Tag Archives: information theory

Ireland’s new National Public Library Catalogue

I would like to begin this post on an optimistic note because I want to give some thoughts on the concept of Ireland’s national catalogue in our public libraries without focusing on the inevitable teething problems that occur with any monumental change in direction that a service undergoes. So, let’s assume that the new national catalogue in Ireland works exactly how it is supposed to. Let’s take that as our starting point. Let’s forget about problems with the actual catalogue. Let’s also forget about SIERRA’s awful search engine that all too often returns unexpected and very inaccurate search results when trying to find a common title. Let’s not worry for now about the fact that paging (item request) lists cannot be trusted or that the system often refuses to clear or move along requests. Let’s not worry too much about barcodes not matching the barcodes on actual items, or the duplication of item records. Let’s not trouble ourselves with the fact that SIERRA was never designed to understand things like text messages, or fines in the public library service. Let’s forget about it’s love of connecting to printers and its complete disregard for the environment. Let us put all that aside and be positive and from there take a look at the idea of our new national catalogue from a conceptual and slightly philosophical perspective.

So what is the idea really? Well, that every public library in the country is connected, sharing items and services. A patron can search the catalogue, find an item anywhere in the country and can have that item delivered to their local library in 3 to 5 days. In many ways it reminds me of the EU. Who did not love the idea of the freedom of movement of both people and goods across the continent? Like all ideas, it was perfect in its idealogical state. But putting an idea into practice requires a measure of control and regulation. And the moment you try to regulate freedom, well, you destroy it. Library members express their surprise and excitement at the new national catalogue because, in truth, it is a brilliant idea that makes more information more accessible to more people. However, what is it like in practice? How well thought out has the idea been? How well has it been executed? And what are the future implications of this new departure for our public library service?

Cost of transportation and the environment

After expressing their joy at such a service, the next questions patrons ask are: ‘how much will that cost?’ and ‘whose going to pay for it?’ The figures will likely never be released by the LGMA as they have a penchant for secrecy at the best of times, but from what I understand the cost of transporting one item stands at around .75 cents. A request list in my local library, small and rural, is usually 20-30 items long. Not only this, but it is the library that has to send the item out that incurs the cost. I work in a smaller county that has spent a lot of its budget in recent years developing excellent stock. Because it is a smaller county it has a smaller budget. The worry is that now this budget is going to be swallowed up by the cost of transporting its excellent stock all around the country. Of course, on the upside it does mean that borrowers in libraries that are poorly stocked will now have a much better range of items to borrow. However, does transporting books around the country really make sense? Rather than sending a book out to a library ten times a year, would it not be better to spend that money on buying an extra copy in the county? Not to mention it being kinder on the environment too. What will happen to library stock in the long term? If book buying budgets are smaller due to the cost of book transportation then won’t that simply increase the demand for requests in the future because individual libraries will be buying less books every year? So while right now you can get books quicker, in the future the queues may get much longer if the service is not properly supported with generous budgets.

It is interesting to consider how wasteful this new system might be. A scenario could arise in which I send a book off to Donegal from Laois. A few hours later a patron comes into the library in Laois and requests the book I just posted to Donegal. I go onto the catalogue and place another request. The system grabs another copy of the same book from Kerry and transports it to Laois. Is this not a wasteful system? In work on Saturday I sent books from Laois to Clare, Sligo, Mayo, Dublin, Wicklow, Limerick and Cork. I checked the LMS to see where other copies of those books were available. The book I sent to Limerick was also available in Clare, which is obviously much closer to Limerick than Laois. The LMS does not understand geography. It will search the home county first, but after that it will simply take the next available copy it finds irrespective of where that copy is located. This means that every book that leaves a county is potentially leaking efficiency. The Limerick copy could have saved 150kms of distance, which will cost less money and less CO2 emissions. And anyone who works in a public library will know that a lot of items that are requested are never actually picked up in time by patrons. I wonder how much money is wasted transporting items to libraries around the country only for the item to never be collected and read? It seems like it is a system that is very wasteful and inefficient.

What ever happened to e-books/ e-resources?

Libraries elsewhere have been pumping money into e-reading services. Why? Well, because it is extremely efficient and location is not really a barrier to reading. Would it not be wiser to allow libraries to develop their own stock and for the money to be put into e-reading services nationally? In fact, we do have some great e-resources available through public libraries (including books and magazine), but currently the e-books service is not actually connected to the national catalogue so when a patron searches for a book it only gives them the option of physical items and ignores the fact that we do actually have a few thousand e-books as well. If every university catalogue can be connected to electronic resources, why can’t the public library catalogue?

