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The role of classification in the modern American library : papers presented at an institute conducted by the University of Illinois Graduate School of Library Science, November 1-4, 1959 (Volume 1959) online

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whatever edition, and the shelf of drab paper bound volumes that are
the classification of the Library of Congress, are not a gate through


which the mind is led into the recorded world of the human adventure,
they are only an address-book for the library stacks.


The librarian's traditional distrust of the importance of classifi-
cation may be directly attributed to his indifference to the theory of
librarianship. From the days of Dewey, the librarian has viewed
classification as little more than an array of pigeon-holes into which
books might be conveniently slipped, according to the subject of which
they treat, and from which they may be retrieved when that subject is
in demand. But as the world of knowledge expanded these compart-
mentalized arrays became increasingly complex and the problem of
assignment of titles to them involved decisions that were correspond-
ingly involved, until the whole idea was abandoned as excessively
intricate for all purposes except the simple task of physical location.
By contrast the alphabetical subject catalogue seemed a more practica-
ble alternative. But librarians forgot that the alphabetical subject
catalogue itself , as Phyllis Richmond has demonstrated, 12 must, if it is
to achieve its fullest utility, be derived from a classified structuring
of the fields it encompasses. To be sure the subject catalogue was often
rationalized as a supplement to the classification, but in many areas
of library material, particularly in those involving history and geo-
graphy, its terms merely recapitulated the sequence of the classifica-
tion scheme.

The assumption that a subject index can compensate for the inad-
equacies of a classification scheme Bliss has properly characterized
as the subject index illusion which, one should add, arises from a
serious over-simplification of the bibliographic problem. Books are
not, as Dewey and his contemporaries apparently saw them, taxonomic
specimens that can be arranged in a hierarchy of genus, species, and
sub-species according to the presence or absence of a single charac-
teristic or physical property or group of covariant characteristics or
properties, that differentiate the members of one group from those in
another. Library classification has been defined by many people, but
the definition devised by William Randall, and modified slightly by
the present writer, is typical and probably as satisfactory as any for
present purposes. According to this definition a library classification

A list of terms which are specifically different from each other,
used to describe the subject content of graphic records, in-
clusive of all knowledge defined by the limits of the scheme,
infinitely hospitable with regard to significant differences
among the concepts, with an arrangement that is linear, unique,
and meaningful to the user, and which, when applied to graphic
records, results in the arrangement of the records themselves.


This is pure bibliographic taxonomy, and its fallacy lies buried in
the phrase "terms that describe the subject content of books," for
terms do not define the subject content of books as they define a bio-
logical specimen by categorizing its physical properties. Any attempt
to substitute for classification a system which mechanically coordi-
nates or otherwise manipulates controlled or uncontrolled verbal
isolates, such as uniterms, Zator descriptors, and the like, results,
as Vickery has shown, in increased confusion. 13

The librarian and the bibliographic instruments with which he
works together constitute a bridge between the user of graphic records
and the records themselves. Therefore, recourse to graphic records,
or retrieval, must be the focal point of a library theory and the end
toward which all our efforts are directed. But retrieval is not a sim-
ple process of choosing graphic materials from an array of pigeon-
holes, whether those pigeon-holes be a sequence of books on a shelf,
documents in a file, or the representation of bibliographic units in a
catalogue or bibliography. A book, even a simple book, presents a
highly complex pattern of intricately related concepts which are ap-
proached by a user in whose mind there is also a complex pattern of
motive, accumulated experience, and predisposition. The book, or
graphic record, does not present, as is commonly assumed, a fixed
conceptual pattern, or perhaps more precisely, a finite number of in-
terrelated conceptualizations. To be sure the text does not change,
but the interpretation of that text is infinitely variable. A book is the
physical embodiment of what the author thought he said, but only in a
limited way can it speak for itself. What it actually says is what the
mind of the user chooses to put there. It was Ludwig Lewisohn, I
believe, who said that "the seat of beauty is, after all, in the beholding
mind," and so is the content of a book. Any act of communication
can reveal an inexhaustible source of truth or mere sophistry. The
distinction between the two must, as Polanyi has shown, derive from,
the text of the message itself, the conception suggested by it, and
the experience on which it may bear. 14 Judgment operates by trying
to adjust these three patterns to each other. The outcome cannot be
predicted from previous acts of communication for there may be in-
volved the decision to correct or otherwise modify previous behavior
or reinterpret experience in terms of some novel conception suggested
by the text, or the result may be a decision to accept previous usage
or behavior, or the text may be completely dismissed as altogether
meaningless. The relationship between book and reader, then, achieves
fruition only to the degree that the pattern of the book's content ap-
proaches coincidence with the thought pattern of the reader. Even in
simple situations this is a complex relationship and the librarian's
eternal hope to attain such a relationship with simple measures can end
only in dissatisfaction. At this moment of fusion between the pattern
of the graphic record and the pattern of recourse to it lies the clue to
all our problems and the end of all our strivings. Here is a problem
as complex as the nature of matter itself and as worthy of serious


