Weekly Response Alana MohamedWright’s description of Paul Otlet’s system paints him as an innovative mind who intuited the power of linked data in a social space. Rayward’s article provides even more context of his system by discussing the implicit biases and problems with the often utilized Dewey Decimal System. The first idea of Otlet’s that was impressive to me was his idea of creating a social space for information. While Dewey’s system places information in hierarchies, Otlet’s UCD system outlines multiple horizontal relationships between information. I was surprised at how easily I understood the UCD system, though I certainly can imagine there would be some conflict deciding if something what a “philosophy” or a “science.” I suppose that’s the point of these articles, to point to the ways knowledge is constantly in flux. Organizing knowledge seems to mean constantly changing, or at the very least, operating within a classification system that allows for change. Wright’s description of Paul Otlet’s system paints him as an innovative mind who intuited the power of linked data in a social space. Rayward’s article provides even more context of his system by discussing the implicit biases and problems with the often utilized Dewey Decimal System. The first idea of Otlet’s that was impressive to me was his idea of creating a social space for information. While Dewey’s system places information in hierarchies, Otlet’s UCD system outlines multiple horizontal relationships between information. I was surprised at how easily I understood the UCD system, though I certainly can imagine there would be some conflict deciding if something what a “philosophy” or a “science.” I suppose that’s the point of these articles, to point to the ways knowledge is constantly in flux. Organizing knowledge seems to mean constantly changing, or at the very least, operating within a classification system that allows for change.
Alex Wright’s article on Paul Otlet and his visionary (and mind-boggling ambitious) explorations to organize all the world’s data places him on a grand pedestal on par with forgotten geniuses like his contemporaries Leon Theremin and Nikola Tesla. Otlet’s work gives me another reason to marvel at the ingenuity and progress of the arts and sciences at the turn of the century. Wright’s detail of the birth of the UDC system, with it’s functional faceted search similar to Ranganathan, and the creation of the Mundaneum, that unfortunately named uber database, were equal parts fascinating and tragic and set the stage for a deeper analysis by W. Rayward.
Rayward’s history of information science sheds must greater light on Otlet’s work and how it was a remarkable precursor to today’s stage of library and information science. While Otlet’s theories were sound, it would take a mere 60 years for the technological advances to catch up to make them fully realized in the interplay of the internet, Google and current cataloging practices. Otlet was thinking big with his universal catalog (RBU), universal classification system (UDC) and even the universal book. His attempts to reclaim the term ‘monograph’ from the printed codex and expand it to the 3×5″ index card or microfilm was admirable and prophetic in regards to today’s upheaval of traditional publishing as we move further in to a more integrated digital age.
I would like to the think of Paul Otlet smiling down on the many realizations of his work, but I imagine he would rather be busy tackling ever more complex theories in the pursue of collating, analyzing and disseminating all of the world’s collective human knowledge in one tidy package.
“the one with the lions in front” – I like this description in a book.
I did enjoy Weinberger’s indictment of Dewey in their article – we must always remember in these conversations about classification that it has all been built on a flawed, white Christian male supremacist lens of a base. While Weinberger does ask the question “why don’t we fix it?”, which, after reading too much detail about Dewey, I did not expect them to answer. But they did – saying essentially that even if we do revamp the entire structure in light of a hopefully less People-Like-Dewey-centric view, it will take work and people will still complain.
I am entirely unconvinced that this is a reason not to change a dated system that close to all librarians admit is problematically biased. They say “But that isn’t a good enough answer if you’re organizing physical objects,” as though it is a good enough answer to any question. They also see (continued) greatness in Dewey’s system because it lets patrons in libraries physically explore “What We Know.” This seemed absurd to me because hey man, it’s 2007, there are different cataloging systems with less messed up classification that also allow readers to browse books by subject in a physical library setting. This was a revolutionary system at the time it was designed, but that is not an excuse to leave it untouched.