My search for the National Geographic magazine returned the following result on Libraries Ireland:

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The results do not give me an option of an electronic copy despite the fact that I know one is available online through Zinio Magazine Collection and Laois Libraries website.

Searching for ‘My Husband’s Wife’ using the e-books filter returns the following result:

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This book is actually available to library members through Bolinda e-books services, again available through your local library’s website. Maybe spending some money connecting our already existing e-services into the national catalogue might actually prevent transportation wastage on physical items? Of course, the defence will be that it is not yet a finished product. But how much money is going to be wasted in the meantime while the LGMA work on finishing what they have started? Would it not be better to put the infrastructure in place first before rolling out a service? It certainly calls into the question the ability of the LGMA and the government to deliver an adequate and effective library service. Reading a review of a bicycle recently, a reviewer commented, “when you buy quality, it only hurts once”. Proper planning in this sense is a lot less painful in the long run, and the LGMA seem incapable of thorough research and planning.

Let’s digress: using an academic library LMS in public libraries

I worked in the UK at the University of Surrey last year. We used an academic LMS called ALMA. It is important to question why the choice was taken to use SIERRA as the LMS of choice for this new national catalogue. SIERRA was first used in Ireland by Trinity College and UCC. These are naturally two academic libraries. In fact, SIERRA is a system designed for academic libraries. I noted earlier that it does not understand geography very well. It has an option when requesting books to ‘hold copy returned soonest’. In an academic library, that may only have four library buildings (at most) in close proximity to each other then holding the next copy returned is sensible, especially because if there is more than one library in a university they will be stocked by subject anyway. The books don’t have to be transported from one location to the next. In the public library service, we have more than 300 library branches so holding the next copy returned means a book could be travelling 300kms from one branch to another. SIERRA has no understanding of geography; in an academic library it does not need to. Of course, it will search the local authority first and then default to the next copy outside of the county if none are available in county. However, by my estimation, this only actually happens about 80% of the time. I have received copies of items requested by members of my library arrive from outside the county when I know there to be a copy sitting on the shelf just a few feet away. Of course, you can alternatively find a copy of an item and make a specific item request. However, many items that were lost on HORIZON transferred over to SIERRA as ‘on shelf’ and so the item you request may never actually arrive. SIERRA does not understand time either. If a copy is due back the next day into the authority where it has been requested, it does not stall the request and wait for that copy to return. Instead, it goes outside of the county and pulls a copy from elsewhere. There does not seem to be any pattern or logic to how or where it pulls items from. It is hugely wasteful of resources and is not a system that understands public library processes or procedures.

Also in an academic library, you have a small team of cataloguers all working to the same standards. At the University of Surrey, we worked to British Library standards. With the previous LMS HORIZON cataloguing was a problem, but it was manageable. You see, some of the people cataloguing started out card cataloguing and in the last 30 years have never updated their understanding of cataloguing. When we moved over to electronic cataloguing and to AACR2, there were huge gaps in knowledge and new cataloguing standards were not followed consistently. And I imagine very few cataloguers today in the authorities really understand RDA/MARC21 because they are simply too busy to continuously up skill. In the past these inconsistencies were limited because even though the cataloguing standards may not have been the best, they were at least somewhat consistent within each authority. We now have a catalogue that has 15 million items and god only knows how many people are adding records on a daily basis in the individual branches. The catalogue is currently a huge problem. I frequently have to go back into HORIZON in order to find what I am looking for. I have seen items with mis-spellings in the author’s name. All item records should be attached to the same bib record so that when requests are place a nice orderly queue is formed. However, I saw one item with multiple bib records. The first had 6 items attached and there were more than 40 requests on the record. The second record actually had 60 items attached but with no requests on it. It was the same book, but the bib record had been duplicated. The main benefit of a national catalogue is the request system and the ability to share information, but the actual catalogue as it is is making the request system very inefficient and ineffective at times.

I could go on and on about the catalogue and the inaccessibility it creates. However, it is important to question why SIERRA and Innovative were chosen? The LMS is simply not fit for purpose because it is an academic library system being used in a drastically different public library setting.

