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Library Classification Systems

& Some Critiques Thereof

By Una Ada, November 08, 2022

Quick backstory, real quick (I swear). In my endless pursuit of the arts, I traverse the web far beyond the limits of the Anglosphere rather frequently. Yes, this could be the obvious end result of my friend in sophomore year of high school convincing me to watch Girls Bravo and somehow hooking me on anime from that moment on. Regardless of the initial catalyst, it’s obvious from my digital footprint that I appreciate Japanese art to an extent one might call me a ‘weeaboo,’ or ‘weeb’ for short. That could be applicable in some sense, but the term itself carries a bit of an ortientalist implication; however, I take great care to see Asian cultures for what they are rather than idealized stereotypes and fantasies. Whether said care truly bars me from such labeling is not for me to say, but I do hope it does. In any case, I want more from the media of Japan and China than just what gets filtered in through publishers and independent translators, I want to understand it completely. Part of that is to learn languages, another part to learn culture, but that is often also filtered! I need to understand the niche subcultures online, the slang that comes with them, the people who partake in them… it’s hard, but I’ve found resources to assist in it.

It’s these very resources that kicked off this whole issue. See, I was doing my usual thing and hopping around Twitter looking for cuties to stare at for however long it takes before I start feeling more envious than attracted when tragedy struck. The easy translation provided by the app for someone’s bio was just as confusing as trying to read the original Mandarin. This was obviously a case where slang was boggling the machine translator, so I had to take matters into my own hands. I visited all the usual sites looking for an explanation, eventually working out the meaning to a satisfactory degree, all the while rambling to my friends about it. That’s when it hit me: I should just bookmark these sites in a convenient place. Not the most revolutionary thought, but it was definitely going to be more complicated than that.

At the time, the state of my bookmarks was… less than satisfactory. I started gathering up the reference sites for a bunch of languages in respectively marked folders on my bookmarks bar. Despite delving deeper than necessary and getting distracted by thousands of barely relevant pages, I got it done eventually; however, the rest of my bookmarks bar was still there. A mess! I was already organizing things, right? Why not continue? I may not have access to my Pinboard account anymore, but there’s tons of alternatives these days, right? Let’s pick a new manager and get going on this!

I settled on Raindrop in the end. It’s got a decent UI, I can use OAuth to log in, there’s tags and collections, and it even lets you upload documents to store away. With the destination decided, it was just a matter of migrating ever single last bookmark I had… I’m still not done with this part, by the way, there’s a few hundred remaining. When I put the bookmarks in this new system, I tried my best to organize them in a way that made sense to me. I have a premium account so I can nest collections (mostly got it to upload more files), and that’s helped create a good hierarchy of categories to organize all this stuff. Yet, while throwing all the open tabs about bread clips on my phone into the manager, I just looked upon what I’d created in despair.

I need to reorganize it. It’s still a mess. Like, what the fuck sort of hierarchy is Politics: History & Theory / Economics / Everyday Items / Bread Clips? Not to mention that for the 425 bookmarks I have as I write this there are 706 different tags! That might not be too bad, a lot of stuff is just getting added in so there’s not as much overlap as there will be eventually with these… but still, the disparity is getting to me. I have to find some standardization system for what is worth being a tag and for how to categorize everything.

So began the great journey into the rabbit hole. Did you know library science is a whole field of study and librarians are more than receptionists? I did, not that it’s super relevant here actually. Classification systems are a dime a dozen, I thought I could just pick one and went shopping around. I started at the most obvious point, the Dewe– Wikidata. I know Wikidata isn’t exactly the classification system I’m looking for, or one at all for that matter, but entries in it point all over the place and that’s super helpful.

First stop from there was the Library of Congress Linked Data Service which is, of course, full of linked data. The primary dataset this pulls from is the Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH), which is vast and great for tags but with identifiers like sh2013001942 (this is for 3D modeling) it’s not great for the sort of categories I want. This also links to WorldCat’s Faceted Application of Subject Terminology (FAST) dataset where the identifier is 1910261 but the hierarchy is still all the same… not that a slightly shorter ID is any better. Nonetheless, I ought to keep these things in mind for that whole determining when a tag is a good tag, I suppose.