Alex Wright and W. Boyd Rayward’s articles shed light on Paul Otlet, a man that paved the way for many of the conceptual frameworks and ideas about the organization of information that we have today. Although both authors stop short of stating Otlet’s influence on the creation of the World Wide Web, Otlet’s foresight about the possibilities of networks and linked data is incredible nonetheless. He understood the importance of the uniformity of data in that “if cards and sheets were standardized, especially as to size and weight, then it became possible to create collaboratively continuously expanding databases in these formats” (Rayward 293). This may seem like a simple concept, but the standardization of data is extremely important and an issue that we struggle with today in the case of metadata interoperability. Another of his prescient ideas was “conceptual maps” that “played in simplified, visual form, the intricate relationships of the concepts embraced within various subject areas” (Rayward 294-95), sounding very similar to the linked hypertext context of Wikipedia. Most incredible, however, was Otlet’s view that information should be universally accessible by all, a vision which the Web is facilitating.
With the Paul Otlet article, there seemed to be less of these petty arguments going on behind the historical scenes of cataloging. While Dewey and Carlyle and of that ilk seem to be aggressive (well) nerds, Otlet seemed to me to be more of an artist. His approach to organizing and accessing reminded me a lot of current data mining practices. I can’t say I find any pleasure in the act of tagging data points within information directly, but seeing the resulting projects of some of these processes is really interesting, and beyond that, sometimes even really playful or creative. I think access in this day and age has moved beyond getting the information into the hands of the public and towards encouraging that public to engage with said information.
As a more basic appreciation, I find the term “social space of a document” really useful and plan to make everyone really tired of hearing it.
That being said, I am quite annoyed with the less than complimentary comparisons that I’ve seen drawn, more frequently than just the Weinberger reading, between Dewey’s system and Amazon. Personal Amazon boycott aside, the company admittedly offers some of that same creative, innovative, even playful relationship building between information sources that I appreciated in Otlet’s approach. Still, it’s hardly fair to compare the two, and I’m not really sure it’s beneficial either. What suggestions could Amazon’s process really offer the library cataloging system? Beyond an interesting philosophical distinction that is handy to perhaps students of cataloging, the system mandated by physical space (not to mention resources) makes for libraries and amazon a case of apples and oranges.
Visionary Paul Otlet’s even forecasted today’s search functionality, calling it “consultation.” According to Rayward, Otlet wanted to “liberate” content from just the metadata of bibliographic files—to bring forth “what was of value or use in the content of documents by dissection or decomposition” for analysis and synthesis. This seems a prediction of text data mining: full-text searching to discover patterns and trends and to reveal new ideas across texts.
Here’s a visual of the Mundaneum from The New York Times:
Paul Otlet’s impressiveness, to me, lies in his understanding that information is social. Wright is hesitant to admit Otlet outright influenced the creation of the web; both he and Rayward emphasize Otlet’s predictive, ambitious-beyond-his-era talents. He understood that information is relative and linked and he created concepts for information retrieval and networks. Yet while this eerily supernatural premonition of the internet is exciting to read about, I was most drawn to the way Otlet incorporated humanity into his mundaneum. He articulated that information is best understood in context, including the reader’s relationship to the document. Not only does Otlet’s project allow the reader to find what to read, the reader can interact with the document, inherently changing “the social space” of a document by reading it. Wright refers to Otlet’s desire to create a “new ‘world city'”, a world in which information is shared and created across borders and languages. That Otlet frames his proposed information sharing network as a society illustrates to me the important characteristic of information: it is how everyone communicates with each other. Information is no longer experts communicating to lay people, or experts communicating to other experts. It includes everyone. The idea of reader contribution is no more evident than in the myriad of ways readers, writers, consumers, producers interact on a daily basis online today. It is Otlet’s inclusiveness and understanding of the social aspect of information that impresses me most.
I really appreciated this quote from Weinberger’s “The Geography of Knowledge.” Throughout these readings—and throughout this entire class—we have focused on different ways to organize information and the issues that arise due to the inherent subjectivity of every system. It seems, like Weinberger says, that there is “no end to it,” no possible solution to remedy the subjectivity of knowledge organization and the inevitability that culture will change and the system will become outdated.
