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Questions of access and organisation, classification and validation

I feel captured, solidified, and pinned to a butterfly board. Like any common living thing, I fear and reprove classification and the death it entails, and I will not allow its clutches to lock me down, although I realize I can never lure myself into simply escaping it. [→Trinh T. Minh-ha, 1989]

Library scholar and librarian Emily Drabinski sits in the classroom running an information literacy session for first-year students at Sarah Lawrence College in New York. It’s part of their African-American women's history course. They discuss the on-going revisions of the Library of Congress subject headings in this field: from NEGRO WOMEN to BLACK WOMEN to AFRO-AMERICAN WOMEN etc. The headings in the Library of Congress have been under scrutiny by critical library scholars and activists since the publication of Sanford Berman’s influential study “Prejudices and Antipathies – a tract on LC subject headings concerning people” in 1971 and have been continuously changed and adapted overtime in an attempt to eliminate political biases and racism. One of the students raises her hand: “I am quite interested in the history of White women — do I need to search for the term “White Women” in the library?”

What this question points at is that representation (and organisation) of knowledge is not neutral, as it appears. Many users take the classification for granted “as though it were a natural landscape rather than a well-manicured lawn that is the product of intellectual labor”. [→ Olson] The answer to the student’s question is: no, there is no main subject heading for 'white women'. While we wish the Library of Congress Classification would acknowledge White as one racial category amongst others and as a marker of domination, it does not. "The Library of Congress is rooted in the historical structures of White supremacy, as such, the catalog presumes White to be the normative term." While claiming a neutral and universal approach, "library classifications use the hegemonic language of the powerful. They reflect, produce, and reproduce hierarchies." [→Drabinski, 2008, p.201]

Universal Language and "controlled vocabulary

A large body of research has documented biases of gender, sexuality, age, class, ethnicity, language and religion in the construction of a universal language in the naming of information for retrieval. This universal language uses a controlled vocabulary to represent documents. It limits diversity and has a direct practical impact on the reader searching for materials outside of a traditional mainstream, materials crossing disciplines or marginalized topics.

This controlled vocabulary appears unbiased and universally applicable - but it actually hides its exclusions under the guise of neutrality. Olson traces the presumption of universality back to Charles Cutter’s "Rules for a Printed Dictionary Catalog" (1876) the reference for the Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH), the major standard in North America’s libraries today and to Melvil Dewey’s introduction to the Dewey Decimal Classification (DDC - also published in 1876).

Charles Cutter’s misguided democratic ideal

Cutter’s rationale to create a controlled vocabulary sounds like a democratic approach to serve the public, which uses the library. A uniform language is easy to use for the cataloguer as well as for the user. Exceptions and inconsistencies in the uniformity are allowed and even asked for if it serves “the public’s habitual way of looking at things.” [→ Cutter, xxx] The problem, as Hope Olson points out, is the article “the” in the public, envisioning a community of library users with a unified perspective. It is a singular public, who defines the language inevitably excluding those who do not seem to fit into this community. A community in singular shares cultural, social, or political interests and excludes those, which are different. The majority opinion is imposed on everyone. It is important to note, that the library at this point in time was used almost exclusively by an educated, Western, white, Christian, male, heterosexual readership. For Cutter, then, this singular public dictates the vocabulary of a universal language for representation of information in the library.

Dewey’s obsession: efficiency and universality

Dewey advocated universal language in the introductions to his classification as the need to avoid confusion for efficient communication. As Olson points out, in the introduction to the first edition of DDC (1876) Dewey uses the word "confusion" twice, but the introduction to DDC13 (1932) he uses "confuzion" twenty-one times. Dewey sees a diversity of language introduced by "different librarians" at "different times” with "different viewpoints" "cauzing confuzion". That leds him to call for introducing a universal standard to avoid this confusion. However he seems not so much pre-occupied with how to represent the content of the material or the meaning-making process the scheme enables for the library user: he seems obsessed with efficiency, time-saving and capital:

'Clasification is a necesity if all material on any givn subject is to be redily found. The labor of making one's own classification is uzualy prohibitiv, if wel dun. By adopting the skeme in jeneral use by libraries this labor is saved and numbers ar in harmony with those of thousands of other catalogs and indexes in which the same number has the same meaning; for, as pointed out at a recent international congress, these numbers ar the only international languaj of perfectly fefinit meaning amung all civilized nations; and also cheapest and quickest in application.' (Dewey, 1932, p.43)

Dewey’s obsession with standardisation and efficiency and his sense to capitalise on his library business is well documented and might have overruled the consideration of how the catalogue actually works for the user.

Library as Disciplinary Institution

Dewey Decimal System (DDC) and the Library of Congress Classification (LCC) are the most widely used classifications systems in research and public libraries worldwide. LCC is the de facto standard in research libraries in the United States. DDC is the most widely spread outside and is also used increasingly to organize Web indexing collections of Universal Resource Libraries (URL). (Olson 2001,p641)

Both classifications systems, DDC and LCC, are arranged not by subject, but by disciplines. (Philosophy (1), Religion (2), Social Sciences (3), Language (4) Natural Sciences (5), Technology (6), The Arts (7), Literature & Rhetoric (8), Geography & History (9). (See 'Dewey for Windows', 1998).

Hope Olson discusses how the main facet of these classification schemes is based on disciplines and lays out its genealogy as deeply rooted in Western, Medieval and Renaissance philosophy reaching back from Aristoteles’ to Francis Bacon’s classification of knowledge to Georg Friedrich Wilhelm Hegel via William T. Harris, (who developed the St. Louis public school library system) to Dewey, who borrowed from Harris, when he developed his classification scheme while working as a library assistant at Amherst College in 1876. How, I ask, comes then that Dewey is the most used classification system in libraries worldwide – bearing in mind that is so heavily contextualised in Western philosophy – missing out on different perspectives on human knowledge?