That’s the thing, tags (or headings) aren’t too difficult to find lists of, but getting a good categorical map is a bit tough. That 3D modeling heading can be in any number of different sections, because the LCSH and FAST are linked data meant to connect concepts as thoroughly as possible. Thus, it’s time to look at some real library classification systems, the type of stuff they use to organize a whole building full of books.

One of the more common systems these days is the Universal Decimal Classification (UDC) which is maintained by the UDC Consortium (UDCC), it’s supposedly rather thorough, but the freely available section is vastly abbreviated. Top level headings aren’t going to get me anywhere! This is also an introduction to the main issue of this blog: the small part of the UDC I can see without paying anyone already shows some categorization issues. Don’t get me wrong, these are issues I have for my personal usage and don’t really hold as worthy critiques of book sorting the world over. The UDC is based on the Dewey Decimal Classification (DDC), this is true for just about every system that sees significant usage, and the DDC is very old.

Calling it old might sound like a bit of a shallow critique, I know, but hear me out. First off, I have a lot of bookmarks about typography. From design guidelines to file format specifications, from software tutorials to web font showcases… what you won’t see here is anything about metal casting or physical founding in general. That’s because I don’t do book printing, typography is a technical art to me and as such I have all these bookmarks in the broad category of graphic design (along with 3D modeling, UX/UI design, &c.). The DDC has a certain bias about libraries and books. Information science, librarianship, bookprinting, things like that are all specially categorized apart from other sciences and professions. These might make sense in the context of an established library managed by actual librarians, but it doesn’t mean anything to me.1

Then there’s classifications that just bother me more than simple inconvenience. Psychology is classified under philosophy rather than social sciences or something to that end. This is honestly the quickest way for me to tell something is based on the DDC, since a huge section of my bookmarks falls under abnormal psychology. I’ve discussed this with a few people and heard out there justifications for it, but while I see how it might be considered its own philosophy altogether, one could say the same about any science. I don’t really know the full history of this, but basically the DDC was created in the late 19th century and mostly established itself in the mid-20th century. Psychiatry as a medical field and a science has seen most of its development in that time, whereas chemistry, physics, physiology, &c. were already fairly established. Psychology as a philosophical consideration of human minds and behaviors significantly predates all that, and its medical applications were less than consistent; so while psychiatry does indeed have its own section of medicine in the classification, I would prefer to put psychology as a philosophical subsection thereof.

Since the UDC is based directly on the DDC and the Library of Congress Classification (LCC) is based on Charles Ammi Cutter’s Expansive Classification from 1882 and clearly parallels this issue, they’re both definitely out at this point. Again, I get why this would be a massive undertaking and certainly not worth the effort to change at this point, but it simply doesn’t work for me.

Worth mentioning as well that the DDC is maintained by the Online Computer Library Center (OCLC) and they don’t exactly hand it out like candy. I’m not going to register an organization and pay out of pocket for a system I’m kind of sort of interested in to organize my ever growing collection of bookmarks and PDFs. The LCC doesn’t necessarily have this issue, of course, but that would only really matter if I liked it. What I mean to say is that free access to the system is also a major consideration here.

Cost aside, I do have one final complaint that’s really endemic to the perspective of society as a whole and therefore I’m not likely to find much in the way of classifications that meet my needs in this regard. The category of history is sorted primarily geographically. With a hierarchy that starts with history, goes into Europe, then into France and Monaco, then likely more subsections that aren’t readily available to me at the moment. The issue with this is that it isn’t very intuitive to anyone but those who think of history in terms of place and the time in that place. If I want to read about the French Revolution, I would undoubtedly have to go into this section and be bombarded with documents about war tactics and the politics of it. However, to me that’s wholly separate from the cultural shifts it brought about, and that’s why I don’t care for the way society and “history buffs” frame the past. I’ve taken to the term “military history” to distinguish it as I need some umbrella to separate it. Not to mention that, as an anarchist, I can’t really get behind sorting by country unless I’m talking specifically about political and military histories of that country’s government. This sort of top level geographical classification just isn’t going to work for me. Also, what the fuck is with class 990, history of other areas? Australia, Antarctica, and extraterrestrial worlds? What a broad stroke.

  1. Something I did miss here, because I was looking through a bunch of systems based on the DDC, including most notable the Nippon Decimal Classification due to the high frequency of Japanese works in my collection, is that in the DDC itself Computer Science is in the 000 class (000, 003-005) along with book related topics (002) and library/information sciences (020). ↩︎