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.

That history can be recognised in the economic and political structures that fostered monastic custodianship of information (books and manuscripts) as symbols of power and hierarchy in a largely illiterate world whose people were further alienated by a lingua Franca – Latin – spoken, written and read only by a very small educated elite. The structure of scholastic education in that time was an embodiment of Church-dictated ontology and doctrine directed at the imposition and reinforcement of a rigidly fixed political economy in which the Church struggled with monarchs for primacy in exploiting lesser people like serfs and the petty aristocracy with a teleology terminating in the material gain and personal gratification of the people occupying the highest ecclesiastic and aristocratic positions.

Today, elements of that order can still be recognised in the dual hierarchy of ‘technocratised’ libraries and universities. Increasingly complex classification schemata have been constructed almost as if to require the profession of librarianship as a caste of translators, even if it is they who created that impenetrable language in the first place. Their historical roots are still visible in the ridiculous flourish of Latin abbreviations made mandatory in codes like the ISBD. They are aided in their elitism by deterministic ontology manufactured in universities increasingly turned away from the project of education, instead acting as technical training grounds for creating the uncritical objects of contemporary technocratic organisational machinery, working towards ends justified as objectively ‘positive’, but concretely directed no less than in the Middle Ages at the material and personal gratification of a narrow ruling class of organisational administrators.

Marcuse referred to this process of subjecting all discourse to the logics and purposes of organisations as a ‘historical continuum of domination’ in which individual human aspirations become ‘negative thinking’ considered to be merely ‘speculative and utopian’ (1991, p. 171) while technocratic organisational behaviors, including professional praxis, are imbued with the faux objectivity of science and the ideology of progress that nevertheless excludes ends not compatible with contemporary Western political economy (pp. 147-166).

Without adopting the aims of critical theory generally, or Marcuse’s conclusions specifically, I nevertheless find myself looking at a professional practice of making access to information more difficult than it needs to be, solely to preserve and promote organisational hierarchies. I also see myself being ‘hailed’ or interpellated in the Althusserian sense (Lahtinen, 2009, pp. 47-49; Elliott, 2006, pp. 208-210) as a scholar and aspiring professional, as if these presupposed my purposes for being a scholar, or my uncritical acceptance of what constitutes professional practice.

The dilemma is that I must evidence my understanding of the extant professional practice of classifying and categorizing, if not my willingness to collaborate in the more absurd manifestations of these practices; I trust that my forthcoming assessment items will illustrate my ability to apply at least one cataloguing schema in practice, and perhaps at least the cognitive skill to apply myself successfully to implementing others if that should prove necessary. Not that I would ever subscribe to the monstrous Stalinism proposed by Broughton, who writes blithely about active censorship as ‘pruning’ and a necessary exercise of political correctness (2004, p. 285). Nor would I seek to emulate Batley, who seems genuinely deluded when proposing that anything about contemporary librarianship is aimed at getting ‘the book to the reader or the reader to the book in the quickest possible time’ (2005, p. 3).

In looking for a constructive response to the orthodoxy about classification and cataloguing, I find myself drawn to the Habermasian preference for pluralism as necessary for any attempt ‘to understand the social world’ (Finlayson, 2005, p.7), and perhaps also to pursue human, ethical endeavours not uncritically surrendered to ‘markets and administrative bodies’ in which decisions are delegated to ‘bureaucratic elites “informed” by experts and interest groups’, whose collective effect is to erode civil society (p. 120).

In that context I am personally inclined to reject orthodoxy in bibliographic cataloguing and ontological prescriptions as ideologically tainted and justifiable only as simultaneous cause and effect of a hierarchical, bureaucratic, self-serving profession.

It remains to acknowledge that information access would not be made easier if there were no classification or cataloguing attempts at all. A strategy somewhat derived from Habermasian pluralism might be to consider all schemata as potentially useful in some of their aspects, depending on the context. In other words, practical applications of the orthodoxy might be as simple as limiting implementation to the least convoluted deployment suited to a specific brief for a task at hand, or as complex as seeking points of unification between existing schemata implementations.

At this point it seems to me that choosing the most simple systems possible, subject to the requirements of any task at hand, with an eye on a future that is increasingly digital rather than constrained to physical shelves, appears to be a sound approach to even large projects.


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

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

Elliott, G. (2006). Althusser: The Detour of Theory. Boston, MA: Brill.

Finlayson, J.G. (2005). Habermas: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Lahtinen, M. (2009). Politics and Philosophy: Niccolò Machiavelli and Louis Althusser’s Aleatory Materialism (G. Griffiths & K. Kölhi Trans.). Boston, MA: Brill. (Original work published 2009).

Lambe. P. (2011). The unacknowledged parentage of knowledge management. Journal of Knowledge Management 15(2) 175-197. doi: 10.1108/13673271111119646

Marcuse, H. (1991). One-Dimensional Man: Studies in the ideology of advanced industrial society (2nd ed.). London: Routledge.

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