Six impossible things before breakfast.

A library science student's perspective on life, the universe, and everything.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Classification warfare

As my head tries to wrap itself around the complexities of categorization and classification, I find that latching on to concrete examples in my readings is one of the best ways of making things stick. Over time, standardized systems of classification have been developed to aid in finding and retrieving information and resources. Inevitably, when there are numerous systems there are also overlapping systems: multiple ways of classifying or describing the same things. One obvious example of this is the friendly competition between the Dewey Decimal Classification (DDC) and the Library of Congress Classification (LCC) both of which are used to classify books. The overlap here is mostly resolved by the fact that DDC is mostly found in school and public libraries, while LCC is the preferred system in academic and research libraries. However, the debate certainly isn't just two dimensional. Internationally there are many different standardized forms of classification for library books, and crossing into the commercial sector, again you will find distinct methods for recording and describing books in the publishing industry and book market. One of these systems is known as the Book Industry Standards Advisory Committee (BISAC) classification scheme, which was designed to encourage consistency among book placement in retail stores to make it easier for customers to find what they are looking for.

When Google began their great digitization project, many academics were upset to learn that Google planned to classify books in their new digital collection by the BISAC system instead of LCC. Scholars felt that the BISAC categories where less specific and less useful. Some suspected Google of having financial ambitions with future plans to establish ties to the electronic book market. "In the words of UC Berkeley Professor Geoffrey Nunberg, 'In short, Google has taken a group of the world's great research collections and returned them in the form of a suburban-mall bookstore'" (Nunberg, 2009 in Hemerly, 2012).

And what has Google recently unveiled but their very own Google eBookstore. From a Google Books profile, there is a prominent "BUY EBOOK" icon above even the title of the book. In addition to the unmissable Google eBookstore plug, Google also provides links to print sellers of the book. Going back to the eBookstore, where might one find free eBooks? (Since Google's initial mission was to build a digital library after all.) The answer is all the way at the very bottom of the homepage. With this obvious commercial mindset Google Books seems to be drifting further from the library model the project began with and the original ideals that brought Google into partnerships with organizations like the Library of Congress and the Bodleian Library at Oxford University. Over the last few years, Google has become a giant in the book industry; based on their current activities, I think it's reasonable to be a little concerned about where they will lead us from here.

Hemerly, Jess. 2012. Classification. In Glushko, R. (Ed.) The Discipline of Organizing.

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