onsdag 15 september 2010

But.....do we really need it?

I'm having a quiet evening. Silent. Today's work consisted of a department board meeting in the morning followed by a four hour lecture on "the history and theory of classification" in the afternoon. Having gone through the Aristotelian divisions of knowledge and their impact on medieval libraries, the psychological turn of knowledge by Francis Bacon in the early 17th century and the pragmatism of Gabriel Naudé's library classification at about the same time, I landed in the 19th century and the creation of the large universal bibliographical classification systems we still use today. For the group of students in front of me, all this was new - it was the first encounter with what shall become a study of bibliographic control consisting of many aspects. After a short break well beyond two hours into the lecture the question came; "but...do we really need it - these monstrous classification systems?" I have had this question so many times. Still, I always hesitate when I answer "Yes". I need to go back on it every time.

It is, of course, a legitimate question. There has been a pressure for several decades now to abandon classification in libraries, most often for the idea of indexing, which of course is something very different. The fact remains though - no one does. In fact the tendency seems to go towards the opposite direction - libraries renew and develop classification. In Sweden the library sector is even about to leave the national SAB-system which has been a unifying standard for almost a century, and introduce the Dewey Decimal Classification (DDC) as the national system in use. A huge enterprise indeed. The question, however, remains....do we really need it?

There is no doubt that the large classification system, like the DDC are products of a way of thinking that flourished in the late 19th century when modernization where synonymous with order and rationality and a firm belief in the possibility to include all human knowledge put in print in the structure of one single system. The principles of divisions differed between systems - in the DDC, the decimal division was preferred. Today we don't have this belief any more - the world of knowledge is to fragmented and shattered to be able to grasp in one unifying system. We do not have the overview necessary.

Contemporary librarianship is obsessed with technology - right now primarily "social" technology. It does not seek structure and stability, it grasps for fragments and try to create institutional meaning out of phatic communication. There is no evidence that anyone other than the growing cadre of technology obsessed librarians actually wants this, but we do know one thing for certain. Users of libraries today prioritizes the retrieval of relevant documents. Here is the strongest argument of all for the continuing use and development of classification systems - they contextualize documents in collections in a way which radically increases the possibility to retrieve the documents sought. This may to some appear trivial - it is not.

When Swedish libraries now start to implement the DDC as a national classification system, it is logical and sound. It is an adaptation to the international environment of documents, both physical and digital, that is in circulation in the world today. The production of bibliographic data is increasingly standardized and transparent. It would be foolish for a small country like Sweden to maintain its own local system. Objections can always - with accuracy - be made against such a major shift of bibliographic focus, but together with the implementation of the RDA standard for bibliographic description, the road ahead lies open for progress in the good sense of that word.

There is, however, one more aspect in this, which, I hope, became clear for my class today. The existence and development of a classification system like the DDC, which came in its first edition in 1876, is a major factor of continuity for a profession which has been around for very, very long. Why do we stick with these systems today, when we do not share the values and basic ideas for their becoming anymore? Because they are a part of what libraries are all about. Beyond and above technology and every day bibliographical exchange, they are strong threads in the fabric of librarianship itself.

When I arrived to this conclusion after my four hours continuous talk of principles of classification I had a very tired group of students in front of me. Finally, another very frequent question came up; "could we have a break for coffee?"
"Better up - lets' call it a day". Class happy.

1 kommentar:

  1. Having arrived a bit after the others due to my train being late I wasn't that tired when we wrapped things up. (I am now though.) It was an interesting lecture. I like to have a sense of history of the field to go with a more forward looking perspective. To question the need for classification systems is of course valid, but not without knowing more of the dicipline and the implications a dismissal would have.

    I realized on the train from Stockholm today that I hade more of an intiutive feeling regarding facet classification, so I was glad you talked about that quite a bit, and I look forward to learn more about it.