Solutions to Controlled Vocabularies Part Two……


Structuralism can be understood as a normative science in which a classification system would begin with the norm and afterwards, if necessary, treat of any exceptions. This, in many ways, goes a long way towards explaining how some of the solutions to classification biases are conceptualised. Both Olson and Mai have basically inserted into the old systems a new way to deal with any exceptions to the norm. They both imply an understanding and incorporation of difference into their models, but only once the normative system has been first applied. However, in Poststructuralism, there emerges a more appropriate definition of difference, and not as an exception of ‘limit’ to the ‘core’, but as a regulating principal that functions to define the core of a subject. As James Williams (2104) demonstrates, in poststructuralism “the limit is not compared with the core, or balanced with it […]the limit is the core”. Poststructuralism sees dualism as a problematic approach to understanding language, and even more problematic with the dualist approach of classification theorists is that they imbalance the dualism between sameness and difference, lending more significance to sameness than difference. Perhaps it is better to explain the principle of ‘core’ and ‘limit’ through an example. Defining something like ‘Irishness’ is traditionally understood through what is at its core, that is, being born in a certain place, time, to certain parents, being a certain skin colour, speaking a certain language, etc. This understanding of Irishness is what regulates our political system and society as a whole. The ‘limit’ in this example would be the problems that arise with the definition once we factor in ethnic minorities who become naturalised with their own set of cultures and histories. But in a traditional, structuralist understanding, these minorities are the exception, and while the Irish government may legislate to create better conditions for ethnic minorities, there will always be discrimination because the limit does not change the core. However, poststructuralism, in James’ (2014) words, would argue that “The truth of a population is where it is changing. A nation is defined at its borders”, that is, at the point of difference because everything that happens at the borders of a country changes how the core is defined. It is the ‘difference’ of ethnic minorities that is most representative of a where a nation is going to in the future and so the ‘limit’ for poststructuralism is the most meaningful way that a nation, or a text, or indeed a classification system can be defined. In terms of vocabulary control then, what defines how a text is classified should not be a biased and static system. Texts should be classified by emphasising how those texts are being, or could be used in ‘different’ ways, by different disciplines. A book like ‘Words of Power’, that would be classified under LCSH and DDC as Philosophy: Logic, would no longer be limited to such static systems. This book could also be used by feminist scholars, by those working in ethics, or anthropology, sociology, psychology, gender studies, linguistics, and so on. Defining the book under strict controlled vocabularies denies access to ‘exceptional’ groups which results in a lack of real innovation and creativity in academia. In this sense, there are lessons to be learned form poststructuralist theorist Deleuze who argues for the power of openness in creativity.

To reassert, then, poststructuralism denies the traditional approach to classification through controlled vocabularies and aims to positively disrupt traditional classification systems in order to achieve greater autonomy for texts and their users. The problem with the solutions is that they are developed from the point of view that it is too disruptive to completely change our classification systems. But here disruption is seen negatively rather than positively. The seriousness of this ultimately limiting attitude and of the reliance on outmoded classifications can best be understood by applying the work of Jacques Derrida to the topic. Derrida’s (1976) ‘textual positivism’ would not ask ‘what is this book about?’, but rather, ‘what does this book do?’ This question radically changes the way we would categorise texts because it places an emphasis on multiplicity of use rather than the singularity of meaning as defined by ‘specialists’. Derrida’s approach distinctly adopts anthropocentrism and sees the classification system as onto-theological. Derrida’s ‘origin’ is constantly being affected by a texts ‘presence’, thats is, what a text is doing in the moment. It is this ‘presence’ that leads to both the future and the past, that essentially pulls the ‘origin’ into ever-evolving new contexts. A ‘sign’ then for Derrida is nothing more than a ‘trace’ of that change, a trace that can be followed to a point of difference so long as we understand that once we reach the trace, we have too altered its origin which has moved off beyond our grasp. It is this point of difference that allows for creativity to emerge in what Derrida defines as ‘play’. In this sense, and applied to classification systems, the moment at which a reader reads ‘Words of Power’ in relation to psychoanalytical studies, is the moment that changes the origin indefinitely, opening up that text to new contexts in the future and the past, and thereby changing how that text should be defined in a classification system.


