oleandraceae asked:

Hi! You mentioned that classification theory is, in your opinion, quite political and raises ethical issues. I'm intrigued, and JSTOR really isn't giving me answers. It had one job...


Ah! Well, JSTOR isn’t much good for library science literature anyway. The classic intro article that hints at how political classification is is Michael K. Buckland’s What is a “Document”? which asks the perennial question, is an antelope a document? 

Ah, library school.

All the major classification systems (Library of Congress, Dewey, etc.) start from the idea that all information can be ordered, because objective order exists. But once you crack that system open you can see how incredibly subjective it is. Where things are slotted tells you everything about the worldview of the people who created that system, and whose reality they think is and is not worth respecting. It’s like Genesis: the order in which things are created, and what’s next to what, is terribly important. 

You can see what I mean if you wander through your local library’s reference collection and browse the shelf, looking to see what’s next to what, and what order it’s in. You will see not only a white people bias, you’ll see a Christianity bias. (White people and Christianity always come first as you start any new subject.) I once saw a library that has socialism sitting right next to criminals. (Not the library’s fault: the classification system’s fault.) Gay marriage as a subject used to be found under relations between the sexes, in the infidelity section. See what I mean? It tells you so much about the people making the decisions.

People who like libraries and who like books also generally like to talk about serendipity in the stacks, about how you can stumble upon things you weren’t specifically looking for. While I suppose this could happen completely at random, serendipity in a subject area is dependent on someone thinking hard about a book and deciding where it should sit on a shelf. When someone decides to put gay marriage three bays over from the general works on marriage, they are controlling that serendipitous moment for you. They are protecting you from things. 

This is why I think classification is political, ethically charged, and interesting.

Side note: many of my librarian kin would kill me for saying this, but if you want to do a search about something you don’t know very well, but you want academic sources, I’d strongly encourage you to use Google Scholar. It casts a wider net than searching any one database (like JSTOR), and it’s easier to use than library systems. FYI.