COMPETENCY G

“Understand the system of standards and methods used to control and create information structures and apply basic principles involved in the organization and representation of knowledge.”

For my School of Library and Information Science course in Advanced Tools and Technology, I had to create a blog to chart my thoughts and discoveries on a variety of library-related technologies. When I sat down and contemplated the titular concept that would drive my blog, something that would speak to my understanding of both traditional and emerging library use and technology, I chose “The Pinakes”. The pinakes were once the greatest library technology in the world, a systematic method for organizing and representing knowledge — the first bibliographic catalog that attempted to collect and organize all of the information in the world.

Pinax was the ancient Greek root word for “Tablet” or “List”. At the Museion, the center of learning in the Ptolemaic capital Alexandria (home of the Great Library), tablets were placed above each scroll case to indicate the nature of the literature it contained. Collectively, these pinakes (plural form) were cataloged to form a subject bibliography of the Museion’s contents, first by the poet and librarian Callimachus (or Kallimachos) of Cyrene and later revised by his successors. His original pinakes, fully titled in Greek as “Lists of those who distinguished themselves in all branches of learning, and their writings” amounted to 120 books that “listed Greek authors by classes according to literary forms or by scholarly disciplines. The bibliographies of individual poets, philosophers, orators etc. were preceded […] by concise biographical data. This biobibliography was presumably based on a catalog, compiled under the direction of Kallimachos at the library of the Museion” (Blum, pg. 2).

Information Structures

While the original Pinakes did not survive antiquity, various historical fragments give us some context and a sense of its organization. It is believed that Callimachus’s catalog was broken into eleven categories, including rhetoric, law, epic, tragedy, comedy, lyric poetry, history, medicine, mathematics, natural science and (the ever useful catch-all) miscellaneous. This catalog was the tool that scholars, scribes and librarians could use to find and quickly retrieve materials from the library. Related works were collocated in their scroll cases by subject to simplify research. Callimachus, commonly called the “Father of Bibliography”, should also be credited for at least being in the bloodline of classification and cataloging.

Libraries, both ancient and modern, understand one basic principle of information: even the greatest collection in the world will do nothing but gather dust without an organizing principles. Information is useless if it cannot be found, and quickly, efficiently and regardless of format. Thus, Callimachus built a system of standards for the Musieon’s collection of knowledge, indexed and readily available.

Like his spiritual predecessor Callimachus, Melvyl Dewey understood the importance of a structured system for organizing and representing knowledge. In Dewey’s time, libraries in every region devised their own local system to organize information. Dewey realized the need to standardize the organization of knowledge so that bibliographic information could be consistent from one institution to the next. Dewey was determined to organize his classification system under a decimal format, and thus classified the world’s knowledge under ten categories rather than the eleven favored by the ancients.

The Dewey Decimal Classification System (DDC), today owned by the Ohio-based non-profit Online Computer Library Center (better known as OCLC), remains in use in the vast majority of American public and school libraries (as well as a much smaller percentage of academic and special libraries). The Dewey Decimal System’s “rival” in the United States is the Library of Congress Classification System (LCC), employed by the bulk of academic and special libraries. Rather than a numeric system for the top strata of classification, the LCC uses letters of the alphabet, leading to twenty-six categories of information, such as “D – General and Old World History”, “H – Social Sciences”, and “L – Education”. Library science is classified under “Z” alongside bibliography and “general information resources”.

The gross simplifications involved in categorizing every work into one of either ten or twenty-six categories leads to plenty of headaches and compromises, but fortunately, the subject headings and the other metadata we can apply to any categorized item – and the power of online information retrieval – often renders these challenges easier to overcome. Items can be cross-referenced in multiple ways.

Contemporary Application of Basic Principles

One interesting aspect of the ongoing information age is the advent of public “tagging” or folksonomies that spring up around such services as del.icio.us and flickr. No longer is classification the arcane activity of cataloging librarians. Now the web-savvy public is involved in classification (whether they know the term or not) every time they describe an uploaded photo. We can all be catalogers!

However, my experience with folksonomic tagging has helped me appreciate the strict subject vocabularies of a traditional system like the Library of Congress Subject Headings. The multiplicity of word forms and synonyms in English make folksonomies impossible to fully rely upon. However, they are useful in that they imitate real world language (subject headings can be rather arcane at times) and most importantly, they encourage the information user to get involved – it offers them a sense of “investment” in the information. Current editions of library cataloging software are experimenting with user-entered criteria in an effort to combine the best of traditional classification with current theories in user-created metadata.

For LIBR-248, Cataloging and Classification, I composed a short analysis and comparison of folksonomic tagging with traditional controlled vocabularies based on a provided article. I submit that assignment as my first evidentiary item regarding my understanding of the standards and methods used to control and create information structures. I also submit this related post, on folksonomic tagging via del.icio.us, first published on this blog as part of LIBR-246, Advanced Topics in Information Tools and Technology.

While both the Dewey Decimal System and Library of Congress Classification System were developed long before the advent of Machine Readable Cataloging (much less the folksonomic tagging era brought on by “Web 2.0”), the ascent of modern technology has yet to render these tried and true systems obsolete. While DDC and LCC both have their vocal critics, each seem to be surviving the online era. In fact, materials from thousands of libraries around the world, cataloged under both DDC and LCC call numbers, can be retrieved using WorldCat, the world’s largest bibliographic database. Worldcat is available for all to use for free on the internet. With Google Books incorporating a WorldCat widget into its mechanism, it seems that traditional library science is already deeply embedded in the informational structure of the World Wide Web.

Of course, not all information has already been scanned, indexed and hosted by Google or its rivals; much of the world’s knowledge remains between the covers of printed books and periodicals. All information professionals, even those who never become in involved in accessions or cataloging, should be familiar with the physical handling of books and other library materials. I had an opportunity to gain that understanding via an interview with Eric Ewen, the Catalog Librarian at the University of San Francisco’s Gleeson Library. We discussed the process by which USF’s principle academic library acquires, catalogs and physically handles the books in their collection. I submit my summary of that interview as my third evidentiary item on this subject.

Exhibit G-1: Cataloging – Online Resources | Available upon request

Exhibit G-2: Read Delicious (blog post on The Pinakes)

Exhibit G-3: Processing Interview | Available upon request

References and Further Reading:

  • Blum, R. (1991). Kallimachos: the Alexandrian Library and the origins of bibliography. (Wellisch,H.W., Trans.). Madison, Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press.
  • Witty, F.J. (1958). The Pinakes of Callimachus. The Library Quarterly, 28 (2), 132-136.
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