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.

Revision and maintenance: It’s absolutely essential to have robust mechanisms for identifying and incorporating new topics in the literature, and for informing users about such additions and amendments. The reverse process, the pruning of obsolete terms, and, in some cases, removing biased or politically incorrect terminology and structures, needs also to be in place (p. 285).

Is it possible that Broughton failed to recognize in her repulsively authoritarian prescription the kind of Stalinism George Orwell was at pains to expose as an odious blight on humanity? Sure, we should update categories as they are invented or discarded, but revising what was is an attempt at re-writing history, which is always an ideologically-driven piece of dishonesty. Why would we hide the less palatable aspects of who we were and are except to distort reality in the service of ideology? For example, how can we research racism if we expunge the term ‘nigger’, or homophobia if we edit out all mentions of the term ‘faggot’, or sexism if we remove anything referring to ‘bitch’? Try this on: how could anyone seriously analyse American rap culture if we could no longer search for ‘Niggers with Attitude’ and their song ‘Just don’t bite it’, which contains the line ‘Just suck my dick bitch’.

Broughton seems to be suggesting we need to censor the reality that such bands and lyrics are a distinct and massively popular artefact of late capitalist society. And that would be to lie to everyone for the sake of protecting bourgeois sensibilities, or, more likely, to disguise the social and economic contradictions in the political economy that gave rise to such artefacts. If Broughton’s approach is orthodox practice by librarians, that profession appears to act more like book burning zealots than cataloguers and facilitators.

The cost of classification: What Broughton says here (pp. 286-288) is all true if we accept the premiss that classification must be restricted to professionals according to traditional standards. This exposition confronts me with the question of how I would do it differently, and the counterargument that some librarians are already heading there via RDA. Further than that, I might be tempted to propose that classification is thrown open to users themselves, with new capacity for user-determined access points to be added to online records. The sticking point, of course, is whether this would be completely open-ended or subject to validation by moderators (the Wikipedia route), and whether that doesn’t create renewed ideological bias in itself, and a kind of resource overload at the infrastructure end.

Choosing classification: Most of what Broughton says about matching classification schema to collections (pp. 288-291) via a consideration of fit-for-purpose is just common sense, even if she operates on an exclusive principle of recognizing only existing library paradigms rather than more open ended internet hybrids.

Subject access tools: Broughton makes sense within the parameters of her paradigm about ease of access (pp. 291-293), but apparently fails to have grasped that present trends are towards the digitization of all collections, possibly in tandem with physical objects centrally located (particularly for specialist and national or State libraries). In that paradigm, however, shelf-space takes a distant second place to instant access of digital copies: books, articles, media files, and representations of other information artefacts. Is this not where any serious librarian should be headed in determining a relatively future-proof schema for information access?


Interpellation: Acolytes and credulous fools.
Absences: An awareness of the odiously totalitarian aspects of the ideology propounded, and of who is served by that ideology.
Utility: Creates an awareness of the dangerously authoritarian side to the library profession.
Questions: Again, no emphasis on what will replace existing orthodoxy other than some grudging concession to incremental changes. Where is the consideration of internet impact on user demands for information access and retrieval?

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