Contention

Fun with Google Ngram Viewer, pt. 2.

The chart below delineates references to five library classification schemes (Dewey Decimal Classification, Library of Congress Classification, Universal Decimal Classification, Colon classification, and Bliss Bibliographic Classification) in books published between 1950 and 2008. As the search terms are relatively uncommon in the Google Books corpus, I’ve smoothed the data by using 5-year rolling averages. The terms are case-insensitive.

ngram (major classification schemes)

Classifiers won’t be surprised to see DDC and LCC dominating today. Published interest in other schemes has almost been extinguished in the English-speaking world. But the early data hints at a radically different perspective on library classification two generations ago, when faceted schemes looked like realistic alternatives to the two (mainly) enumerative schemes now ascendant.

In the late 1950s, there were more printed references to UDC than to any other scheme; the same was true of Colon classification in the early to mid 1960s. Interest in BC peaked in the 1980s. No other classification scheme generates statistically meaningful data.

The fall-off in discussion of individual schemes has not been as precipitous as that for library classification generally. Updates to DDC and LCC continue to be published regularly, maintaining a background hum of references.

Attenuation

The Google Ngram Viewer visualizes phrase and word usage across the 5.2 million books digitized by Google up to 2012. Results are normalized by the number of books published in each year, and smoothed using a moving average of three years. The chart for ‘library classification’ shows a worrying trend.

ngram (library classification)

It makes sense that interest in classification, as reflected in Google’s corpus, peaked in the 1960s. Many American research libraries converted to LCC at this time. The decade was also the heyday of Classification Research Group, based in London, and the Classification Research Study Group, led by Phyllis Richmond.

But have yesterday’s questions about classification really been settled? With most public and school libraries using Dewey, and academic and research libraries using LCC, is there nothing more to talk about? Have online tools such as Classification Web, WebDewey, and OCLC’s Classify, replaced the need for classification training in library pedagogy, and left communities of practice with little to discuss?

If so, we’re becoming dangerously complacent. LC does a superb job of maintaining LCC, but as I’ve argued elsewhere, the scheme suffers from systematic bias. Dewey is even worse – it maintains the prejudices of its creator, and the overconfidence of a precocious young man straight out of his undergraduate degree.

Dewey is so hopelessly out of date, and unnecessarily overcomplicated, that viable alternatives are now being implemented. But how can we reclassify if we’ve stopped talking about classification? And how can we classify if we don’t even know what classification is?

Alcatraz

James A. Johnson, the first warden of Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary, was a strict disciplinarian. His solution to prison violence was rigid adherence to Golden Rules, including one which dictated, to the inch, the location of shaving brushes within each cell. “Old Saltwater”, as he was known, was popular with the inmates. He ate with them, unguarded.

Alcatraz inherited the library of the military citadel which had formerly stood on the island. In 1937, at Johnson’s instigation, new books were purchased, and a printed catalogue compiled. Each new prisoner received a copy of the catalogue on arrival.

Inmates were not allowed to enter the library. They ordered reading material using request slips placed, at breakfast time, in a box near the dining hall. Three standard books, and up to twelve textbooks, could be borrowed. The library was popular – the average monthly circulation in 1937 was 8.2 books per prisoner. The prison chaplain excised all references to sex, crime, and violence.

Did personal ownership of a catalogue, or selection solely by means of it, make the prisoners keener readers? It’s a quaint idea. A Federal Bureau of Prisons booklet, published in 1960, noted that “these men read more serious literature than does the ordinary person in the community. Philosophers such as Kant, Schopenhauer, and Hegel, etc. are especially popular.”

That’s the same Hegel who characterized history as a “butcher’s block”. The Schopenhauer who wrote, in detail, about crime and punishment in The World as Will and Idea. And the Kant whose Lectures on Ethics and his Metaphysics of Morals contain discussions of what the philosopher calls “unnatural and unmentionable vices”. Perhaps the chaplain wasn’t too hot on philosophy. Good cataloguing or botched censorship? Or a bit of both? Take your pick.

Alveary

Underused library word no. 243.

The Oxford English dictionary defines “Alveary” as “1a: ‘A repository, esp. of knowledge or information. Originally as the name of a dictionary encompassing several languages… It may be used Metaphorically for… a Library full of Books.’ 1b. ‘A beehive. Also: the location where a beehive stands; an apiary. Now rare.'”

In mythology and heraldry, beehives stand for industry and co-operation. In Freemasonary, and in the Mormon Church, they are used as a symbolic caution against intellectual laziness. Richard FoxeLouis McNeice, and Sarah Thomas, among others, have deployed them as metaphors for libraries. It is no accident that the hexagonal galleries, walls, and bookshelves of Borges’ Library of Babel reflect a beehive’s internal architecture.

Natural beehives are quite different from the artificial kind. But they too have a certain structure. Honey is stored in the upper part of the comb. Then come rows of pollen-storage cells, then worker-brood cells, then drone-brood cells. Queen cells are usually located on the lower edge of the comb.

Artificial beehives seek to bring greater order and efficiency to honey production and storage by disturbing this verticality. Humans have been building artificial beehives since antiquity, but it wasn’t until the nineteenth century that recognizably modern designs were used. Today there are two main types – the Langstroth hive and the top-bar hive.

Two main systems, both developed in the nineteenth century? Attempts to bring order to the quiet chaos of the natural world? Sounds a lot like library classification. It seems that the metaphor can be pushed further still.

Donkeys

Even in rural Devon there is no escape from taxonomy.

The donkeys of Sidmouth’s Sanctuary are gathered together in fields and barns according to their prior histories, vision (or lack thereof), podiatric or respiratory problems and, in the case of Poitou donkeys, breed.  They are described by their place of origin, sex, age, and temperament. They all have names. And they are classified, like stars and George Perec’s books, by colour. Each animal has one or more large plastic collars about its neck. The bands come in different shades, offering a quick signpost for the sanctuary’s workers (many of them volunteers) to individual dietary and medical requirements. It’s a quick and clever way to make sure that each donkey gets the right meal and medicine.

Throughout history donkeys have been symbols of determination, intelligence (and stupidity), strength, peace, humility and versatility. The pregnant Mary was carried upon one. Christ entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday on a donkey’s back. Midas, and the Irish king Breas, had donkey’s ears in their respective legends (Sarah Morris, a classicist at UCLA, has argued that donkey’s ears were a royal attribute in Bronze Age Anatolia). But donkeys also provide metaphors for questions in classification, such as those related to:

Definition: Donkeys provided a test case in a recent zoological controversy over whether domesticated and wild animals ought to be given different formal taxonomic descriptions.

Etymology: ‘Donkey’ is one of the relatively small number of English words (in excellent company alongside curmudgeon, transmogrify, pixie, strawberry and skedaddle) whose etymological origins are unknown or unclear.

Substitution: Until the eighteenth century, donkeys were referred to as asses. Modern usage has replaced a previously popular synonym homophonic with an anatomical term used as a term of abuse, just as roosters were once cocks, and rabbits coneys.

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 the 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.’