onsdag 30 mars 2011

"Back in the USSR" - classification and cataloguing in Soviet libraries

Soviet librarianship was a good example of ideological institutionalism – libraries were used as tools for the communist party to both spread literature that was seen as beneficial for the state ideology, and as guardians of ”bad” literature that might threaten the political stability. When studying institutional development we know that public institutions are formed in the mould of the dominating political culture of the time (and no such lasts forever) – we see it today in the USA and in Sweden (and everywhere else…). We saw it in the Soviet Union and the “old” communist states of the 20th century. One of the ways in which libraries adapt to the ruling powers of their days is to create tools and practices that correspond to them. In the USSR, libraries introduced the Dewey-system in 1921, however in the “European version” of the UDC. During the years to come it was developed to fit the ruling regime, as was the practice of descriptive cataloguing. E.I. Samurin was one of the chief ideologists in Soviet librarianship in the 1940’s (as well as the author of the most thorough history on bibliographic classification to date). At one occasion he wrote about the bibliographic responsibility of Soviet librarians, stating that they must “(1) indicate for each subject its ‘politically acceptable’ place in the classification scheme; (2) grant first place in every division and subdivision to the opinions of the ‘classics of Marxism-Leninism’, as well as to party directives; (3) grant priority to materials relating the Soviet Union as the country of ‘victorious socialism’, with the provision that these materials must be clearly separated from those of foreign (‘capitalist’) countries; (4) grant fist place to ‘advanced’ (communist) theories and practices and literature about them; and (5) provide class, division, and subdivision names in ‘politically acute and distinct terms’ “ [1] This basically lead to a situation where Soviet libraries had two separate catalogues – one “public” available to the average library user, and one “official” containing the complete holdings of the library, but only available to people with special permits (party members, researchers). In 1948 librarians in Novosibirsk Regional Library spent months reforming the catalogue, resulting in an exclusion of about 40% of the library’s holdings from the public catalogue. Gorkij Region Library was even more thorough; 78% of the titles were excluded from the public catalogue, a figure that even made the authorities comment on the issue as somewhat too much. When it came to classification two systems came to serve as role models for various local and regional systems. The first was a developed Dewey system made by (among others) Samurin at the Lenin State Library in Moscow, and the second was used to classify the Knishnaya letopis’ , the “Book Annals”, a periodic part of the Soviet national bibliography. This also takes the Dewey system as its point of departure, but as classifying library catalogues and classifying bibliographies are two different matters it takes on another character. The Book Annals’ classification became widespread through out the USSR and during the years it appeared in several versions (in itself a problem when adapted to library practice). As an example I would like to show the main classes in the 1936 version of it:

1. Marxism-Leninism.

2. Dialectical and Historical Materialism. Philosophy.

3. Comintern. All-Union communist Party (Bolsheviks)

4. Politics. Soviet Construction. Law.

5. Defence. Military Science.

6. Economics.

7. Labour.

8. History.

9. Geography. Ethnography.

10. Mathematics. Natural Sciences.

11. Medicine.

12. Technology. Transportation.

13. Agriculture. Veterinary Medicine.

14. Philology.

15. Belles-lettres.

16. Arts.

17. Antireligious Literature.

18. Cultural Construction. Education.

19. Juvenile literature.

20. Bibliography. Reference Works.

As seen there’s not a lot of Dewey left. The classification systems of Soviet libraries differ mostly in terms of how many main classes they have. They all have several things in common, such as the prime class of Marxism-Leninism (1, 2), the anti-religious literature class (17), the explicit aim at displaying the unified USSR (4, 18). The idea of geographical and cultural construction of unity was actually one of the most important issues in the first developments of the imported Dewey-system in the early 1920’s. The practice of bibliographic control in the Soviet Union is still of interest for bibliographical control research in that – if for no other reason - it is so clear. Libraries are used to establish an order and division of power which is very explicit. We know that this is the case in contemporary political environments too, however, in most cases we find it in more implicit forms. It is important to still keep analysing the bibliographical tools of libraries and bibliographies. From them we can learn a lot about the relation between libraries and societies of today.

I recommend the following articles for further readings on this subject:

Baumanis, A & Rogers, R “Soviet classification and cataloguing”. Library Quarterly, Vol. 28 (3), pp. 172-186.

