I have yet to read David Weinberger’s new book, Everything Is Miscellaneous: The Power of the New Digital Disorder, but I am looking forward to doing so. The ongoing discussion about the impact of hypertext on information classification is of great personal and professional interest to me. Whenever I come across a new article or blog entry on the subject, I read it eagerly and with real interest. There is much that remains to be said.
As a writer with a Masters in Library Science, I am acutely aware of the limiting and liberating powers of classification and its impact on writing. The fundamental element of classification, after all, is the word. However, I have come to believe that many writers are either misinterpreting or misrepresenting the premises and assumptions behind our inherited classification systems.
What makes me say that? And why should writers care?
First of all, pre-Web classification systems are anything but the ossified monuments to some Ozymandian bygone era that they are commonly characterized as. Any librarian who has struggled to incorporate the latest edition of the Library of Congress Subject Headings into his catalog, or cursed the latest round of inserts to the Anglo-American Cataloging Rules, or created a faceted Dewey call number, can tell you that.
Traditional classification schemas are as fluid and dynamic and heterogeneous — arguably more so — than any tagging system developed for the latest social bookmarking site. The real issue with traditional schemas is one of expertise. Classification systems are developed and maintained by specialists whose mandate is to classify information in a way that is the most useful to the widest number of users, that provides the most robust linkages with other schemas, and that takes into account the widest possible number of variations.
Tagging and other so-called “flat” classification schemas are by definition not expert creations. They are highly volatile and inconsistent, indeed often deliberately whimsical. They are designed to be used by much smaller or more narrowly-defined communities, their ability to link to other schemas is at best an incidental consideration, and they provide little if any consistency across time and format.
Furthermore, the issue of expertise encompasses not just the creators of classification schemas, but their users as well. The two most widely used library classification systems in this country — the Dewey Decimal system and the Library of Congress Classification System — are not intuitive. Likewise, the most widely used subject classification system in American libraries — the Library of Congress Subject Headings — fills many volumes and requires patience to drill down through countless NTs (“narrower terms”) and bounce around to many RTs (“related terms”) in search of just the right word to search on.
Dewey, LCCS, LCSH, and other traditional systems need to be learned in order to be used effectively. People who have received little training in these systems, and who can’t find a reference librarian to help them, are naturally going to find them intimidating, and wish for a simpler — and faster — way to find what they’re looking for. But in a complex information environment such as a library (or the Web), simple and fast does not always yield the best results. At best, decisions based on incomplete information cause inconvenience. At worst, they cause disaster.
The question is simply this: At what point does the dumbing down of a classification system in an effort to keep pace with the dumbing down of the user end up being just an all-around dumb thing to do?
And what does any of this have to do with writers?
Well, as I said, writers are classifiers. Each sentence we construct is a map describing how to get from the subject to the object via the verb. A paragraph is a breadcrumb trail for comprehending a writer’s line of reasoning. Writers are expert creators; in order to write what they know, they have to know what they write. Clarity, concision, accuracy, and consistency are characteristics of any good writer — but they are also the hallmarks of any good cataloging librarian too.
In other words, writers are information managers.
Don’t believe me? Here’s a sentence that appeared a few paragraphs earlier:
“Classification systems are developed and maintained by specialists whose mandate is to classify information in a way that is the most useful to the widest number of users, that provides the most robust linkages with other schemas, and that takes into account the widest possible number of variations.”
Now read it with only a few words changed:
“Books are written by authors whose mandate is to arrange information in a way that is the most useful to the widest number of readers, that provides the most robust linkages with other sources, and that takes into account the widest possible number of viewpoints.”
Writers are information managers. We have a stake in — and a lot to offer to — the ongoing discussions about how information will be made accessible. We need to get involved in the discussion, both as expert creators and expert users.
What do you think? Sound off in the “Comments” section below.