The scenic route to ‘National Procurement’

Of course, national procurement is coming down the line as part of the national catalogue in which all libraries’ stock will be purchased centrally. The current national catalogue is impressively diverse. But this diversity will diminish with national procurement. Eventually, will all libraries in the country simply have the same stock anyways, thereby alleviating the need for a courier system? If every library has the same books and are equally stocked in terms of quantity, then there will be no need to borrow from around the country. Why not just do this now and save us all the hassle and expense? Or better still, develop e-book services instead?

My Open Library, ethics, surveillance, democracy, diversity and the future of public libraries

There are other questions of course. Like how does the national library catalogue tie in to the Open Library plans? Surely these two systems have been considered by the LGMA together? Surely they are part of the same long term vision. The National Catalogue certainly seems to suggest that users will have a better service if they go online and order items that they want and then drop in to pick them up at the branch. The national library catalogue does seem to be pushing people more towards online services and may well diminish the services for those who are not capable or inclined to visit their library online. This is because stock in libraries looks like it’s about to be negatively affected by the cost of the national catalogue. So, is the national catalogue simply a prelude or set up to the open library agenda?

Philosophically, there is a tendency to consider all authorities as the same in this strategy. There are fundamental problems with this. Not only in terms of reducing the diversity of library stock, but also in terms of failing to understand the diverse needs of library users which varies greatly from county to county. There is a bigger issue of controlling information rather than freeing up information. National procurement, coupled to a national catalogue, coupled to an open library results in greater control of library members and of library stock. It leads to greater surveillance in libraries (a fundamental principle that libraries are at odds with), but also greater control of information that people have access to. The cynics amongst us might suggest that what is really happening is that the government is exerting greater control over our freedoms. A national catalogue creates a national database of civilians whose personal information and reading habits are now accessible to government when before they were localised. A librarian in any branch in the country has access to a huge national database of phone numbers, emails and personal addresses, and while we cannot see reading history, we can see what anyone in the country is currently reading. I wonder how members of the public feel about this from a privacy and security perspective. National procurement threatens to centralise the control of information and people’s access to it, as well as exerting greater control over what information the public have access to freely through their libraries. And finally, add to this an Open Library system in which members of the public are no longer able to enter a public building without being video recorded and personally identified and you have the destruction of a key pillar of freedom in a democratic society. In fact, libraries could be the last truly free space left in our society and the national catalogue, for all of its promise, should not be viewed separately from other government initiatives.

Over-qualified & Under-experienced

Intro Slide
Intro Slide

The above slide best sums up my first year seeking employment as a new Information Professional. While I have made it to a few interviews for Assistant Librarian roles, I have failed to secure these posts due to not having enough direct experience in these roles. This means I need to find an entry level Library Assistant role in order to build experience However, I have found it much more difficult to get interviews at entry level Library Assistant roles. I am told that I am over-qualified for these by experienced librarians I have spoken to about this problem.

Slide 1
Slide 1

So what makes me overqualified and under-experience. I have 12 years experience in Teaching and Education. I have taught Secondary English and worked as an Examiner for the Leaving Certificate Mock Exams; I have worked as an Assistant Lecturer in English Literature at Maynooth University; I have taught English Language, Technical English and Academic English in university and private companies in three countries, including UCD her in Ireland; I have taught Academic Writing, Research Skills and Information Literacy at third level also.

Since graduating, from my MLIS at UCD, I have worked for 1 year as a Library Assistant in the University of Surrey in the UK because I could not find a job here in Ireland. For the past three months, I have been working as a Library Assistant in Laois Libraries on a temporary contract that could end at any moment. I also have two postgraduate degrees.

Slide 2
Slide 2

In 2016, I applied for Library Assistant jobs in 6 County Libraries and 5 Academic Libraries, but was only invited to one interview in Laois thus far. In the county, there are more than 17 Library Assistants, but I am the only one with a library qualification. I finished 10th on that panel, out of which 5 people were hired on full-time permanent contracts. 1 of the 5 had meaningful library experience and none had a qualification. I am happy for anyone who finds a job, but the numbers in public libraries are too heavily weighted towards those without library qualifications, suggesting the qualification is not valued for these positions. I personally do not have an objection to libraries hiring Assistants that have no qualification because I understand their need to have security and continuity in their staff as many Library Assistant are not interested in being upwardly mobile – unlike most MLIS graduates. Also, the people I work with at the University of Surrey and Laois Libraries are excellent at their jobs and I learn from them every day. My experience illustrates just how challenging it is for new professionals to land that first position in the current market.

