Response to Classification Readings – Elizabeth Frank

At last, a reading summons the looming specter of Alice in Wonderland, who has been haunting these proceedings since we first discussed “what to call things!” The chapter “Bibliographic classification is a secondary form,” was full of juicy literary and philosophical allusions and mentions both Alice and Humpty Dumpty but not the passage which has been flickering through my head since I started this class:

‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’
‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’
‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master — that’s all.’

Which is to be master in all the alphabet soup systems of classification we’re learning of? But, “Is classification necessary in the age of Google?” Author Hjørland posits that we must distinguish between libraries which function as tools for finding documents, and libraries which provide reference services. He introduces the new (to me) term “library bypass,” which I was guilty of even before I started library school.
An example: this week, I was asked to compile a list of the most significant product liability MDL’s (multidistrict litigation) in the past two-three years. On the online publication Law 360, this was a simple advanced search function of their catalogue of stories within a specified date range: with all of the words: “product liability,” with the exact phrase “MDL.” (Once upon a time, this would have been a question for the library and would have taken hours longer.)

In Hjørland’s system of organization, product liability is a KIND of MDL, and it is my search constituted what he calls a “free text system.” Although Hjørland establishes his expertise by citing/quoting himself no fewer than four times, I was unclear about what sort of system he was championing the classification of – was it a proprietary online system or the world wide web – which remained unclear to me until near his conclusion, when he stated: “If such a hierarchy is formed, it might be possible to construe algorithms that – to some degree of certainty – can classify the documents automatically . . . leading to ‘supervised machine learning,’” as Rachel mentioned in class last week.

The first chapter of Faceted Searches did a better job, I thought, of explaining how things can be (because that’s how they currently are) organized on the web (and in the Dewey Decimal System), “the object of arrangement is to organize items . . . rather than to organize abstract concepts.”

I’m glad I saved the Choudhury for last. I’ve learned to read the livelier writers first, although the Choudhurys are certainly consitently well-organized in their presentation.

The organization of abstract concepts is best left to the giants in the field – Dewey and Raganathan, all the way back to Aristotle. Perhaps whoever gets the machines to speak to one another spontaneously about concepts rather than items will be the next pioneer in knowledge organization

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