Rafferty, P. (2001). The representation of knowledge in library classification schemes. Knowledge Organization 28:180-91.
Pauline Rafferty, English lecturer and professor, begins her monster of an article by delving into the history of subject classifications, which were predominantly man centered. In the old days (1800’s), these systems were mainly based on philosophical and positive concepts, where the process of science comes a more evolved man and system of information. These ideas were meant to be universal; however, we now know, as Rafferty explains, that this view of classification simply isn’t the case. These organizers and librarians always strove for the ideal order of things. But what is ideal? The answer is not a simple one.
In the late 19th and 20th centuries, classification systems were very much intertwined with philosophical ideals. In 1876, Melvil Dewey produced the Dewey Decimal System, alongside with many other classification systems created by others. During that time, it was assumed that there were general classification schemes, which meant that there was a specific order to things. It began with the main, most important classes (philosophy, religion, science, etc.), and was based on the natural ebb and flow of function and rationality. In other words, the order of things was next to godliness. Rafferty herself said it best, “The discourse of the classification schemes sets limits, rules, and regulations about what and how things can be referred to within libraries, and this has consequences in wider social terms because libraries are primary institutions of learning and of acculturation” (2001). There was also an emphasis on notational language, which is based on symbols and was assumed to be an international “language” understood in all nations. The problem arises when many of the symbols meant have other meaning in other purposes in other languages.
In 1939, Henry Evelyn Bliss wrote The Organization of Knowledge in Libraries, which challenged the philosophy of the metaphysical based classifications set by Dewey. Bliss believed that classifications should be based on “scientific and educational consensus” and should become increasingly more detailed. This was a turning point in history- Dewey was now beginning to be criticized for being biased towards a culturally determined viewpoint. Belgian bibliographers Paul Otlet and Henri La Fontaine developed a variant on the Dewey Decimal System called the Universal Decimal System. It is much more complicated that DDC, not only in the spine, but in the indexes as well. Otlet really wanted to find a way to make notational language universally understood. He wanted to take the “fluff” out of the way and get to the bare bones of the text to categorize it correctly.
As always, technology poses new questions and challenges for the world of classification. Hypertexts, which are links to other texts, audio files, and images, are used and are being developed more and more. It was not until the very end of the article that I began to realize what Rafferty was leading up to, and it makes perfect sense. Perhaps one way to look at classification, both in the library and the surrounding world, is to see that notations, subjects, works, and texts, are all related to each other, but removing a central, “most important” idea puts everything on a level playing field, where knowledge is easier to access and closer to being obtainable for all.