Slide 3
Slide 3

So how can you maximise your opportunities? You need to work hard on your cv, creating a new cv for every job. I delete my CV every time I apply for a job because it forces me to create a new one for each application, in which I use the job description in order to guide how I describe my experience. The Library Association of Ireland is also an amazing community of professionals who you can learn from and build in-person and online networks. They do provide many CPD opportunities. This is something I need to work on more myself. Using your new cv and networking powers, you can land that first job. But from there you need make that job work for you. Rather than sitting at the information desk at the University of Surrey, I got involved in Teaching & Learning projects, I shadowed Subject Librarians, and took on Cataloguing projects when I heard Cataloguing were very busy. I travelled outside of my own job description in order to develop experience that strengthens my employment opportunities. So long as you are doing your primary job well, then your Line Manager will likely be open to supporting your development. In my current role, I catalogue donated items rather than sending them back to Library HQ; I get involved in collection development and weeding; I am currently organising workshops for Leaving Certificate students in the area; and am planning to run basic computer and web design courses in the library in the near future.

Slide 4
Slide 4

However, while there is a vibrant, helpful library community in this country, we do have to balance our view by considering that there is also a political and economic reality at work. Many librarians who act within the community and through the LAI are also going back into their daily professional posts and are failing to act upon the needs of new professionals in their hiring policies. They create CPD opportunities in the LAI but fail to realise that in order to really allow for career development to happen, more opportunities to apply these skills in a professional role need to be created. So by all means work hard on your CV, and doubly so on networking. But don’t forget to remind those senior librarians that you meet at CPD events, that the obligation they have to nurture the profession does not stop once they leave their LAI committee meetings. And that they need to carry that sentiment back out into the real professional environments, to their hiring committees and interview panels, so that we can be afforded the opportunity they themselves were once given. Thank you.

Slide 5
Slide 5

Part 3: Assessing Ireland’s Open Library Initiative

Will the open library provide more or less access to information for all people within the community?

I initially started this article by suggesting that open libraries could provide greater access to information and that this could potentially be a good thing. They provide greater access to information simply because the library is open for longer periods of time. However, does an open library provide greater access to information than a less technologically enabled staffed library?

If the user is computer literate then the staffed library and open library provide the same access to information. However, if the user is not computer literate then the open library provides less access to information. This is because many people do rely on the librarians to help them use the IT facilities in the library. Many users do not know how to search the catalogue in order to find the books they are looking for; others do not know how to log on to a computer let alone search a digital database effectively; most users cannot use the photocopying and scanning facilities without help; and in libraries when there are self-service machines, most users come to the desk with their items anyway preferring the human interaction and service they get from the staff. Open libraries exclude all of these people. So, if it is cheaper to staff a library than to set it up for open access, and if open access excludes users, then is it not true that staffed libraries provide greater a access to information than open libraries given that a staffed library service in the evening provides access to more people and for longer periods of time? The simple truth is that librarians are as much a part of the access infrastructure of a library as computers are.


Part 2: Assessing Ireland’s Open Library Initiative

Who are the designated end users and does the Open Library truly serve them?

The designated community of an open library are users that are computer liberate and technologically enabled. Many people who attend the library during the day are excluded because they do not know how to use the technology in the library. If the open library scheme is targeting those people that are working during the day then that is fine. It is acceptable to target these users if the library is open to everyone else throughout the day. However, if the end user is someone in full-time employment/ education and is already technologically enabled, is the open library the best solution for their needs?

The bottom line is that the library now provides more electronic resources than it does physical copies. You can borrow e-books and e-magazines through the library website, you can take courses through University Class and you can learn languages also. True open access for a technologically enabled user actually means ‘remote access’. That user can access electronic resources from home, work, while on the train or their lunch break. That user already has a broadband or 3G connection and is already connected to the information they need. Does it make sense that we are investing millions countrywide to set up individual open libraries to service people who are already connected to the internet and who are online? Does it not make more sense to invest this money in electronic and digital resources that can be accessed 24/7 from anywhere and by anyone that has an internet connection? This is also important because one countrywide electronic resources license actually serves the entire country. The open library initiative is setting up single, individual libraries in every county to provide greater access to information. It is like choosing to pay for hundreds of Windows licences when one will cover the entire country at a lower cost.