The true role of the librarian, then, is to mediate between book
and reader and the human factor that is the librarian can never be
eliminated. A good classification system, however carefully designed,
can never substitute for a librarian with brains. Properly employed,
however, classification can extend the capabilities of the librarian but
it can never solve all his problems for him, in the way that Dewey
seems to have anticipated, in this psycho-bibliographic relationship
that characterizes the act of reading.

The librarian's rejection of classification arose from the fact that
he misapplied it because he misunderstood its nature and the nature
of the bibliographic process. This misapplication crystalized at a very
early stage of modern library development, and, until recent years,
has remained essentially unchanged. Such misapprehensions of librar-
ians about classification were intensified by the deceptive simplicity of
the alphabetical subject catalog, a form of delusion that encouraged
librarians to ignore the complaints of many scholars that the diction-
ary catalog was almost useless as a guide to the materials of research.

There were other factors that contributed to the librarian's at-
titude toward classification. The enormous costs of reclassification,
costs which grew geometrically as collections increased, seemed to
justify the assumption that such wholesale revision was not worth the
expense, this in turn led to the conclusion that one classification
system was little better than another, and that none was very good.
Failure of attempts to devise a universal classification scheme that
would be all things to all men in all situations seemed, in the minds
of many, proof of the failure of classification itself. Finally, in a
country so intensively mono- lingual as the United States the pressure
for a system that would bridge the conventionalities of language and
deal directly with a generalized symbolization of concepts was at a
minimum. Had the French influence been stronger in New England,
the Dutch in New York, the German in the Middle West, and the
Spanish on the West Coast the classified catalog might today have been
less of a curiosity than it now is, even in our large metropolitan public
libraries. As it is, the standardized subject headings of the Library
of Congress have dealt effectively with such minor linguistic variables
as bag, sack, poke, or skillet, frying-pan, spider.


Recently there have appeared manifestations of a renascence of a
interest in classification. The composite and multi-faceted character
of recorded knowledge, its interdependence and r elatedness, the
magnitude of its proliferation, or especially during the past half-
century, the variety of aspects from which it may be sought, and the
gravity of the social, economic, and political problems for the solu-
tion of which it is essential, all have combined to create a situation
with which traditional library procedures and processes are ill-fitted
to deal effectively. Growing improvement in the understanding of


the operation of the human brain and the processes of thought have
focussed attention on the role of classification in cognition. A rejec-
tion of the taxonomic basis of classification for what Alfred North
Whitehead has called referential classification, and the development
of a wide variety of special classifications have revived interest in
the possibilities that classification can offer in improving the analysis
and retrieval of information. Rapidly growing interest in the develop-
ment of electronic computer -like devices for expediting bibliographic
search has compelled a re- examination of classification as the basis
for the construction of a machine language or languages, and this in
turn has necessitated a serious study of the logical bases for systems
for the organization of recorded knowledge.

Some indication of this revival may be shown by a tabulation of the
entries under the heading "Classification" in Library Literature from
1946 to 1957.

