Babel, babbling onJune 29, 2010
I can’t believe how long it’s been since I’ve posted here! The last three months have been a little bit crazy, and though I’ve managed to keep on tweeting and posting writing prompts, I’ve just not had the headspace to sit down and really blog.
This tweet by Stan Carey (retweeted by the wonderful BibliOdyssey) picked up on a common theme in my professional activities recently – Babel. Back in April, our Department was approached and asked to field someone to talk about Knowledge Organization at an evening salon organised by 176 Zabludowicz Collection as part of its exhibition, Library of Babel / In and Out of Place.
A couple of weeks ago I was back at 176 looking at their working library, which is organised by colour, and was really pleased to pick up a copy of the book they published to accompany the exhibition. In her introductory essay, Anna-Catharina Gebbers points out that
In his parable ‘The Library of Babel’, Borges presents a world in which there is no sensuous experience to distract people from their quest for meaning. 
The importance of the physical object is something that has been really brought home to me by the launch of the RDA toolkit this month. Although there are really cool features, like the ability to search for an AACR2 rule and be taken to its RDA equivalent, I realised that personally, I can’t learn this stuff from the screen alone. Cataloguing is a practical activity, and I need to have something to flick through in order to make it lodge in my brain.
In fact, I always thought I had a visual memory: I muddle numbers sometimes, but when I remember words, I remember them best on the page on which I read (or wrote) them. Doesn’t work with a page on a screen. Something to do with the light? The distance? Maybe. Or maybe I’m just one of those people that has to “grope the books” in order to get a real sense of them.
I’m preparing for the University of Sussex’s Digital Methods, Cultural Politics and Feminist Approaches Graduate Conferece, and again thinking about Babel. I’m using online tools to quantify feminist vocabulary in women’s studies collections, and although I originally thought I would find more to say about subject headings, the process is making me revisit the importance of the classification system.
In Borges’ library
There are official searchers, inquisitors … they always arrive extremely tired from their journeys; they speak of a broken stairway which almost killed them … sometimes they pick up the nearest volume and leaf through it …Obviously, no one expects to discover anything. 
This is why in real-world libraries, we have classification schemes, so the books are arranged systematically in a way we hope our users will be able to predict. Until doing this research, I thought that in the online environment, subject headings mattered more for retrieval, but I’m starting to realise that the classification and the mentality of classification permeates all. The links between Library of Congress Classification and Subject Headings are tighter than I remembered, and further away from the natural language of feminist searchers. Back in the 1990s, Olson and Schlegl pointed out that
Biases in classification are more subtle and many regard classification as simply a shelf address, disregarding the influences of context in how a work is perceived. 
Terminology in classification is also a concern as it influences cataloguers’ application of classification and, increasingly, as technology makes it more visible. 
I’m not the first to appreciate that Knowledge Organization in the virtual environment is harder to achieve or even visualise conceptually. And it’s not just about scaling up, or dealing with different languages and non-roman script (the Tower of Babel again).
It’s understanding searchers, and, increasingly, understanding the long tail of search communities. Thirty-five years ago, Sanford Berman was speaking for minorities when he wrote the classic Prejudices and antipathies: a tract on the LC Subject Heads concerning people . On the Internet, the Long Tail rules, and the ethos Berman railed against just doesn’t work any more:
The terminology … of an effective and easy-to-approach catalog must be determined by the majority of the readers’ probable psychological approach. 
As always, I’m left wondering who the reader is, and, we might say, the Library of Babel in their mind.
 Anna-Catharina Gebbers. ‘In the labyrinth of meaning’ in The Library of Babel / In and Out of Place, 23 February – 13 June 2010. London: Zabludowicz Collection, 2010. p.9-16.
 Jorge Luis Borges. ‘The Library of Babel’ in The Library of Babel / In and Out of Place, 23 February – 13 June 2010. London: Zabludowicz Collection, 2010. p.81-7.
 Hope A. Olson and Rose Schlegl. ‘Bias in subject access standards: a content analysis of the critical literature’ in Canadian Association for Information Science Conference 1999. Information Science: Where Has It Been, Where Is It Going? Canadian Association for Information Science, 1999. p.236-247.
 Scarecrow Press, 1971.
 Joan Marshall. Personal communication, quoted by Sanford Berman. ‘Introduction: 1971′ in Prejudices and antipathies: a tract on the LC Subject Heads concerning people. New ed. London: McFarland, 1993.
Image: Collecting and Knowledge Salon. The Library of Babel / In and Out of Place, 23 February – 13 June 2010. London: Zabludowicz Collection, 2010. p.96-7.