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Amused Muse

Inspiring dissent and debate and the love of dissonance

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Master's Degree holder, telecommuting from the hot tub, proud Darwinian Dawkobot, and pirate librarian belly-dancer bohemian secret agent scribe on a mission to rescue bloggers from the wholesome clutches of the pious backstabbing girl fridays of the world.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Library of Congress Versus Dewey Decimal

UPDATED: George at Pharyngula sets me straight on LCC.
Well, how are you spending your Thanksgiving holiday? Are you working or do you have days off? I have days off but I'll be spending them working on my take-home finals and my paper. Oh, joy.

This is going to sound totally out there but, having just mastered (ha ha) the two major library classification systems used in the U.S., I wonder if what’s going on with the guys over at UD is that they are LCC (Library of Congress Classification) versus DDC (Dewey Decimal Classificiation) people.

Ann Coulter made that derogatory crack about librarians with “their Dewey Decimal system” [sic] in Godless and it pissed me off (and I was hurt, rather—America hates liberal arts majors suddenly, and America hates teachers now, and America hates librarians, too? What, Coulter never made use of the law librarian while she was, I am sure, cocktail-waitressing her way through law school in order to escape her backward small town, New Canaan, Connecticut? I'm trying to become a product member of society, my dear). But I’m beginning to see some parallels between the two systems and the evo-ID debate.

(There is such a thing as psychology of cataloging. Librarians are interested in making materials available to people. We really don't want to "bury the work." Were I to work in a public library—and no, I don't want to—I would of course include books about Intelligent Design on the shelves.)

First of all, LCC is frontloaded. You do not build (create) a unique number from a few simple and elegant schedules and principles as in DDC; in LCC you comb through volumes of pre-printed schedules and tables (over 40 volumes at this point) from which you must not deviate, and all of it printed in microscopic script (scripture?), and not logical as is DDC. (Ever ask yourself why G stands for Geography and M stands for Music, but K stands for Law and Q stands for Science? Well, the G = Geography and M = Music was coincidence. Makes a lot of sense, doesn't it?)

Secondly, and this is interesting, LCC basically allows one to fudge the number as long as it arranges the books in the proper order on the shelf (and it doesn’t always do that properly). Looking at certain LCC numbers one cannot necessarily reconstruct how the hell the librarian came up with the damn thing, because, in some cases, the number was completely dependent not upon LCC's rules but determined by the books already on the shelf (thus, irreducible complexity!).

And yet LCC works—it arranges books on the shelf—but that’s all it does. It doesn’t bring out all the aspects (facets) of a work as Dewey can, and moreover, the LCC was never intended to be used anywhere else but the Library of Congress, anyway. And as new knowledge comes it, it is Dewey Decimal that has shown itself to be more flexible in incorporating new areas, say, African literature or Asian-American history, than has LCC, though both systems exhibit of course a bias toward our western, white, male, classically-educated heritage. That is probably why the Dewey Decimal Classification is the most used system throughout the world (as well as the fact that it employs only Arabic numerals which can be recognized even by people who don't employ a Latin alphabet).

Dewey, however, is indeed rational and logical, and was invented by one person in the 19th century during the development of other classification schemes (particularly in biology—hmmmm) and during the rise, it should be noted, of the scientific method and evolutionary theory. It should also be noted that LCC was also a product of the 19th century, but it was the product not of one person (and admittedly, Dewey was not the genius that he portrayed himself to be, and he was a major jerk besides) but a huge number of people working independently of each other in their own area of expertise (and my analogy breaks down when one remembers that both systems were, duh, designed).

I've often thought that there is a question of personality behind the ID versus Evo debate, and I wonder if these guys would eschew the simple and elegant DDC to the volumes and volumes of LCC schedules and tables which do not allow you to create a number but do tell you your every step (until you get to the fudging part). I don't think we should make carry these parallels too far but it would be interesting for someone pursuing a Ph.D. in Library Science (don't look at me!) to conduct a survey.


Blogger darrell said...

This was an informative little blog post. You see I worked in my college library and I always hated LCC. I know nothing of library history or theory or whatever, but I tried in vain the entire time I worked there to figure the damn thing out and I never could. Sure I could shelve books like a master, but I never figured out how they organized the damn thing. In contrast I masted the DDC system at my elementary school when I was 7 years old. Sure it was a smaller library...but it makes you think.

November 29, 2006 11:04 PM  
Blogger Kristine said...

Hey, thanks for your comments. I thought that maybe I went off on a strange tangent there.

I actually love LCC. My childhood library used it, and the Minneapolis Public Library system uses it, too. I have warm associations with some of the classes (Q, PR, PQ, etc.). I don't like, as a patron, looking things up in Dewey--but constructing a Dewey number is rather fun and it surprised me to find this out.

I'm probably taking the analogy with ID too far, though.

November 30, 2006 9:05 AM  
Blogger Georgia Gal said...

For years I worked in US academic libraries, and in 1997 did a job exchange in a London academic library. There librarians actually shelved every morning and I discovered that all of those numbers after the decimal point made the job a lot more difficult. Futher in this particular library I kept my mouth shut, but wondered why they did not Cutter. That was another US innovation....but I did not suggest another "American thing".

My point being, while a classification system for physical objects promotes browzing, it also keeps things in order. Sometime there can be a conflict.

Interesting discussion

January 23, 2009 9:58 AM  

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