This essay will argue then, that classification systems should take ‘difference’ as a key underlying principle in the way we organise information. To do otherwise is to consciously do ‘violence’ by excluding individuals or groups from our knowledge economy. As Derrida (1976, 140) writes “There is no ethics without the presence of the other but also, and consequently, without absence, dissimulation, detour, differance, writing”. This is because traditional classification systems and the solutions outlined in this paper, try to regulate the past, present and future of information in order to make it more accessible. However, the adoption of a classical scientific approach only makes it possible to categories if texts, if language, are seen as static. But Derrida (1976, 67) teaches us that “The concepts of present, past, and future, everything in the concepts of time and history that assumes their classical evidence – the general metaphysical concepts of time – cannot describe the structure of the trace adequately”. This constitutes a denial that there is no ‘final’ past, present or future of a text. Derrida (1976, 69) would argue that what is really happening in controlled vocabularies is a violence and unethical act of control which is borne out of a fear and misunderstanding of ‘death’. “Spacing as writing is the becoming-absent and the becoming-unconsious of the subject. By the movement of its drift/ derivation the emancipation of the sign constitutes in return the desire of the presence. That becoming – or that drift/ derivation – does not befall the subject which would choose it or would passively let itself be drawn along by it. As the subject’s relationship with its own death, this becoming is the constitution of subjectivity.” Death in this sense is seen as continuity from one context to the next rather than a final end. In many ways, traditional classification systems are a kind of death sentence in the traditional sense in that they render entire texts and disciplines static and irrelevant as new contexts emerge and are classified in inadequate ways. Perhaps the point is best represented by Williams (2014) who claims “The demand for clarity is dangerous because clarity justifies violent judgements and exclusions on the basis of a promise of a world of understanding and togetherness.”

What is happening then in our classification systems is that subject specialists are attempting to create greater accessibility to information by categorising information under specific and specialist subject headings in order to create a sense of clarity when one is searching for that information. Texts are gathered together based around a principle of sameness and difference in which things that are similar are classified under the same subject headings. The reality is that this system, based on controlled vocabularies is extremely biased and fails to account for real difference, heterogeneity and multiplicity in our information world. There have been attempts to create new systems that, for example, are more appropriate for those interested in feminist studies, but these systems simply shift the control from one universal group to another smaller prioritisation. They do highlight a very important politics and injustice, for example, in the way texts are classified, but they do so by reverting to an equally biased system. It is at the point of difference that real innovation and creativity occurs. Our universities are set up as places in which creativity and independent thinking is supposed to lead to new innovations, while our public libraries are moving more and more towards providing creative spaces for communities to grow and develop. Yet, the way in which we search for information is limited and contradictory, and no longer fit for purpose. The argument that ‘difference’ should be prevalent in classification systems is not absurd or contradictory, but would require a complete overhaul of the way in which we understand and categorise information. Perhaps there is already a working model existent in the way in which internet search engines like Google operate. Websites on Google are presented to us in a way that can promote difference as a classifying principle. This is because those websites that have the most links to other active sites are presented as being more prevalent and relevant. What would happen if a similar approach was adopted by libraries? That when we search for information under a certain topic, that we are presented with a list of texts that are organised based around the number of connections the texts have to other texts and thus other disciplines? This would perhaps provide a classification system that would celebrate multiplicity, ranking texts according to the many possible ways they can be used and interpreted. In the field of literature, I remember my PhD supervisor suggesting to me that I include some comparative work between John Banville and Gabriel Garcia Marquez in my thesis because the postcolonial contexts of Ireland and Colombia bare many similarities. As a researcher, in all the hours spent searching for information on Banville and postcolonialism, I was never presented with any texts that implied real difference or multiplicity. Searches were singular and restrictive, never indicating that any different approach was possible. The classification system would provide no new spark of creativity for young researchers to pursue. In fact, using Boolean logic, I found that the more search terms I entered in different searches, the more relevant the results that were presented. If difference was to become an organising principle, then information would be retrieved that prioritised multiplicity and that would lead to greater inclusion and thus innovation. The problem at the moment is that the way we search the digital databases is dictated by the way in which information is placed on stacks. The stacks or the numbers on the books do not have to change. Where the information is located in the library is irrelevant because rarely nowadays do we search the stacks anyway. What needs to change is the way information is classified on the digital databases. There is nothing stopping us from radically changing this digital system to one that is more inclusive of difference and that contains less ‘violent’ vocabularies.


Beghtol, C. (1986). “Semantic validity: concepts of warrant in bibliographic classification systems”. Library Resources & Technical Services, Vol. 30 No. 2, pp. 109-25.

Borges, J.L. (1952). “The analytical language of John Wilkins”, Other Inquisitions 1937-1952. Souvenir Press, London, 1973.

Bowker, G.C. and Star, S.L. (1999). Sorting Things Out: Classification and Its Consequences. MIT Press, Boston, MA.

Derrida, Jacques (1976). Of Grammatology. John Hopkins University Press, Maryland.

Lakoff, G. (1987). Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things: What Categories Reveal about the Mind. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL.

Mai, Jens-Erik (2010). Classification in a social world: bias and trust. Journal of Documentation, Vol. 66 Issue 5, pp. 627-642.

Miksa, F. (1998). The DDC, the Universe of Knowledge, and the Post-Modern Library. Forest

Press, Albany, NY.

Olson, Hope A. (2001). Sameness and difference: a cultural foundation of classification. Library Resources and Technical Services, 45, no. 3, pp.115-122

Shirky, C. (2005). “Ontology is overrated: categories, links, and tags”. Clay Shirky’s Writings about the Internet. Economics & Culture, Media & Community, available at: http://www.shirky. com/writings/ontology_overrated.html html (Date Accessed 28th April 2015)

Williams, James (2014). Understanding Poststructuralism. Routledge: London.

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