Classification and Categorization: Observations

Our readings this week focused on classification and categorization, ways to organize (and describe) items based on their subject. As we’ve discussed in previous weeks, one of the primary purposes for classification is to collocate items on a shelf. That is, to ensure that similar items are shelved together. As we’ve also discussed, the utility of physical or shelf classification is questioned by some in this age of search engines and OPACs, while others point out the continued utility of physical or electronic browsing, which is enabled by classification. Examples of classification schemes are Dewey Decimal Classification (DDC) or Library of Congress Classification (LCC).

A few of the readings also mentioned subject categorization by the assignment of subject headings. Subject headings are designed to indicate an item’s aboutness, what a document is about, its topic or subject. One of the most popular subject heading lists is the Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH)—not to be confused with the LCC mentioned above. (Yet another example of confusing library-world acronyms!)

Although they both describe what an item is about, subject headings differ from classification schemes in a few ways:

  1. Subject headings are presented in words or phrases similar to natural language. Classification schemes use some form of notation to indicate a subject. (See example below.)
  2. Each item is assigned only one classification code (it can have only one physical shelf location). However, an item is often assigned multiple subject headings. (See example below.)

Example subject headings (LCSH) and classification code (LCC) for a book:

  • LCSH:
    • Information organization.
    • Information organization > Technological innovations.
    • Library science > Information technology.
  • LCC:
    • Z666.5 .N49 2013g

Finally, here are a few questions to prompt your thinking as you post to the blog. Feel free to answer any of these, or instead to post your own comment or question(s).

  • What do you think of enumerative classification systems, as opposed to faceted or analytico-synthetic? What are some pros and cons of these systems?
  • What do you think of Hjorland’s assessment of classification’s continued purpose in the age of search engines like Google?
  • Rowley offered an in-depth look at subject heading systems. Like Hjorland, she concluded that these systems are still relevant for machine searching. Do you agree or disagree?
  • Libraries still hold large collections of physical books, though many are housing increasing parts of these collections in off-site storage facilities. Is shelf classification still useful for a library’s physical collection, or are new methods of shelving by book size (retrieving by barcode, often assisted by robotics) sufficient?
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About Dr. Starr Hoffman

I'm a Las Vegas-based, Texas-bred academic librarian (Head of Planning & Assessment at UNLV), with a PhD in Higher Education. When not researching (ha!), I'm traveling, writing, photographing, diving, geeking out, painting, reading, & discovering new hobbies with my husband.

4 thoughts on “Classification and Categorization: Observations

  1. Hjorland claims that, “in hindsight, the question arises as to whether KO has ever had a sound theoretical basis because questions such as: “How do we decide whether A is a kind of B?” have not been properly addressed in the field”. As I finished up our first assignment, I couldn’t help but think how arbitrary some of these classification systems seem. There is simply so much room for interpretation even in terms of something as simple as determining what is the main work and sub-works. One of the biggest issues I see, he describes as the fact that, “ontologies are not just neutral reflections of an objective reality, but are constructed from a world-view that is fruitful for some purposes and values, though at the expense of others.”

    1. In addition to the seemingly arbitrary nature of classification, I wonder how much subject knowledge is needed for classifying works of a particular subject, and how the extent of a librarian’s knowledge hinders or bolsters her classification practices. Hjorland appears to argue for user-based classification in stating, “The widespread philosophy that classification can be standardized and thus reused in different contexts seems problematic because different discourse communities develop their own terminology, meanings, and relevance criteria”(p. 302). Who would then know best the classification terms needed to locate items?

  2. I found the last question to be the most thought provoking. Classification systems assist patrons find materials by placing those materials in a definite order. Classification systems also group materials together by subject so it is easier to browse and find additional resources. As more resources are found online, and the print material is moved to an offsite location where retrieval of that material is assisted by robotics… is a classification system even necessary at that point? Standard classification systems like the Library of Congress and the Dewey Decimal System are only really helpful when finding the physical material, and even then these systems often confuse patrons. Patrons don’t see subjects when they look at a call number, they see a jumble of numbers and letters depending on the system. Now that Libraries are focusing their efforts on online material, I think it will be more useful to focus on subject headings that can be linked to various resources and faceted searching. That way, if a patron is looking for resources on Sculpture, we can tell them to go to the online catalog and click on the subject heading that reads “Sculpture.” Then they will be connected with online resources about sculpture, which is easier than sending them into the stacks to look for books starting with the call number “NB”. Maybe it’s time to start thinking of a better way to classify.

  3. Dr. Starr Hoffman – I would like to now what your opinion is on Hjorland’s assessment of classification’s continued purpose in the age of search engines like Google? Is Google an enemy for the librarian profession? Do we still have a future?

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