Other Things: Library organization

Today is Tax Day, the despised anti-holiday of every American, on which one’s self-indictment of tax liability (an indictment for which an error of omission or commission is punishable by law) must be filed with the government. This indictment is applicable to all Americans, for all income of any type whatsoever earned in any locale and for any amount. I filed my own indictment last night, and who knows – that may be used as evidence against me at some future date in a tax court, where I will be forced to prove my innocence instead of the prosecution being forced to prove my guilt.

But this post isn’t about taxes, or government (mis)spending. It’s about library organization. Seriously. See? It says so right in the title.

Every kid learns the Dewey Decimal System at some point in their public school education (on which the Federal government spends approximately 16% of its annual budget), and this system of organization works well for most small collections, even up to collections as large as that of a city library system. There seems to be a category for everything, from the risqu̩ 306.7 (various human sexuality topics) to the bland 516.37 (Metric differential geometries), the dull 722 (Architecture to c. 300) to the recently exciting 943 (general history of central Europe & Germany) and 956 (general history of Asia РMiddle East).

The Dewey Decimal Catalog makes sense to people and is easy to learn quickly and expand. It’s one great shortcoming is that it is for non-fiction only, and most libraries who use it simply alphabetize their fiction collections by author last name. The Library of Congress, on the other hand, is not nearly as intuitive. Indeed, their catalog system is customized to suit their needs, not the needs of others (I could add a comment about Congress here about knowing a tree by its fruits, but I’ll refrain). Lets begin with the beginning of the system: Herbert Putnam.

Thomas Jefferson donated (or sold, depending on how you look at it) his personal library after the British destroyed Congress’ in 1814. Apparently some positional-based system was worked out, but that didn’t even last a century. In 1897 Herbert Putnam developed what can only be described as an organization system only a bureaucrat could love, because unless you’re a bureaucrat buried hip-deep in it every day, it makes no sense whatsoever. But that’s what one could expect from a high-paid government bureaucrat who exists for the benefit of the governors, not the governed.

Anyway, lets take an example: anything history is catalogued in the DDC in the 900s, but in the LOC system it is under Class D. Unless it’s American History, which dictates that the book go into the E catalog. This begs for an answer to the question: where does something covering South American history go? Also, a book of American History could go in F, if its local history of the United States.

Consider another example: Military Science is Class U, unless its a book on Naval Science, in which case it is V. Science is Q, unless it’s Medical Science which is R (M is for Music, not Medicine), or Political Science (J), or Social Sciences (H). Math (QA) is considered a Science and programming is too, despite the existence of the Technology Class (T). If this is enough to drive one to drink, you can stop here and find brewing and distillation in the TP500-660 shelf.

The LOC manages this monstrosity of nonlinear implications with a budget of merely $598 million dollars, which seems inordinately small if they have to teach new employees how to use their catalog system. On the other hand, they don’t need to pay rent, so they can save a bit in that budget column. So if I can do my part and help them keep the lights on, then they have my permission to put their brains to use figuring out how to adopt a catalog system that makes sense.