“The real problem is that any map of knowledge assumes that knowledge has a geography, that it has a top-down view, that it has a shape.”
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the subjectivity of knowledge organization and the inevitability that culture will change and the system will become outdated.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.
I really appreciated the breadth covered by our readings this week. I was drawn at first to Hjørland’s piece because the title is a question I’ve had in my mind since starting library school. How much will people rely on how items are cataloged in libraries if they are using the Internet to search for things? I stopped myself from reading this piece first and started instead with the readings that tackled the foundations of classification. I appreciated Steckel’s article on Ranganathan and his methodologies for “classification, management, reference, administration” and other subjects, as well as the Straight Dope piece on Dewey. Both provided succinct backgrounds on two of the biggest names in this discipline. It was also interesting to get a perspective on Dewey from an obvious fan; I feel like the majority of what I’ve been exposed to so far has been largely critical of the Dewey Decimal System. Though I can see the flaws of DDC and the Library of Congress system, I’m happy to view both of these systems through many lenses to get a better picture of how they are useful and how they can be improved.
After getting a better understanding of the history of classification and the true necessity of it in order to organize knowledge, I returned to Hjørland. Early in his piece, he talks about the abandonment of classification by the Royal Library in Copenhagen and the State Library in Aarhus. The reasons those two Danish institutions left cataloging behind center on their belief that global services, like WorldCat, make it possible to obtain disseminated MARC records for items, while large scanning projects will eventually make full text of “all available content” possible, and user tagging “will somehow act as a substitute for professional indexing and classification.”
My reactions to these ideas are on both sides of the argument. As a future librarian, I’m somewhat appalled at the idea of banking on scanning projects that may not happen for many years (or at all based on copyright issues) and user tagging to accurately depict information about items that will be useful for all patrons. Anyone who has used social media can understand what a bad idea relying on the general public for the only information about something could be! On the other hand, I think it’s smart of libraries to acknowledge the modern user and to realize that most people will encounter WorldCat via Google before the individual library’s OPAC.
I’ve come away from these readings with more respect for the foundations of cataloging, while also appreciating the challenge of incorporating these (possibly antiquated) rules into the digital world.
Thinking about this week’s readings on classification reminds me, as did last week’s cataloging reading, of Christina Harlow’s assertion during our class in week six: that you can add all the outreach and community service programs to the public librarian skill set that you like but it is knowledge organization that is the foundation of our profession as librarians, be we technical, academic, youth service oriented librarians or busy managing an archive.
The importance of classification is made clear in all the readings – it is, as Langridge notes, “a practical necessity”, one that allegedly led Dewey at one point to suggest, “knowledge is classification” while this might be stretching things a bit, what struck me as being the major issues in the Straight Dope.com and the Hjørland readings is the sheer variety of classification systems that exist – one size (type of classification) does not fit all libraries – but certain classification systems do fit many, e.g. the Dewey Decimal System that has the majority of public libraries on board, and the Library of Congress system that has governments (in the U.S.) and academic libraries all sewn up. Added to these systems are UDC, Rangathan’s rarely used but, hugely influential Colon Classification system that draws on a faceted approach to classification, plus the myriad of new ways of classifying, particularly e-resources, in the age of digital information, and Hjørland’s point about how can LIS professional compete and / or contribute to users finding documents is given more urgency.
Mike Steckel’s pithy Introduction to Ranganathan for Information Architects, helps us to keep calm and carry on when he reminds us of Ranganathan’s fifth law of Library Science:
The library is a living organism: We need to plan and build with the expectation that our sites and our users will grow and change over time. Similarly we need to always keep our own skill levels moving forward.
How best can classification serve libraries and their users will no doubt be an going topic of debate.
I enjoyed all the readings this week. It was extremely helpful to learn the historical and contextual backgrounds that led to each classification scheme. The articles successfully built upon one another to provide a fuller understanding of the concepts in contrast to solely reading about disparate classification systems in a textbook.
When I was reading Chowdhury ( I read the chapter first), I kept thinking, “What’s the big deal? Why can’t libraries just pick a system and stick to it?” After reading the articles, though, I realized just how big a deal it was. Many times we take classification for granted as a natural occurrence. However, Langridge reminds us that not only are classifications constructed, but that objects are rarely mutually exclusive and can therefore theoretically be classed in countless categories in infinite ways. This “relativity of classification” is epitomized in the article’s inclusion of the excerpt from Alice’s Adventure’s in Wonderland when the pigeon places Alice (a little girl) and a serpent in the same category: egg eaters.
Ranganathan’s Colon Classification counters the rigidity of DDC and LC systems as he seems to approach knowledge organization from a more global, big picture standpoint. Facets have merit in the fact that cataloging shouldn’t be a subjective practice relying on an individual’s “worldview” nor should items be pigeonholed into inappropriate divisions and subdivisions.
A central theme in the articles and a question that kept coming up was “What is the purpose of classification?” According to Langridge, the purpose is “to organize the knowledge produced by specialists so that it may be available for whosoever requires it.” Simple enough. However, the many ways knowledge is organized can be just as important. Hjorland writes, “classifications reflect the purposes for which they are designed and that different sciences, theories, and human activities classify the world (more or less) differently.” The way materials are categorized in a collection can even change use patterns. Certain classifications can also subconsciously or consciously influence how people view cultures and learn about them. For example, in classifying art and literature in Western cultures, the individual maker/artist/creator is emphasized and valued more highly than works created collaboratively or by multiple sources.
So if library users and the way they create and retrieve information has changed, should the classification of collections change? I don’t know if there is an answer to this question, but it is interesting to critique the systems and approach them from another lens.
The entry on cataloging from the Encyclopedia of Library and Information Sciences mentions user-experience and functional requirements as important to the catalog of the future. These catchphrases led me to think of the term “design thinking.” How can libraries create a catalog and retrieval experience that works, as mentioned by David Levy in Cataloging in the Digital Order, to “generalize, to make universal” while considering “local conditions”? I think Levy was right-on in understanding that the work requires “knowledge from multiple work communities.”
Here’s an interesting example of a user-centered approach to cataloging: In January 2011, librarians at the Ethical Cultural Fieldston School, a private elementary school in New York City, set out to create a new cataloging system — to replace the 136-year-old Dewey system that they felt deterred even advanced students from finding materials. Collaborating with grade-wide teams, the librarians successfully rolled out a system of “categorization” with a focus on topics and subtopics rather than precise classifications. The system was driven by three guiding principles: child-centered, browsable, and flexible.