Entries in Library Literature Under the Heading Classification
U. S. and Foreign, 1946 - 1957, and 1937

Year United States Foreign Total

1957 26 45 71

1956 49 46 95

1955 35 45 80

1954 21 40 61

1953 36 42 78

1952 19 37 56

1951 20 48 68

1950 6 38 44

1949 11 24 35

1948 9 16 25

1947 9 38 47

1946 5 20 25

1937 18 43 61

These crude statistics suggest that interest in classification in
Europe has remained remarkably constant, that, with one exception, it
has exceeded that in the United States for every year since 1946, and
that, if the number of articles analyzed in Library Literature can be
taken as an index, interest in classification on this side of the Altantic
has been definitely on the increase. For a number of technical reasons
which cannot be dealt with here, 15 these statistics must be interpreted
with the utmost caution, but, when considered in conjunction with other
forms of evidence they may represent a trend toward an increasing
concern with problems in classification.


This rebirth of interest in classification is receiving increased sup-
port from without the library profession. By this I do not mean the
documentalists and information specialists, whom I regard as librar-
ians. Mathematicians, logicians, engineers, physicists, anthropologists,
psychologists, linguists, and brain specialists all are becoming aware
of the organization of information as a field for research and many
within these professions have begun exploratory work in it. Such
activities will compel librarians to reappraise classification as well
as the effectiveness of their other procedures, for if they do not they
will lose control of the very profession they practice.

Across the Atlantic there are forces that strengthen interest in
classification here. Western Europe has long been a focus of activity
in advancing bibliographic classification, and to this end much of the
effort of the Federation International de Documentation has been di-
rected. Admittedly it has suffered from illusions of universality and,
at times, an over-zealous leadership, but these seem to be occupa-
tional hazards where problems of classification are concerned, and
much important work has come from such centers at The Hague, Brus-
sels, and Paris. In England the Classification Research Group, which
can certainly trace its origins to the pioneering work of Ranganathan,
has, in a surprisingly brief time, made rather remarkable progress
in reviving research in classification.

Encouraged by the success of the British venture, Mrs. Phyllis A.
Richmond, of the University of Rochester Library, began, not much
more than a year ago, the promotion of a comparable group in the
United States. At the present time this little band of kinspirits, which,
as an affiliate of the American Documentation Institute, now numbers
almost one hundred, has held three meetings in conjunction with the
annual conventions of the American Library Association, the Special
Libraries Association, and the American Documentation Institute.
Though it is still engaged in the task of identifying targets for re-
search, and despite the fact that it has not as yet developed a real
program of activities, it is symptomatic of the growing revival of in-
terest in classification. The promise of this activity is most gratify-
ing to those few of us who, under the leadership of Norman T. Ball,
were trying in 1947 and 1948 to direct the attention of the newly-
formed A.D.I, toward a more intensive attack upon the problems of
classification 16

Perhaps the most satisfying development of all has been the
growth in the use of the collection of special classifications maintained
by the Special Libraries Association in cooperation with, and serviced
by, the School of Library Science at Western Reserve University. This
collection now numbers some 600 titles and inquiries to and loans
from it are received and transmitted daily. The use that is made of
this material and the continuing generosity of many people in present-
ing to the collection such schemes as they have developed, are con-
vincing testimony that the librarian's concern with classification is
very far from atrophying.



The initial question to which this essay was addressed can no
longer be postponed. What is the future of library classification?

Certainly library classification, interpreted narrowly as a system f
for preserving order in library stacks is in no danger of extinction.
Stack order there must always be, or the resulting chaos would force
librarians into what Verner Clapp has graphically called "simian
search." Moreover, there seems little possibility that either the
Dewey decimal system or that of the Library of Congress will lose,
in the foreseeable future, their positions of preeminence as systems
for stack arrangement. The advantage of an early start, combined
with the geometric increase in the costs of reclassification as the
size of the book stock grows, diminishes significantly the relative
value of reclassification. Few, if any, libraries have had the courage
to follow the pattern of the John Crerar in reverting to fixed location,
and even this step is impracticable except in closed stack situations.
The D.C. may be "a 'ell of a 'ole," but we seem unable to discover
any other that is sufficiently superior to justify the risks of migra-

So far as the public library is concerned one may properly assume.
in view of the almost complete uselessness of both the D.C. and L.C.
to the general public, that special arrangements, in broad reader-
interest categories, for open shelf collections will be on the increase.
Though the librarian may not yet reject the Decimal Classification
for his own professional needs, the day of his missionary zeal for
Saint Melvil and all his works is, happily, at an end.