Again, it seems necessary to instead focus our attention on education. If Dewey’s system is flawed and obsolete and born from a place of accidental closed mindedness, as Weinberger (and many others) have suggested, then rather than focusing only on teaching children in school how to find books, we should invest in teaching them the complexities of the system. We have no choice but to acknowledge the failures openly and often in order to learn from them and to grow.
With electronic systems, it seems possible to establish a catalog interface setting that displays the many iterations of a subject or topic in order to layer an item record with the historical and the current. The New York Public Library Map Warper comes to mind when considering this concept. Rather than look to adjust the now-incorrect geography of an old map—of both physical locations and of knowledge—perhaps it is best to layer the pieces in order to demonstrate change over time.
I’d like to think that there are visionaries among us, like Paul Otlet or Vannevar Bush, who can imagine seemingly fictional systems that one day become reality. Hopefully the next version of the cataloging system will allow readers to reflect on the past while improving the connections between items for unprecedented access.
Necessity is the mother of invention is the expression that resonated in my mind as I read through this week’s readings that focus on the origins of knowledge organization and the development of information science. The huge increase in information following the industrial revolution and the mechanization of the printing processes meant new ways had to be created to organize the incredible expansion of the knowledge base. Melvil Dewey and Paul Otlet are two of the most important figures to rise to this challenge. Dewey, an easy figure to ridicule these days for his bigoted views, views, however, that continue to inform and influence a classification system still used in ninety-five percent of public school libraries in the US according to Weinberger’s figures, and Paul Otlet, who Alex Wright claims as the forgotten forefather of Information Architecture.
Of the two, Paul Otlet certainly holds most interest and has more currency as we move towards a semantic web of knowledge, and both the Rayward and the Wright pieces give fascinating accounts of the ambition and vision of the man who would create a system of Universal Decimal Classification, a system that went beyond Dewey to incorporate Ranganathan’s facets and foreshadow perhaps our current fixation with an information environment where, as Wright puts it “ social context in information is as important as topical content”.
The Alex Wright article introduced to me the word Mundaneum, which evoked in me memory of certain temp jobs, so I went online to determine whether it actually derived from the word “mundane.” I failed that part of the quest but learned that this same author recently published a book about Paul Otlet. The summary of the book on the amazon website provided phrases even more entertaining that the ones in the article, including defining the Mundaneum as the “steampunk version of hypertext,” and adds that beyond dubbing his envisioned network merely a réseau, he described it as a réseau mondiale – a worldwide web. Perhaps this article, published in 2003, started the thread of interest in Alex Wright that led to the book, which was published only last June.
But outside the steam punk fun of it, Wright reveals Otlet as a true visionary: “he simply believed that documents could best be understood as three-dimensional, with the third dimension being their social context: their relationship to time, language, other readers, writers and topics.” And later, “With the advent of the Semantic Web and related technologies . . . we are moving towards an environment where social context is becoming just as important as topic content.”
The chapter “The Geography of Knowledge” from Everything is Miscellaneous was entertaining and informative. One never gets tired of reading about Melvil Dewey, his bizarre fascination with the metric system, his attempt to make English more efficient, and his limited world view, which is only recently being acknowledged. While Weinberger acknowledges that Dewey’s perspective is that of a “small-minded American Christian jingoist,” he concludes “today’s category easily becomes tomorrow’s embarrassment,” and answers a question raised earlier, when we discussed radical cataloging, “The Dewey Decimal Classification system can’t be fixed because knowledge itself is unfixed. Knowledge is diverse, changing, imbued with the cultural values of the moment.” Case in point: Weinberger’s analysis of amazon.com, which examines its classification system, is described as “fun” and “friendly.” He describes its collection as a “miscellaneous pile that can be digitally sorted to reflect the individual interests of each visitor.” In fact, human beings are responsible for sorting through that pile in order to fulfill purchases, human beings employed by other human beings who may also be described as “small-minded.”
Weinberger’s book was published in 2008. In June, 2014, the Department of Labor launched an investigation of Amazon’s labor practices after two worker deaths. Labor practices have also been decried here, and here.
Even when you’re digital, everything is geography.