So, if the actually information can be provided electronically, whey else would someone need an open library? Of course, people will use it not just for the information it holds, but also for the facilities, ie. copying, computing and studying. Again, the designated or targeted user likely already has a computer and printer in their home, or alternatively, will use printing and photocopying services at work. So if the open library will only be open in the evening and the people using it will already be technologically enabled, is it worth the investment to open the library as a study space for professionals and students? There is no doubt that it would be useful for people to study and hold meetings in the library, but do we really need all of the additional security and technology to provide people with a desk, a chair, or a group meeting room? And will people feel safe and comfortable enough to use it anyway?

It appears that the reasons behind the open library are misguided. The attempt to appease disgruntled librarians and patrons by arguing that the open library will only be open for a few hours in the evenings and on Sundays simply does not add up or make sense from a financial or end user perspective.


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.

Problematic Solutions to Controlled Vocabularies……

Controlled vocabularies in modern classification systems were designed to assist in making information more accessible to library patrons and professional researchers. The very idea that vocabulary can be controlled finds its origins in Enlightenment ideology in which modern science was founded on the principles of ‘knowledge and truth’. Within the field of linguistics, this meant that the greater an understanding of the mechanics of language and the greater the accuracy and control over words, the closer one could come to truth. In applying this ideology to library classification systems, both the Dewey Decimal System and the Library of Congress Classification System attempted to create subject headings under which library content could be listed. The claim that these systems are biased is no longer really in dispute as both systems have attempted in recent years to adapt to new emergent disciplines that have been marginalised due to the biases within the respective classifications. However, the continued attempt to regulate the classification of information through slightly more ‘flexible’ controlled vocabularies is detrimental to real innovation and creativity, not only in academic and scientific research, but also in terms of promoting real diversity and creativity privately and publicly in social, political, economic and cultural spheres. It is ironic that the very systems that set out to improve accessibility to information and to thereby foster greater innovation and awareness, has in fact lead to greater ignorance. The problem persists in so far as classification systems continue to be regulated by outmoded ideology in which classification ‘specialists’ take as their starting point the mantra that information can be classified in a coherent and organised way under specified subject headings. The truth is that until classification systems more fairly account for the differences and diversity that exists within singular texts, then these systems will continue to be biased, acting as an obstacle to knowledge as opposed to a medium to accessibility. The following paper sets out to explicate the problems created by controlled vocabularies in classification systems by discussing the issue from a poststructuralist perspective, specifically utilising Derrida’s work in Of Grammatology to explain the contradictions in traditional classification systems and to further critique some modern solutions to these problems.


Borges (1952, 104) asserts that “there is no classification of the universe that is not arbitrary and conjectural”. Borges identified that at the core of any attempt to classify or to organise objects through controlled vocabularies is the fact that this organisation is based on shifting premises that can be challenged from a point of difference. Beghtol (1986 ) illuminates the problem with traditional classification systems further by arguing that these systems are created through concepts of authority, status and control. In this sense, traditional classification systems become homogenous and hegemonic, leading to theorists like Shirkey (2005) to argue that classifications are, by their very nature, biased. Miksa (1998, 81) demonstrates that the problem with classification lies in its Enlightenment roots, arguing that classification is based on “the idea that somewhere, somehow, we can, or should try to, produce the one best classification system that will serve all purposes”. What is emphasised here is that there is one purely scientific system that pertains to truth in that this one system is complete in its ability to categories all knowledge. Miksa (1998, 81) goes on to highlight the assumption that “knowledge categories are by nature hierarchical and logical in a classical, systematic sense”. Any kind of hierarchy is established to deny real difference in a subject because everything that exists under that hierarchy must be shaped to fit into categories that the hierarchy dictates. If that hierarchy is Western, or North American, then there is naturally going to be a bias towards the ideological prioritisation for those demographics. Such systems, then, become too rigid and cannot adequately account for emerging disciplines or in fact, for the transferral of information across national and continental boundaries.

