Friday, August 25, 2006

Classifying Knowledge

Three different readers sent us links to the editorial, "Where the Books Are", in the New York Times last week. The hot topic? The Main Reading Room of the New York Public Library is giving up its unique local classification system, called the Billings system, and adopting the Library of Congress classification. As the editorial points out, "Sooner or later, everyone who loves a library broods about how the books are arranged." Have you stared at your own bookshelves lately? Collected a number of titles together, or moved an armload to another spot?

We found an entertaining illustration comparing the contruction of a number for one particular book in the Dewey Decimal System (familiar to you as public library users; most US public libraries use it); in the Library of Congress system; and in the Universal Decimal Classification. Mostly we don't think of our catalog as embodying a philosophy of the classification of knowledge. It's a finding aid: what do we have, and where is it? And yet, unless they're on a mission for a known item, what public library users often want is to be pointed to a shelf where a number of items on their topic can be found. Where it is, in our library, is mapped out by Dewey's 22-times-revised system of knowledge. In most academic libraries, by Library of Congress' system. Imagine the dismay of those NYPL research users who know just where things have sat in the Main Reading Room for decades, when everything suddenly moves.

No comments: