Cataloguing elitism and alienation

INN533 – Information Organisation

WEEK EIGHT: Reflections on classification and cataloguing.

What I cannot say elsewhere.

It strikes me that the major cataloguing schemata like AACR2, RDA, ISBD, and FRBR, DDC, and LCC are deliberately made so complex and opaque that a stratum of professional librarians is needed to create public access at all, but that the profession itself works to alienate particularly non-expert or low-literacy members of the public from information, and therefore also the knowledge that might be imagined to flow from it.

It may be that the theory and practice of librarianship is today cloaked in the apparently respectable academic discipline of information and knowledge management, but Lambe made an incisive observation when he suggested that knowledge management apparently ‘sprang fully-formed from the womb’ in the 1990s (2011, pp. 175-176). Going much further than Lambe, who locates origins in the 1960s, I propose instead that there is a clear historical development of contemporary Western information and knowledge management stretching back to at least Medieaval Europe.

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Managing classification as Stalinism: Broughton spells out the doctrine

Broughton, V. (2004). Essential Classification. New York: Schuman.

General management of classifications: The biggest classifications, such as DDC and LCC, have a considerable machine behind them that can accommodate the general running of the classification, its publication, the dissemination of information to users, the promotion of the scheme, the creation of training materials, the provision of bibliographic services, and research into the theory and applications of classification. The availability of all these I secondary features can make the classification more attractive to the end-user and greatly enhance its usefulness. All of them additionally serve to create a sense of community among users and to promote loyalty to the system – they’re all good public relations exercises (p. 284).

This is an astonishing piece of rationalising the perpetuation of systems of alienating information from a public that owns the information objects or the classification systems themselves. The transparent aim here is to make such publics complicit in their own alienation. It gets better: Newspeak and historical revisionism is next up.

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Categorisation according to Batley: the further banishment of political economy

Batley, S. (2005). Classification in Theory and Practice. Oxford, UK: Chandos.

Hiding political economics again: ‘… there are simple examples of conscious or imposed classification all around us …’ (p. 3). Really? Is this an either or question, or are they not just the same thing?

Disingenuity about aims: ‘… the aim is to get the book to the reader or the reader to the book in the quickest possible time’ (p. 3). That’s just not true: the aim is to interpose a librarian between the reader and the book by means of classification so complex it requires decoding by a library professional.

Disingenuity about classification: ‘It is the subject of a book that will determine its place on the library shelves’ (p. 4). No! It is the classification imposed on the book that determines where it can be found.

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Everything is political economy, stupid!

Shirky, C. (2005). Ontology is overrated: Categories, links, and tags. Retrieved from

If only I had read Shirky before I finished my INN533 blog for week six (Master of IT course).  I would have found the language to avoid talking about political economy while talking about it!

Shirky’s summary of ontological and phenomenological problems in information categorization is so close to that bizarre moment when I was confronted by a lecturer in information management. discussing the nature of information and how it is interpreted, who dismissed my point that there is an entire academic discipline devoted to examining how meaning is constructed and derived – semiotics – with the simple statement: ‘Yes, but I’m a professional’.  Clearly professionals have no use for knowledge or wisdom that doesn’t fit their own narrow disciplines.

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Categories of surrender

INN533 – Information Organisation

WEEK SIX: Reflections on cataloguing and vanishing ethics.

Looking at AACR2 and ISBD rules for cataloguing information made me wonder earnestly about the purpose behind such maddeningly bureaucratic prescriptions.  Zaana Howard’s (2013) reminder that prescriptive standards can help us avoid crashing spacecraft into Mars is well taken; there should be some standards underpinning the cataloguing of information items, particularly in public collections.  However, the object here is not as complex as spaceflight, and it is the object that deserves greater attention.  What is the purpose of AARC2 and ISBD?  Coming to that question as a lay observer, it becomes quickly apparent that these rule-sets are about stratifying a professional skill-set by obfuscating rather than simplifying language and descriptions.  This, in turn, leads to the conclusion that neither standard has lay users of information resources in mind, instead actively working to alienate non-expert users from what is described according to those standards.  Hider & Harvey, in quoting Michael Gorman, make it quite plain that a significant number of librarians see themselves as a necessary intermediary between library users and information resources (2008, p.6), with AACR2 interposed as the deliberately fabricated mechanism for making such intermediation necessary.  In Australia an adherence to standards avoiding natural language and hiding information in a fetish of abbreviations and punctuation almost certainly makes information access more difficult for even educated users, let alone the 40 per cent of people the Australian Bureau of Statistics estimates have difficulty with functional literacy (2008).

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The cult of expertise: surrendering freedom


Every day we abstain from considering and making decisions that are rightly ours to consider and make.  We defer that engagement with our world to people considered more ‘expert’ in the apparently germane disciplines, but to the exclusion of all others.  And so we build the world around us as it is, with all the grandeur and the despair in it, as a deferred potential and responsibility.  Nevertheless, we build it in our own images, because we ourselves become a perpetually stalled potential when we choose this as a reflexive response to all contemplation and decisions about matters more complex than immediate self-gratification.

What is it that we really do when we abdicate our own authority and wisdom?  Do we actually comprehend what the consequences are, for ourselves and others, even when we think we don’t care enough to want to have a say?

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