Theorists have developed the critique of traditional classification systems further to incorporate contextual elements into the debate. These contextual arguments all revolve around the idea that classification systems work to identify similarities between objects and to thus categorise them under related headings. Bowker and Star (1999, 131) suggests that “classifications that appear natural, eloquent, and homogenous within a given human context appear forced and heterogeneous outside that context”. Thus, extracting classifications from their original context within the system demonstrates just how biased the system actually becomes. Mai develops this concept further to highlight the prominence of ‘similarity’ in classification systems: “most bibliographic classification theory stipulates that documents are holders of concepts and concepts are context and human independent constructs and that classification brings together concepts based on similarity”. Lakoff (1987, 6) explains this idea of similarity further by explicating that since the writings of Aristotle, and following through the entire history of Western thought, objects were categorised based on whether or not they had ‘common properties’. Olson (2001, 116) develops the concept of similarity more to incorporate concepts of ‘sameness and difference’ in organising information: ‘once we collect this innovative material we try to organize it by gathering what is the same […] We build our classifications using these facets that bring things together according to some kinds of sameness’. However, Olson, like many contemporary theorists navigate more towards ‘sameness’ as a regulating principal of classification systems, ultimately, paying tribute to the dualism of difference but never seriously considering its significance comprehensively enough. Olson further relates the idea of sameness of that to ‘discipline’, referring to discipline as ‘the primary facet in our classification systems’. ‘Discipline’ is a word that implies an authority and strictness over controlling vocabularies and categories of information.

What is interesting is that any attempt by theorists to explain classification as biased through the concept of sameness, implicitly means using the concept of ‘difference’ as a critical hinge upon which to base those critiques. It is through this ‘hinge’ that solutions to the biases within controlled vocabularies start to emerge. Clare Beghtol (1982, 2), for example, suggests that “increasing multidisciplinary knowledge creation makes it critical to reconsider the traditional reliance on discipline-based classification and to try to solve the problems that orientation has created”. Olson (2001, 120) continues to highlight, in relation to English Literature classification, that this traditional mode privileges ‘colonisers over colonised’. She (2001, 118) further develops the importance of ‘difference’ in that she explains that “Recent recognition of the validity of oral literary traditions and the questioning of existing literary canons suggest that this definition of literature is exclusive rather than inclusive. It is defined by difference as much as by sameness”. It is through the importance of understanding difference in classification systems that some solutions to the biases begin to emerge. Olson’s solution appears to be more practical and achievable than many others. The problem is that Olson’s solutions (2001, 120-122) self-consciously lack real difference in suggesting change, preferring to base her solutions around ‘local control’ rather than any real radical changes. This means giving libraries, both regional and national, ‘notational options’ that allows them to make amendments to the subject headings so as to find vocabularies that are more suitable to the given context. Olson also suggests that “Flexibility can also be achieved by varying the citation order of classifications – shifting which samenesses get priority. It must involve rejecting at least some of the samenesses and differences of our classifications.” Olson justifies these changes by referencing postmodernism’s rejection of universals, seeing more local control as a disruption of traditional all-encompassing systems. However, she fails completely to really understand postmodern and thus poststructuralist concepts of difference and disruption. The suggested solutions simply replace one form of universal control with another more local version of the same thing. The solutions still rely on ‘specialists’ to assert authority over the vocabularies used to classify, taking the authority out of the hands of the users and placing it into the hands of individuals. It is as equally problematic as Mai’s (2010) concept of ‘cognitive control’ which allows for the continuation of the traditional system once it has been properly theorised, questioned and explained, so long as it is self-conscious to its own potential biases. The problem with this is that being self-conscious of bias does nothing to eradicate the bias, it is simply bias in a softer guise. And in any case, no matter how self-conscious we are of the bias, objects in our libraries will continue to be irretrievably buried under inadequate subject headings.


What becomes clear, then, is that there is an awareness of poststructuralism’s influence through the referencing of the concept of ‘difference’ in attempting to understand and solve the problem of controlled vocabularies in classification systems. However, there is also a clear reluctance to engage with poststructuralism in a meaningful way. In fact, there is a clear misunderstanding of poststructuralism in the dualism of understanding ‘difference’ as the opposite of ‘sameness’. This suggests that there is an assertion of poststructuralist politics in promoting some ‘difference’ at local and national level, but that this politics is built on structuralist rather than poststructuralist linguistic foundations, thereby rendering it contradictory and self-defeating. All of the ‘solutions’ to classification bias are retained within a traditional mindset in which texts ought to be categorised into similar or related categories that are hierarchal in nature. No matter how much flexibility one allows within this model, or no matter how much ‘trustworthiness’ is achieved due to cognitive control, there still persists a traditional model that gives authority control to an oppressive few. The remainder of this paper will attempt to explain the real value of poststructuralism to this debate and will further attempt to demonstrate the radical potential of poststructuralism to not only disrupt traditional classification systems, but to disrupt them in a positive way that could lead to more meaningful solutions to the problem.

Part two, explicating how poststructuralist theory impacts upon classification systems, is coming soon…………