Classification

If I were born in the 21st century, I am certain that I would have avoided purchasing most of the 4 000 physical/ paper books that are found in our library. Most, but not all, because I appreciate many books precisely because of their images. While there are technical problems using an e-book readers to view high-definition images, these are ideal tools for reading novels and more general works.

Our physical books are organized using a decimal classification system, first developed by Francis Bacon (1561 – 1626), but expanded upon by Melvil Dewey (1851 – 1931). Some aspects of this topic have been discussed in an earlier weblog post. The issues discussed there will not be repeated, but augmented.

While our starting point for a classification system is Dewey Decimal Classification (DDC). DDC was first published in 1876. The latest printed version, 23, was published in 2011. The online version, WebDewey, is continuously updated. Unfortunately, the DDC system is problematic, much like the personality of Melvil Dewey. This system was originally positively received, and initially almost universally used, especially if the universe is restricted to American public libraries. Its focus is on a masculine, Christian, European-American homophobic world. We have introduced modifications.

First, we use a revised schedule for DDC 200 (Religion), developed by Paul Gerard, which gives a more equal weight to all religions, and provides adequate space for a full treatment of the Bahá’í Faith. This is referred to as the Phoenix schedule, and has been implemented many places, including Cliff Cottage.

Second, our geographical world view is non-standard, with a focus on at least three different geographical areas: Greater Vancouver in Canada, Trøndelag in Norway, and the Bay Area in California. Thus I have developed my own classification system, Geoscheme. The current version, E2, dates from 2016-05-07, and can be accessed below.

Geoscheme E2

While Dewey’s promotion of the metric system can be applauded, other areas of focus were less positively received and less successful, such as his promotion of a spelling reform, resulting in a permanent first name change from Melville, and a temporary last name change to Dui.

At the 2019 American Library Association annual conference, council document #50 presents a resolution on renaming the Melvil Dewey medal to remove Melvil Dewey’s association with the award. It was passed unanimously. Among the reasons cited are: “ … that he did not permit Jewish people, African Americans, or other minorities admittance to the resort owned by Dewey and his wife; … he was censured by the New York State Board of Regents for his refusal to admit Jews to his resort, whereupon he resigned as New York State Librarian; … Dewey made numerous inappropriate physical advances toward women he worked with and wielded professional power over; … during the 1906 ALA [= American Library Association] conference there was a movement to censure Dewey after four women came forward to accuse him of sexual impropriety, and he was ostracized from the organization for decades”.

Other Document Classification Systems

Perhaps the main challenge with library classification systems is their arrangement as hierarchical tree structures. As time progresses, the world of Melvil Dewey becomes less relevant. New categories become increasingly needed as old ones fade into the background. Increasingly, there is co-operation across fields, so that books (and other objects) need to display multiple classifications.

In Europe, the Universal Decimal Classification system dominates public libraries. It was developed by Paul Otlet (1868 – 1944) and Henri La Fontaine (1854 – 1943). They initially created the Répertoire Bibliographique Universel (RBU), starting in 1895. They then wrote to Dewey and received permission to translate his DDC into French. However, instead of translating, they made some radical innovations, such as adapting its enumerative classification approach in which all the subjects are listed and coded, into one that allows synthesis, essentially, the use of compound numbers to represent interrelated subjects. In addition, potential relations between subjects were identified, and symbols assigned to represent them. The result of this work, Manuel du Répertoire bibliographique universel, appeared in 1905. An outline of the UDC is available here.

So far, the important work of Charles Amee Cutter (1837 – 1903) has been ignored, in these weblog posts. Yet, his Cutter Expansive Classification system is important. It uses seven separate schedules, each designed for libraries of different sizes. The first schedule is the most basic. After this, each schedule expands from the previous one. Cutter provided instructions on how a library might expand from one schedule to the next, as it grows.

The Library of Congress Classification (LCC), was developed by Norwegian born librarian J. C. M. Hanson (1864 – 1943) from Cutter’s system, starting in 1897. It replaced the fixed location system developed by Thomas Jefferson (1743 – 1846). The major flaw with LCC is its absence of a sound theoretical basis. Classification decisions were driven by practical needs, rather than epistemology: It is focused on books found in one library’s collection, and does not attempt to classify human knowledge of the world.

Digital Documents

Our digital documents, including text, image and audio files are stored on a server, where several copies are kept in case of disk failure, along with other copies on external hard drives. These can be transferred to other devices as required, including e-book readers. These documents do not do not have the same need of a classification system, because they can be searched for in different ways. It takes only a few seconds to transfer these documents to other devices, such as laptops, stationary machines or e-book readers.

The Five Laws of Library Science

This weblog post is being published on the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Shiyali Ramamrita Ranganathan, (1892-08-12 – 1972-09-27). He was an Indian librarian and mathematician who developed Five Laws of Library Science (1931), and the Colon Classification System (1933).

Shiyali Ramamrita Ranganathan

The five laws are:

  1. Books are for use: This focuses attention on access-related issues, such as library location, loan policies, hours and days of operation, the quality of staffing and even more mundane matters, such as library furniture and temperature control.
  2. Every reader his or her book: libraries serve a wide variety of patrons, they have to acquire literature to fit a wide variety of needs. Everyone is different and each person has different tastes regarding the books they choose.
  3. Every book its reader: All books have a place in a library, even if only a small demographic chooses to read them.
  4. Save the time of the reader: All patrons should be able to easily locate the materials they desire quickly and efficiently.
  5. A library is a growing organism: a library is a dynamic institution. Books, methods and the physical space needs to be updated over time.

