Colour

A sketch by British comedians The Two Ronnies explores the comic potential of a public library’s colour-based classification scheme. But the idea is not so absurd. Arrangement by colour is, in private libraries at least, an established way of shelving one’s books.

Stars, too, can be arranged by colour. Under the Morgan-Keenan system, the classification most commonly used by stellar astronomers, our sun is a G2V, with translates as “a ‘yellow’ two tenths towards ‘orange’ main-sequence star”. Library classifications are not arbitrary, and neither are stellar ones. As library classmarks provide a shorthand for bibliographical content, Morgan-Keenan colours designate spectral class, which describes the ionization of its photosphere, itself a measure of a star’s temperature.

Most stars are classified using the letters O, B, A, F, G, K, and M, with O stars the hottest and M the coolest. O stars are called ‘blue’, B stars ‘blue-white’, A stars ‘white’, F stars ‘yellow-white’, G stars ‘yellow’, K stars ‘orange’, and M stars ‘red’. A number indicates tenths of the range between two successive classes, and the Roman numerals I to VII the star’s luminosity, which is indicative of its size.

Library classification tends to evolve over time to reflect socio-political changes. Stellar classification remains fixed, though the objects themselves slide through the scheme, over billions of years, before falling out altogether. Stellar classification has hard boundaries, and at the end of a star’s life, the remnants (neutron stars, black holes, and exotic stars), though still astronomical objects, can no longer be schematically described.

Perec

‘Behind every utopia there is always some great taxonomic design: a place for each thing and each thing in its place.’

I’m guilty of autobiography-by-Venn-diagram on social media platforms. List enough character traits, interests, activities, likes and loves, and one’s true self must stand unique at the intersection of each circle, right? I’m not alone in assuming this – it’s a common tendency among librarians, revealing our desire to reduce the world to tidy lists, and demonstrating an awkward truth about how close the profession comes to self-parody.

George Perec also worked in a library, and true to form, was very fond of cats. But Perec’s Venn diagram would be as inimitable as his literary style. He was a paratrooper, a cruciverbalist, and an obsessive maker-of-lists. A holocaust orphan, an eponym of an astronomical object, and an archivist too.

Perec is famed for his experimental novels and eclectic essays. Few realize that he also had a day job, sorting records at a medical research library, even at the height of his fame. Perhaps the routine banality was an escape from literary absurdity, or an anvil for his hobby, for Perec was an informal classificationist of some significance. His ‘Notes brèves sur ľart et la manière de ranges ses livres’ (‘Brief notes on the art and manner of arranging one’s books‘) is both a light-hearted and a deeply intellectual look at a perennial problem – how to best arrange one’s private library?

The longer Penser/Classer (Think/Classify, or the inadequate Thoughts of Sorts, in Bellos’ recent translation) imagines humanity’s attempts at ordering the world as farce. Perec’s lack of rigour and preference for verbal play over analysis does not endear him to many classificationists. But in confessing his profound bafflement as to how we make sense of existence, his meta-classification unveils the quixoticism of our attempts to codify the quicksilver of nature. ‘Taxonomy,’ he confesses ‘can make your head spin.’

Dragons

In the mid-17th century Athanasius Kircher recorded a description given by a Swiss government official of a dragon he had sighted in the Alps: ‘Its wings were agitated with much celerity; its body was long as well as its tail and neck. Its head was that of a serpent with teeth, and when it was flying, sparks were coming out of it like the embers thrown by an incandescent iron when struck by smiths on an anvil.’ The cracking of glaciers may have provoked beliefs in winged monsters among uneducated villagers. The sober prefect’s account defied Kircher’s attempts at explanation.

Kircher, a German Jesuit, was known as ‘The Master of 100 Arts’. Johann Jakob Scheuchzer, a near-contemporary Swiss scholar, had more focused interests. A Fellow of the Royal Society, compiler of the 18th century’s definitive maps of the Alps, and one of the fathers of paleobiology, he was no more inclined to believe in tall tales, His Itinera Alpina Tria, an account of the journeys he made between 1702 and 1704, was sponsored by Isaac Newton and Hans Sloane.

But a single chapter, his catalogue of Alpine dragons, meant that no early-modern naturalist could take Scheuchzer seriously. Alongside eye-witness reports he provided a complex taxonomy of dragon subspecies, among them ‘winged, wingless, without feet and many footed’, similar to the categories used in Chinese mythology. J.R.R. Tolkien probably drew upon Scheuchzer’s accounts when designing his own taxonomic system for dragons. Tolkien classified according to locomotion and fire-breathing. His dragons, unlike Tolkien’s cosy feudalism, also evolve – winged dragons appear in later eras than wingless ones. What unifies all of Tolkien’s dragons is a love of gold.

