Things I wish I could attend

ASIS&T 2010‘s conference theme is “Navigating Streams in an Information
Ecosystem”. The full-day SIG CR workshop detailed below will “give participants a chance to reflect on essential questions related to information classification, representation and organization while exploring the future of the field.”

The morning session will include papers from theoreticians and practitioners
in the field, including:

Molly Tighe, Time Capsules Project Cataloguer, the Warhol Museum,
Pittsburgh, PA. Ms. Tighe will describe her work at the Warhol Museum, where
she is involved with a project to arrange and describe over 600 boxes of
items contained in the Andy Warhol Time Capsules.

Grant Campbell, Associate Professor in the Faculty of Information and Media
Studies at the University of Western Ontario. Professor Campbell will
present a paper “New Life for an Old Theory: Italo Calvino, the Future of
the Web, and the Theory of Integrative Levels” This presentation will use
Italo Calvino’s analysis of creativity and cybernetics to suggest that the
growth of sophisticated semantic networks in the Web of the future depends
on a process that Feibleman identified years ago with his theory of
integrative levels.

Joe Tennis, Assistant Professor at the School of Information at the
University of Washington. His paper “Form, Intention, and Indexing: The
Liminal and Integrated Conceptions Work in Knowledge Organization” will
propose a dual conception of “the work” in knowledge organization.

Tim Spalding, Founder of LibraryThing. In this presentation, Mr. Spalding
will discuss the intersection of traditional and social cataloging,
specifically how LibraryThing for Libraries allows librarians to harness the
“wisdom of the crowd” in unprecedented ways. Traditional library OPACs
currently lack the mechanisms for collecting the knowledge and preferences
of library patrons. Although the traditional cataloging and classification
model – where a small group of specialists describe materials for the
general public – works well enough for the job for which it was designed,
the expectations of users have changed with the advent of web 2.0
technologies like Wikipedia, flickr, and Amazon recommendation systems.
(*Note: this is a change from the original speaker from LibraryThing)

The afternoon session will build on the ideas presented in the morning
session and will be devoted to small group and general discussion regarding
the limits of classification research.

Specific questions include:

– Where is classification research headed?

– How can we best communicate our ideas and theories to researchers,
students, and practitioners?

– What are some of the strengths of our current research methods, and what
are our weaknesses?

– Are we working under any unexplored assumptions or biases?

– What are the goals of classification research?

Attendees will be asked to break into small groups in the afternoon to
discuss these questions, then return for general discussion towards the end
of the workshop.

Important Information:

EARLY REGISTRATION ENDS: September 17, 2010 (register and make hotel
reservations by this date)

( )

For more information:


Resources on cyberscholarship; classification systems

A few weeks ago I attended a talk by Geoffrey Bowker, professor and “Senior Scholar in Cyberscholarship” at the University of Pittsburgh School of Information Sciences. This was part of the Digital Libraries & Cyberscholarship Colloquium Series, which continues next Tuesday and again in December.

I don’t have time to write a post that would do justice to Prof. Bowker’s talk, so I just decided to link to his website, which can provide a better idea of the topics he has been investigating (data sharing, interoperability, classification, standards, meta-narratives…). The main subject of the talk I attended was “social and organizational features of emerging scientific cyberinfrastructures”, but now that I’ve skimmed this paper, “How things (actor-net)work: Classification, magic and the ubiquity of standards“, I’m more curious about the book Bowker co-authored with Susan Leigh Star: Sorting Things Out: Classification and its Consequences (MIT Press, 1999).

What I find most interesting about Prof. Bowker’s approach (as it was represented in his talk at SIS) is how historical it is, and how he draws his examples from various disciplines and makes connections between them, especially in terms of “storytelling” and organizational behavior. I think this type of analysis is especially enjoyable when applied to classification systems, since they have such a long history and are such dependable vessels of ideology. In fact, I’ve read another book that takes a similar approach: Glut: Mastering Information Through the Ages by Alex Wright (National Academies Press, 2007). Wright’s website offers an annotated bibliography to his book; this is a great resource for anyone interested in the history of human efforts to represent and organize knowledge and information.

“Popularity is not a semantic structure”

I just read this great article by Tom Reamy in KMWorld. It’s about popular (and widespread) misconceptions about taxonomies and folksonomies. I loved the attitude in this piece, and it expressed frustrations I’ve had with peoples’ blind love of folksonomies, and with the misconception that hierarchical classification systems maintained by experts are an outdated effort that only librarians still care about. Reamy emphasizes how a hybrid approach, using a taxonomy and user-generated terms, is where the real value lies. He also points out the myth that folksonomies allow us to break free from the authority of “those dictatorial librarians”:

…folksonomy sites do have a central authority, and it is the most oppressive and most dangerous type of central authority there is — the authority of the majority. Against the will of the people, there is no recourse, no way of insuring the rights of the minority[…] It seems to me that having a system in which there is a central group of authorities or librarians that you as a minority can appeal to might work better than letting the collaboratively emergent dictatorial majority unconsciously ride roughshod over the minorities.”

The other thing I wish people would shout from the mountaintops is that the LCSH is (are?) not a thesaurus. Mary Dykstra says it best in her 1988 rant in Library Journal: just because LC decided to use the terminology of thesauri (RT, BT, NT, UF) doesn’t mean the semantic relationships between the headings are on par with those in real thesauri. Citing the 1974 ISO standard on what constitutes hierarchical relationships between terms, Dykstra uses the example of the heading:
NT Cookery (Oysters)

In LC’s defense, this subheading doesn’t appear to exist anymore. I checked some of Dykstra’s other examples:

Proposal writing in business
BT Contracts, letting of
(Contracts, letting of is now an RT, and the BTs are Business and Business writing)

NT Television and children
(still in there)

Here’s one I found:
Fortune-telling by Chinese characters
BT Chinese characters

Fortune-telling and Chinese characters are different types of entities. Fortune-telling by Chinese characters is not a type of Chinese character.

A lot of these issues stem from the insane degree of pre-coordination in the LCSH. Headings often represent multiple concepts, while in thesauri, terms represent only one concept. “With the use of a thesaurus, several terms (analyzed) may be strung together (synthesized) according to syntactic rules to form a subject” (Dykstra, 1988). I’m not saying LCSH isn’t useful and that it’s not currently serving many of us (relatively) well. It’s just frustrating that many people seem to think the LCSH is representative of thesauri in general. Reamy makes a similar point at the beginning of his article, but his complaint is with the use of the term “taxonomy”, not “thesaurus”:

A fundamental flaw in the vast majority of articles on folksonomies and taxonomies is the almost universal use of the Dewey Decimal System (or Library of Congress Subject Headings) as the example taxonomy. Using the Dewey Decimal System as your example taxonomy shows that you have no understanding of taxonomy creation and use in today’s world.

This brings me to a question that keeps bothering me. What really is the difference between a classification system, a taxonomy, a thesaurus, and an ontology? A nice set of definitions is available on this Hedden Information Management site (the creator teaches at Simmons College). These are things I need to have burned into my brain, especially if I’m going to avoid being led astray by the many instances of the terms being erroneously used interchangeably. These tools are too important to be so confused with one another, especially by professionals.


Dykstra, M. (1988). LCSH Disguised as Thesaurus. Library Journal 113 (4): 42-46.
Reamy, T. (2009). Folksonomy Folktales. KMWorld 18 (9): 6-8. <>