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Jessica Stitt

By Jessica Stitt

Classes and categories

Lepidoptera specimen, or butterfly, whichever you prefer.

Lepidoptera specimen, or butterfly, whichever you prefer.

There is no right or wrong way to organise your things, but some methods are more appropriate than others. It all depends how you want to access and use your stuff. However before you can start sorting your stuff you need some way of identifying and categorising it. This is called classification.

What happens if a classification system is not fit for purpose? Take a look at this Two Ronnies sketch called The confusing library. Ronnie C gets increasingly exasperated by the arrangement of books in Ronnie B’s library (‘you don’t classify books by the colour!‘), while Ronnie B is predictably unperturbed (‘it’s the architect’s idea, he said it looked neater’). Of course, Ronnie B’s library is perfectly functional so long as you know how to use the system – note his use of an index to check the colour of Ronnie C’s book. However, Ronnie C clearly thinks there is a ‘proper’ way to organise a library. But what is library classification and where does it come from?

You know where you are with the Dewey Decimal system

You know where you are with the Dewey Decimal system

You have probably heard of Dewey Decimal Classification (DDC). Melvil Dewey developed this system when in his early twenties. DDC is actually based on a classification system developed by W.T. Harris, who used Francis Bacon’s three categories of human knowledge (history, poesy and philosophy), no less. The DDC, you see, takes a theoretical approach to organising all knowledge known to humankind. So it’s not just a system for arranging books.

DDC is now used by libraries all over the world, except that when the Library of Congress wanted to re-organise their books in the 1890s they decided to develop their own system, now known as Library of Congress Classification (LCC). LCC is now used by libraries all over the world. However, unlike DDC, the LCC was developed to meet the needs of a specific library collection, hence an emphasis on academic research publications with plenty of history and social sciences, and perhaps fewer travel guides and books on potty training and DIY (although I’m guessing a bit here).

While DDC and LCC now dominate the library classification scene, these are not the only ways to classify knowledge. For example, I’m sure you know all about Linnaean classification. However, there is yet another system called Universal Decimal Classification (UDC).

Representation of Social Sciences class in the UDC

Representation of Social Sciences class in the UDC

In the 1890s Paul Otlet and Henri La Fontaine, with Melvil Dewey’s permission, adapted the DDC to develop the UDC in order to create Le Répertoire Bibliographique Universel (RBU), a universal bibliography. Their aim was to capture all of the world’s knowledge, all on thousands (eventually millions) of index cards all stored in wooden cabinets. They even set up a research service where anyone in the world could send in a query and the staff would trawl the bibliography and send back the search results (sound familiar?).

Staff at Le Répertoire Bibliographique Universel, c1900

Staff at Le Répertoire Bibliographique Universel, c1900

UDC is designed to be capable of classifying all knowledge, not just books, so it has additional complexity that means it can be used for classifying individual articles, film, photography, posters and objects. However, it can also be used to physically organise things in the same way that DDC tells us where to find a particular book.

This is an important point – classification is not only used to categorise and organise knowledge, but also to organise objects so that they are easy to find, access and retrieve. What I find interesting in all this is that museums tend not to use classification in this way. Objects are registered when they are acquired, then at some point they are catalogued and assigned a location, however the registration and classification numbers may be completely unrelated to the location.

I am wondering why museums do this differently to libraries, but also wondering if this is significant. I haven’t figured it out yet, but it has something to do with the way that museum collections are accessed and used. And what about operations in the wider world? How do retail warehouses organise and track their objects? What kind of classification do they do?

UDC is still in use in all types of libraries all over the world, as well as national bibliographies and databases of journal abstracts. Like DDC and LCC, it is used in the most appropriate context, depending on the nature of the collection and the access requirements. However, the RBU, later known as the Mundaneum, closed in 1934 after the Belgian government withdrew funding.

The Mundaneum now has a new home in the museum of the same name in Mons, Belgium, supported in part, appropriately enough, by Google. The collection includes the personal archives of Otlet and La Fontaine as well as papers relating to causes they and their followers campaigned for, as well as the original RBU. The museum professionals there are busy undertaking the huge task of cataloguing this collection. I wonder if they are using UDC.

The RBU at the Mundaneum museum

The RBU at the Mundaneum museum

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