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.
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.’
The search engine AltaVista was switched off today – the site now redirects to Yahoo, its owner since 2003. For those of us who began to use the internet in the late 1990s, this marks a sad moment, tinged with irony. The attempt to mimic Yahoo by converting a dependable search interface into a portal for shopping and free email is what started AltaVista on its protracted journey to the internet graveyard.
AltaVista’s program for locating and categorizing websites found more webpages than were were believed to exist at its founding in 1995. But the search box also relied on an efficient index accessed on extensive hardware. AltaVista was the first searchable full-text database of a significant part of the Web.
It abandoned streamlined search in 1999. A year previously two PhD students at Stanford had the idea that reliable, dedicated search could, on its own, provide a Trojan Horse to monetizable web services. So the established AltaVista lost out to the upstart Google because it gave up doing what it was good at to enter a market it had no expertise in. I think there’s a lesson for librarians there.
The recent revelations about America’s security agencies have pushed the word ‘metadata’, hitherto familiar only to computer scientists and librarians, into the limelight. Thankfully, I haven’t yet come across one of my least favourite collocations, familiar from dozens of PowerPoint presentations and at least 75,000 webpages. The commonplace definition of metadata as ‘literally “data about data”‘ is true only if we believe, like Humpty Dumpty, that words mean whatever we want them to mean.
Metadata is data. In an oversimplified sense it is data about data. But not literally.
The Ancient Greek prefix ‘meta-‘ means ‘with’, ‘after’, or ‘between’. In the first century AD Aristotle’s lectures on the principles and causes of change were gathered together as ‘τὰ φυσικά’ (ta phusika, i.e. ‘on nature’). His treatises on causation, matter and God as the first mover came next in the arrangement, and were thus known as τὰ μετὰ τὰ φυσικά (ta meta ta phusika, i.e. ‘[the writings] after “on nature”‘), ‘metaphysica’ in Latin. The word became associated with the topics under discussion, and metaphysics ended up as the branch of philosophy dealing with first principles.
During the twentieth-century ‘meta-‘ began to be applied to certain words, in an analogy with philosophy, with the sense of ‘beyond’, ‘above’, or ‘at a higher level’. With this implication, it was first appended to data sets in 1969. But the prefix does not, and never has, imposed any self-referential quality over the word which follows it.