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On Classification

August 3, 2010

One of the joys of holding a weekly office hour in a department is the accidental conversations that emerge when you run into students or faculty by chance.  Today Chuck Platter and I brainstormed a bit about what we might accomplish with a visit from me to his graduate-level Greek Prose class.  We talked about serendipity and the discovery of scholarly materials, and he brought up the Warburg Library, of which I should probably be ashamed to say I had never heard (except that as a teacher and librarian, my personal motto is that one shouldn’t be ashamed about what one doesn’t (yet) know – one should be inspired to learn about new things!)

Most academic libraries in the US use the Library of Congress (“LC”) classification system to order their books.  When I worked at Duke, that library still used the Dewey Decimal classification, most familiar to users of US public libraries.  Duke converted to LC while I worked there (a massive undertaking very neatly accomplished, if I who was a small gear in the process may be permitted to say so.)  It was fascinating to watch the books move about and regroup as they changed from Dewey to LC – some books that had been shelf-mates stayed so, and some ended up at opposite ends of the call number range.

As a former archaeologist, I have long known that classification is almost always a scheme imposed by the scholar on the material.  While the goal is to ‘carve nature at its joints,’ it is sometimes not clear at all where the joints lie, and even those who think they see clearly are bringing intellectual and cultural preconceptions about the nature and existence of joints to the material in question.  It is the same in library science, but of course print books must go somewhere, so one has to decide whether a Roman culinary treatise should go with latin literature or ‘cookery’ (which Subject Term was recently eliminated from the LC Headings as too old-fashioned, although I kind of love it.)

Back to the Warburg Library.  It is associated with the Warburg Institute at the University of London, and originated as the personal library of its namesake, Aby Warburg, a German scholar of the history of art.  Its classification scheme has four major headings: Action – Orientation – Word – Image.  The graphic below helps illustrate more clearly what these mean.

Within these  larger categories are sub-headings, with 3-letter “Classmarks” for individual topics. Thus KNN is Roman Mosaics and Painting, and there’s a list of books in classification order available through the online catalog.  The books are almost certainly in a different arrangement that they would be if the same books were shelved according to the LC classification.

Discovery is an important part of scholarship, and looking at familiar things with a new slant can be revealing.  I always encourage graduate students who are accustomed to doing online searches for books to browse the library stacks instead (or “also”) – they will find some of the same things they discovered in the online catalog, but new things as well, and the juxtapositions can be revealing or thought-provoking.  So the opportunity to view a collection of books classified in the Warburg scheme can spark new ideas for scholarship or lead to the discovery of works you’d never run across before – because at your university, some of them were shelved with the cookbooks, in the Science Library.

A note for UGA faculty and students, I am holding my Fall 2010 Office Hours from 1-2pm on Tuesdays in Park Hall 222 – the newly rearranged Alexander Room.  The carpet was cleaned, and the tables have been put back in such a way as to make the room look 6 feet wider.  I, at least, am seeing the space with fresh eyes!

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