Style

One of the ‘Principles’ of RDA is ‘Uniformity’ (RDA 0.4.3.8). RDA’s Introduction provides a self-referential definition, but we don’t really need it – the idea is easy to understand. Uniformity has always been an aim of cataloguing practice – we try both to make our bibliographical records internally consistent and replicate the same principles of description across them. MARC hampers the former aim, but AACR2, by deferring to the Chicago Manual of Style and Webster’s New International Dictionary, led to a long-desired terminological grounding and stylistic universality.

RDA, notoriously, defers to the cataloguer’s judgment and the convenience of the user. It recognizes the fact of local policy definitions, and it authorizes them: ‘If the agency creating the data has established in-house guidelines for capitalization, punctuation, numerals, symbols, abbreviations, etc., or has designated a published style manual, etc…. as its preferred guide, use those guidelines or that style manual in the place of the instructions given under 1.7.2 – 1.7.9 and in the appendices.’ RDA offers itself as a style guide while simultaneously inciting cataloguers to defy it.

In other words, anything goes. Local policies should only be necessary to resolve ambiguities. The LCRIs were good at that when it came to AACR2. But attempts to cleanse the catalogue of grammatical ugliness, the stylistic preferences of other nations, abbreviations unfamiliar to the man on the Clapham Omnibus, or personal peeves, are all roads to hell. The conceit of cataloguers, cataloguing divisions, and the scribes of RDA to know more about style than the writers of the world’s most definitive style guide is astounding. And it is the enemy of uniformity.

Schmidt

In a 2009 interview with Wired magazine, Google CEO Eric Schmidt said: “…do you think search is a solved problem? … we do not. We think there are many, many things that can be done to improve search. Would you like to be able to say to Google, ‘What should I do tomorrow?’ or ‘Where are my car keys?’ We’re just at the beginning of answering the really hard questions. We’re good now at cataloguing, indexing stuff that’s already been written. But what about meaning, what about understanding real intent? These are very, very hard problems, and search is the way to access those.”

Librarians tend to see Google as a threat, a rival, a menace, a danger. Only rarely do we appreciate Google’s successes in information retrieval, and how much like ours the company’s goals are. Google is the most successful cataloguing organization in history. Attempts to play off Google against librarians (see this notorious, reactionary and reductionist polemic by Phil Bradley) are a mug’s game. Many say that Google makes finding information too easy. That sounds like the textile workers who complained that spinning frames and power looms produced cloth too quickly. History has not looked kindly on the Luddites.

The interview had scarcely begun when Schmidt  upbraided the journalist as though he were speaking to Bradley: “You’re putting the questions into a negative context rather than looking at it from the standpoint of innovation and growth – which is how we think. Your questions imply an industrial model and a limited model, but that’s not in fact how the world works. And Google is about taking advantage of this enormous opportunity.”

Catalogical

Susan David Bernstein deploys a peculiar neologism in her new book on the British Museum’s Victorian readers. One of her critical tools is a ‘catalogical reading’ of female presence in the Museum’s Round Reading Room. The approach isn’t given enough methodological underpinning for us to know precisely what Bernstein is trying to achieve, but one of its outcomes is to highlight the value of catalogues, broadly defined, as an archival source.

Bernstein takes her cue from Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, one of the most famous, influential and distortive uses of a library catalogue in literature. Woolf’s highly-selective transcription of the contents of the Reading Room’s catalogue entry for ‘women’ provides her with plentiful ammunition for an assault on patriarchy. Her misrepresentation is unfair to the catalogue’s compilers and, as Bernstein establishes, has occluded the feminist history of the Reading Room.

My review of the book, Roomscape: Women Writers in the British Museum from George Eliot to Virginia Woolf, appears in the July 18, 2013 edition of the Times Higher Education.

Logic

Phyllis Allen Richmond (1921-1997) was one of the greatest 20th-century classificationists, and I return to her writings whenever I despair of the obscurity and narrow focus general among many modern writers in the field. I share her skepticism of the library classification schemes that attempt to make the world fit an inflexible model, however granular or faceted that model might be.

Her essay, ‘Some aspects of basic research in classification’ published in Library Resources and Technical Services in the Spring of 1960, takes some well-aimed potshots at the cult of Ranganathian subject analysis, then prevalent. Here’s a brief extract:

‘The Dewey, Universal Decimal and Bliss classifications are made primarily by logical division, which is mirrored to some extent in their notations. The Library of Congress classification, in contrast, is definitely non-logical and the notation is largely ordinal. This classification functions as well, if not better, than the others. A non-logical classification has the great advantage of flexibility, since one may add to it rather freely without upsetting the whole pattern. The fact that the Library of Congress classification is displayed in an almost random fashion, after some initial form divisions in each main class, does not seem to be a disadvantage in its operation. In a non-conventional classification, the elements of each category may be expressed either in a logical or a non-logical manner. The advantage of variability, rather than the display of relationships, is the chief motivation for choosing a non-logical arrangement.’