Classification — an architecture, meant to house the universe of knowledge

Melvil Dewey imagined a cabinet of nine pigeon-holes on an office desk: Each case represents one of the nine classes and allows for nine subdivisions (pigeonholes) as a way to efficiently organise. He favours mass production over costume made solutions:

'The skeme givs us for each topic, as it wer, a case of 9 pijeonholes, with a larj space at the top; and we uze them as every practical business man uzes such pijeonholes about his desk.... If [a businessman] insisted on having a different case made to order for each use, it wud cost over twice as much; he cud not group them together or interchanje them, and they wud not fit offis shelvs.' [→Dewey, DDC13 1932].

We can also imagine Dewey classes as separate rooms in a house. Each new entry into the library has to go into one room (hierarchy). The house has no interconnecting doors. The document can’t live in two rooms or use the corridor to travel back and forth (relationships). Once put in one room it mostly stays in this room (permanence, inflexibility). But into one only and that’s the problem: A decision has to be made, what this document or book is about. Or what is it “most” about. Someone needs to decide what is the most important aspect of the book (first facet) what is the second important (subdivision) etc. This creates a hierarchy.

Philosopher Elizabeth Spelman describes such hierarchy as powerful performative device: 'Imagine a huge customs hall with numerous doors, marked "women", "men", "Afro-American", "Asian-American", "Euro-American", "Hispanic- American", "working class", "middle class" "upper class", "lesbian", "gay", "heterosexual", and so forth... The doors are arranged in banks, so that each person faces the first bank of doors that sort according to gender, then a bank that sort according to race, or alternatively sort first according to race, then according to class, then according to gender, and so on'. (Spelman 1988, p. 144) Different criteria of sorting create different results: 'We get different pictures of people's identities, of the extent to which one person shares some aspect of identity with another, depending on what the doors are, how they are ordered, and people are supposed to proceed through them' [→Spelman 1988, p. 146].

Who decides? 'Classification schemes are socially produced and embedded structures', says Drabinski, 'they are products of human labor that carry traces of all the intentional and unintentional racism, sexism, and classism of the workers who create them. It is not possible to do classification objectively. It is the nature of subject analysis to be subjective'. [→Drabinski, 2008, p. 198]

Sameness and Difference

Classification gathers things according to their commonalities. Olson (2001) discusses the effectiveness of this duality in Western culture. We implement it from early childhood. It is a principle which helps organizing things. It can be temporal (in the same, or chronological period), spatial (relating to the same region) or used (most frequently used) or organized by similar material qualities ( size, colour, format, i.e. journal, book etc). On my bookshelf, I organize books by size, as it saves shelf space. In the charity shop, I visit from time to time clothes are organised by colour. The green rack, for example, displays a variety of garments: trousers, jumpers, hats, skirts and dresses — what they have in common is their green colour.

Thoughts and creative effort have been invested by many engaged librarians in order to develop local, independent or modified schemes, which serve their users in a better way. The Ethical Culture School in New York developed together with their students METIS. They found out, that some sections were under-used such as “Languages” which was turned into “Community,” “Craft” is now labelled “Making Stuff.” But the most radical step was to mix the classic categories of “fiction” and “non-fiction.” Based on the idea it is not the cataloger making the decision, but the students themselves. It is the student who is invited to evaluate what is imagination and what is information and discover the blurred lines in between. Here the catalogue is turned into an educational tool, a starting point for thoughts and discussions about the distinction between fact and fiction. (See also Weinmayr, 'Library Underground', part II 'Infinite Hospitality' in Publishing as Artistic Practice, 2016, p. 167)

I am particularly interested in Eastside Projects' (Birmingham) attempt to organise their book collection for their art space. They came up with a list of verbs for classification. This move put emphasis on the agency of the books, what they are doing, rather what they are about:

And 4 special sections:
Jonathan Monk collection
Mithu Sen (this need some protection, very fragile books)

The confusion, Dewey is so consistently tackling, can potentially be generative and creative. The anticipation which lays in the messiness and disorder is described by Walter Benjamin when unpacking his library: 'The books are not yet on the shelves, not yet touched by the mild boredom of order.' His interest lays in collecting not in the collection.

Another critique could be developed from Spivak’s observation about disciplines and area studies: The notion, […] that the world can be divided into knowable, self-contained “areas” has come into question as more attention has been paid to movements between areas. Demographic shifts, diasporas, labor migrations, the movements of global capital and media, and processes of cultural circulation and hybridization have encouraged a more subtle and sensitive reading of areas’ identity and composition. [→ Spivak, Death of a discipline, p17]

What we need is a "non-exhaustive taxonomy and provisional system making,[… that ] that keeps the door open to the 'to come'". (→ Spivak, p 21) Working with such non-exhaustive taxonomies emphasis process and the techniques for acquiring knowledge. This procedural knowledge, as Gillingham proposes, distinguishes between knowing and connected knowing. “Separate knowing is exemplified by the distance between the knowing subject and the object to be known and is based on traditional/Aristotelian logic (p. 114). Connected knowing privileges experience and relies on connections to others to discover what they know. The knowing subject learns through empathy, putting herself in the place of the object to be known rather than maintaining distance. (page 15)

With every type of establishment comes the desire to create "standards" - a sequence of operational actions or behaviours that maintain and classify activity, generally imposed for clarity, universality and in some cases, and perhaps most importantly, to save time and money. [→Di Franco, 2014]

[talk about cataloguing workshops, at Leeds, Kunstverein Munich, Grand Union Birmingham.]

[accountability for daily habits (Bateson, Spivak), situatedness (Haraway), power relations. Imagining (Spivak)]

Facts about "Appendix"