Beth Russell, author of “Hidden Wisdom and Unseen Treasure: Revisiting Cataloging in Medieval Libraries”, discusses the main ways ancient libraries’ techniques of indexing and cataloging shape how we organize modern libraries. Russell begins by stating that how materials are organized determine the sort of ideas and information that are transmitted to the user. Additionally, she argues that although it is easy to assume that medieval organization was much simpler than what we use today, medieval libraries actually had the same struggles we deal with today in library and information studies, including the local and community needs and how to provide better access to our information resources.
Russell points out a couple of differences in medieval organization and modern organization in her article. Firstly, medieval culture did not focus so much on cooperation between the institutions. Secondly, indexing became a part of the cataloging practice (around 1321), and today indexing is a completely different field for a library cataloger. Those differences aside, the organization of medieval libraries very much parallels the organization of today’s libraries. For example, in the 1000s and 1200s, catalogers would keep a basic inventory that would tell what books were physically there. These inventories would, over time, show how collections would grow, which is something that still holds value today. This type of organization was more of use to the librarian and/or cataloger than the user.
Russell also notes the different types of basic classification in medieval libraries. The simplest manifestation of this organization was seen in the physical division of storage for collections of books. Religious texts would be held closest to monasteries and were most likely kept behind lock and key. These religious books were considered the most important; therefore, they were the most protected. The division of texts sheds light on medieval culture and how society was divided as well. As time went on and collections grew, however, the need for more sophisticated categorization was needed. Cataloging included shelf listings and assigning letters of the alphabet to volumes of books. Some collections even provided physical descriptions of the books (material, binding, and general state) to make tracking them down easier. This may seem like a modern advancement, but medieval libraries practiced this detailing because one copy of a text may not have been exactly the same from another due to differences in writing. In between the years 1250 and 1296 what we now call a “union list” was created, which combines the catalogs of several libraries’ holdings. Although it is incomplete, it contains the catalogs of 183 libraries.
Early medieval library collections were also categorized by subject rather than by title or author name. Each text would be fit into one of the seven liberal arts or areas of knowledge, beginning with the most important religious texts. Some works that were written by famous authors were categorized by author name, and would contain no subject. This practice led often led to confusion, and put quite a bit of pressure on the cataloger. Later on, in the 1300s, however, alphabetical organization became more accepted and more closely resembles the structure we use today.
The main point that Russell gives in her article is that library cataloging should not been seen throughout history as a direct line of progression; rather, it is an ever-changing field that was always complex. The medieval librarians dealt with the same issues we see today, but perhaps just in a different way. This is really eloquent commentary that can be applied beyond the study of libraries. Our culture shapes the way we receive information, and the way in which we give information shapes our culture.