There have been numerous updates and modifications of these laws over time. In 2004, librarian Alireza Noruzi emphasized the web. In 2008, librarian Carol Simpson referred to media, more generally. In 2015, B. Shadrach referred to knowledge. In 2016, Achala Munigal focused on social media.

Colon Classification System

A faceted classification uses semantic categories, either general or subject-specific, that are combined to create the full classification entry.

In the Colon Classification system, originally presented in 1933, a book is assigned a set of values from each independent facet, using punctuation marks (most notably colons) and symbols between the facets to connect them.

The system is organized into 42 classes. In the 6th edition (2006), some examples are: Class D = Engineering, J = Agriculture, N = Fine Arts, U = Geography and X = Economics. Each class is has its own specific characteristics, facets. There are five fundamental categories that can be used to express the facets of a subject:

  • Personality is the most specific or focal subject.
  • Matter is the substance, properties or materials of the subject.
  • Energy includes the processes, operations and activities.
  • Space relates to the geographic location of the subject.
  • Time refers to the dates or seasons of the subject.

As e-reading increases, and works rely more on digital storage, than physical storage, it becomes easier to use tags, rather than numbers, to classify books. With tags, one is no longer confined to the singularity of one classification system. Tags can be a mishmash of Dewey, Cutter, LCC, Colon or other features. There is no need to physically locate a book in order to read it. At Cliff Cottage, relatively fewer books are located on physical shelves in our library, while an increased number of books are found on virtual shelves on our server. There is no limit on the number of household residents, who can access the same book simultaneously!

A book can be found, and loaded onto an e-reader almost instantaneously. The current difficulty with such a system, is being in agreement as to which tags are to be used.

Note: This weblog post has been in development for over two years. One text (A) mostly about Ranganathan, was originally written 2020-07-08; a second (B), about library classification systems more generally, on 2020-11-19; a third (C) mainly about classification as it applies to physical inventories, like screws, buttons, flour and yarn, was started on 2021-12-23. These were amalgamated on 2022-02-25 and further modified on 2022-08-31 . This text didn’t work properly. On 2022-09-20, these were separated into two separate documents, essentially (A & B) and (C). The text as it appears here consists of the first two texts.

Dewey-free library classification

In 2007, the Maricopa County Library District announced that its Gilbert Library would abandon Dewey Decimal Classification (DDC) in favor of the Book Industry Standards and Communications system of classification system (BISAC). The library district reported the change as a success, with non-fiction circulation increasing six fold.

BISAC is one of many Dewey-free classification systems. Instead of using numerical notation to indicate a document’s shelving location, Dewey-free systems organize documents alphabetically using natural language words. This is because many patrons find numbers intimidating. When words replace numbers, browsing increases. In 1998 Los Angeles librarian Steve Coffman proposed using a “bookstore model” to deliver library services. It can be argued that book store customers, as well as library patrons, are more comfortable with words, than with numbers.

One problem with DDC is that it organizes documents first by academic discipline, and then by topic, leading to materials on the same subject being shelved in different locations. This creates problems for non-academic as well as interdisciplinary works. My feeling is that DDC is WASP-centric. The list of categories marginalized is overwhelming, but includes developing countries, non-Christian religions, non-white races, non-male sexes, non-hetero sexual orientations. Of course, BISAC is in many ways no better. Inclusion requires effort.

Both DDC and BISAC are economic engines. They both want to extract money from libraries using their systems.

Personally, one of the main problems I experience with DCC, is its ability to handle Baha’i materials. An interesting history of classification at the World Centre in Haifa, can be found here. In addition, information about the “Phoenix Schedule” by Paul Gerard can be found here.

In our personal library system, I cannot imagine abandoning DDC, because of the enormous cost that would entail, especially in terms of time. Changing to a new system would require the cataloguer (Patricia), and and patrons (myself and our children), to learn new categories. This would require not just training, but numerous decisions about cataloguing rules. Despite this, there would still be exceptions, as no classification system can provide descriptions of everything.

Since all four of our library staff and patrons have university education, and are all reasonably proficient with numbers, DDCs use of numbers does not present a problem. The main challenge that can arise, is that a topic is stored under one discipline, rather than another.

At the same time I note that at least one of our local public libraries (Verdal) is supplementing its DCC call numbers, with word-based shelf descriptions. Yes, books with divergent DCC numbers are allowed to occupy the same time shelf!

Authority Control: An aside

Looking up Steve Coffman, I discovered that there are at least two authors, probably three, with the same name. There is one Steve Coffman who wrote: Chicken Justice: And Other Unexpected Lessons in Country Living; Another who co-authored, Establishing a Virtual Reference Service. I also suspect that the author of A Simple Guide to Glass Insulator Collecting is a third Steve Coffman.

Authority control requires cataloguers to assign each subject (author, book, organization or corporation) a unique identifier which must then be used consistently, uniquely, and unambiguously for all references to that same subject, even if there are variations such as different spellings, pen names, or aliases. It helps researchers track a specific subject with less effort, and provides more predictable search results.