
126 Ned R. McWherter Library
Memphis, TN 38152-3250