Delougaz, N. (1947) “Adaptations of the Decimal Classification for Soviet libraries” Library Quarterly, Vol. 17 (april), pp. 148-161.

Whitby, T. (1956) “Evolution and evaluation of a Soviet classification”. Library Quarterly, Vol. 26 (2), pp. 118-127

[1] Quote from Baumanis & Rogers, p.174.

onsdag 9 mars 2011

On the complex issue of e-books in libraries

Slowly it is beginning to become clear: during the last months, the sales figures for e-books in the USA have been bigger than for those of printed books. People got a lot of various, electric, reading devices for Christmas, and now they try them out. The time has obviously come to consider these hard sales figures and discuss their consequences for libraries and librarianship.

There is no doubt that the forms of selling and distributing e-books today is not compatible with traditional library standards. This is hardly surprising, and should not be seen as a sign of slowness in the library sector, more of the aggressiveness and speed in the publishing/entertainment industry today – not only in the US. Most e-books that are sold today are versions of already existing printed books – as is the case of the bestselling Millennium trilogy by Swedish author Stieg Larsson, that according to the latest figures today sell more as e-books than as prints. Here e-versions come as “extra”, as any new version of the printed original. As long as this is the situation, librarianship will have no bigger problems in handling the e-books (except for issues like economy and copyright...). They will be in the margin of their ordinary lending activity. For a long time still, we will also have a relatively limited access to electric reading devices, and for a very long time to come these devices will be distributed among economically strong groups of society and large groups will simply fall outside of the market strata.
The really new situation will emerge (soon enough probably) when publishers find it worth while to no longer issue printed editions, or when the printed editions will be seen as second rate versions of the electronic versions of a text. In scholarly publishing this is more or less the case already today, but that is, whichever way we look at it, quite a different story. The true challenge for librarianship will be when this happens to novels, fiction, poetry, children’s literature and other forms of literature identified with the book as artefact.
There are several factors influencing the situation that lies ahead of us:

- Emotional: the term “book” will be reduced to a metaphor. What is left in an e-book is a text. This might very well turn out to be a real problem for libraries, as we know that most library users do what they always have done in libraries; borrow books – not in a metaphorical sense, but in a real sense. We must be very careful to start describing this as a problem. Here we may otherwise soon face a situation where librarians’ expectations of user behaviour is more coloured by producers of electronic reading devices and publishers than of the users themselves – a situation similar to that of the libraries’ felt need to use “social media”, which we see today.

- Technological: no library will be able to provide electric reading devices in any significant numbers to users that do not have access to them. They are (for long) too expensive and too sensitive. This will probably be less of a challenge and more of an obstacle in the developing of e-book services. A large number of library users will not be able to read these texts due to lack of technology, which brings us to a third, and more serious, problem:

- Social: libraries have for years now been increasingly important in providing access to electronic documents and information through their publically available computers. This is tremendously important to those large groups in society that still cannot afford, or for some other reason don’t have, computers and Internet access in their homes. The present instrumental collaborations between producers of reading devices and the publishing/entertainment industry make no such considerations, of course. Here libraries will face their perhaps biggest challenge for the future. Who to serve – the people who need them the most, or the commercial actors in the publishing/entertainment industry? It is a matter of interest which is indeed very real.

Why does this become a potential problem? Well, simply because there is a huge difference between selling text to read in specially suited reading devices and promoting (good) reading and literacy. Not ever have the commercial interests of the publishing/entertainment industry and the democratic mission of – primarily, of course, public – libraries been more in conflict than when it is within this development. The problems are easily foreseeable, but the solutions are complicated. Especially alarming is the thought of children’s literature in this development. Libraries have a responsibility to guarantee access to a broad variety of children’s literature for reasons both obvious and well known. The development of e-books threatens – in the long run – the libraries’ independence in relation to an industry which is getting bigger and more cynical by the hour.

As always it will be those with already the least resources that will be “losers” in this development. Once again: libraries have a choice here. To develop their mission to the benefit of those who need them the most – or to those who see them only as yet another channel of distribution of.…texts.

See also this interesting comment in Swedish by Dr. Pelle Snickars, head of research department at the Ntaional Library f Sweden.