Speculative Cataloging

Posted on 7 January 2014 at 12:44 pm in Musings.

It all started as a side joke by my boss during a meeting, and then turned into this tweet:

Which, in turn, sparked my natural librarian’s curiosity. There is no Journal of Speculative Cataloging, of course, but a journal of speculative … something? An intriguing name. A simple search of my library’s journal finder turned up the very real Journal of Speculative Philosophy, a venerable periodical first published in 1867.

Thanks to the open access to early journal content provided by JSTOR, I made a quick search of the early issues to see if questions about libraries were posed, and lo and behold, not only was there a library science focused article (probably from before the term “library science” was bandied about), it was very much a piece of speculative cataloging. Published in 1870, and nestled between articles titled “Göthe’s Social Romances,” “The Settlement for All Philosophical Disputes,” (that one sounds ambitious), and “The Immortality of the Soul,” (equally so), it is a humble submission titled “Book Classification,” uncredited to an author (the only identifying clues are that he refers to himself in the masculine, and mentions that his system of cataloging is being implemented at the Public School Library of St. Louis, a subscription library that was the forerunner to St. Louis’s public library).

It should be noted that this 1870 article predates both the Library of Congress (1897) and Dewey Decimal (1876) systems of cataloging and classification. As the public library movement swept the nation, developing systems of organization were likely the most vexing and complex issues facing this early generation of public librarians — as big a controversy as anything facing us today.

And what does our anonymous author propose? Why, naturally, something clear and easy to understand. Under the heading “The Scheme,” he explains:

It uses Bacon’s fundamental distinction (developed in De Augmentis Scientiarum, Book II. chap. I.) of the different faculties of the soul into Memory, Imagination, and Reason, from which proceed the three grand departments of human learning, to wit: History, Poetry, and Philosophy. Without particularly intending to classify books as such, Lord Bacon attempted rather to map out “human learning,” as he called it, and show its unity and the principle of development in the same. But his deep glance seized the formative idea which distinguishes different species of books (Book Classification, p. 115).

Most librarians have faced awkward small talk with folks from outside the profession: the half-hearted Dewey joke, the semi-earnest request for us to explain why libraries aren’t rendered obsolete by internet search, and so on. Imagine if this classification scheme had won out over Dewey’s…could you handle having to explain Francis Bacon, faculties of the soul, and the three grand departments of human learning to someone at a party? “Dewey Decimal” might have a funny ring to it, but I think we have it lucky.

From there our author argues against himself, detailing why Bacon’s work is an impractical system of classification (not surprisingly, since Sir Francis Bacon wasn’t writing about libraries at all). He reorders Bacon’s grand departments into a trio of classes: Science, Art (or Aesthetics), and History — although the 1870 definition of science is quite different from ours: “philosophy is the highest type of Science, and hence begins the catalogue” (p. 120); surely this pleased the publishers of the Journal of Speculative Philosophy.

Since he wants each class to segue into the next (he uses the term “unfolds”), the author places the “useful arts” at the end of the Sciences, so it transitions the browser from Science into Art, Fine Arts, and ultimately Poetry. Geography begins the History classification, which is ultimately not too far of from modern the Library of Congress system: Class C includes Geography, and therefore those works precede World History, Class D.

Just how influential this system was, and how long it persisted in St. Louis, I do not know. But while we modern librarians come to grips with change and grapple with technology, it’s worth remembering that change is nothing new to our profession. In the 1870s, they didn’t even have an agreed upon method for putting the books on the shelves (nor an expectation that every community even have a public library). We have answered hugely fundamental questions and challenges throughout our professional history: the one and only constant in our line of work is the constant change.

This anonymous article from the past is a reminder of those questions we’ve had to speculate upon…and the cataloging and classification system we might have ended up with, in an alternate universe.

Update

Librarian Nicolette Warisse Sosulski has identified the author as St. Louis-based educator, philosopher, and all-around rockstar William Torrey Harris, founder of the Journal of Speculative Philosophy (which would explain why he didn’t credit himself as the author; as publisher, it must have been assumed.)

With his name, researching the influence of Harris’s system became a little easier: according to a 1945 article in the journal Library Quarterly, Dewey was directly influenced by Harris. Dewey once wrote that when developing his own classification system, “the inverted Baconian arrangement of the St. Louis Library has been followed.” Dewey even sent a letter to Harris asking for more details, referencing the article he had read in the Journal of Speculative Philosophy.

Nicolette passed along further links of interest: the Classified Catalog of the St. Louis Mercantile Library (Harris’s Inverted Baconian Classification in action) and a reposting of a 1959 article from Libri by Eugene Graziano that makes all the direct comparisons between Harris and Dewey, showing how the former clearly influenced the latter (and explains some of Dewey’s oddities).

The “Inverted Baconian Model” was not a failed experiment: it was the direct ancestor of our contemporary classification and cataloging.

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