The continuing growth of special libraries, especially for the ad-
ministrative and research needs of business, industry, and govern-
ment, will promote increasing attention to the development of special
systems for the retrieval of precise information from a wide variety
of graphic records. Furthermore, it may also encourage increased
attention to the theory of classification itself.

But the area from which the most significant developments in clas-
sification may be anticipated is that in which attention is being given
to the development of new systems for mechanizing many of the
routines for the more effective utilization of recorded knowledge. New
information needs have posed new problems in organizing graphic
records, these problems have dictated new research into the nature
of information itself and the character of its use. Such research has
led to the development of new systems which have promoted the in-
vention of new machines, the limitations of which have intensified the
formulation of system theory. This analytical-synthetic cycle of
theory and technology must be maintained in reasonable balance, or
serious mal-adjustments will ensue. If the technology advances at too
great a distance beyond theory, the machine becomes the end rather
than the means and dictates in ways that it should not be permitted to
do the perimeters of the problem. On the other hand, theory cannot


advance beyond the point at which the technology can support it, for
eventually technology places a ceiling upon theory through which the
latter cannot break because it lacks the equipment with which to work.
The theory of organizing knowledge and the patterns of its use, in
other words the theory of classification, lies at the very foundation of
this balance, for classification as a discipline is itself a convergence
of theory and technology. Its theory is rooted in logic, linguistics, and
the philosophy of science, enriched and supported by psychology, mathe-
matics, and neurology, especially the study of the human brain. Its
technology finds expression in such new fields as cybernetics, the
mechanization of information search, and machine translation. It is
no longer the exclusive possession of the librarian, but it is his re-
sponsibility to forge a new theory of classification and a new technol-
ogy for its manipulation from all the disciplines that can contribute to
classification as the means by which the reader and the text he needs
are brought into fruitful relationship.

One of the characters in a recent science-fiction novel by Robert
Heinlein says, "Dad claims that library science is the foundation of
all sciences just as math is the key and that we will survive or
flounder depending on how well the librarians do their job." If it be
true that librarianship is the foundation of all science, and I like to
think that it is, then certainly classification, the science of order by
which man structures the universe in which he finds himself and by
which his own behavior is patterned, is the mortar with which the
blocks of that foundation are held in unity.


1. Niels Bohr, Atomic Physics and Human Knowledge (New York:
Wiley, 1958) pp. 67ff.

2. See Henry Margenau, The Nature of Physical Reality (New
York: McGraw Hill, 1950) pp. 18-20.

3. John Dewey, Experience and Nature (Chicago: Open Court,
1925) p. 330.

4. V. Gordon Childe, Society and Knowledge (New York: Harpers,
1956) pp. 65-73.

5. Jesse H. Shera, "Pattern Structure, and Conceptualization in
Classification," Proceedings of the International Study Conference on
Classification for Information Retrieval, 13-17 May 1957 (New York:
Pergamon Press, 1957) pp. 19-21.

Jerome S. Bruner, Jacquile J. Goodnow, and George A. Austin,
A Study of Thinking (New York: Wiley, 1956) pp. 243-245.

6. W. Grey Walter, The Living Brain (New York: Norton, 1953)
p. 72.


7. Mephistopheles to the Young Student. From George R. Priest's
translation of Goethe's Faust.

8. Susanne K. Langer, Philosophy in a New Key (Cambridge:
Harvard University Press, 1948) p. 218.

9. Ibid. p. 227.

10. See W.R.B. Prideaux, ''Library Economy (Chiefly Continental)
at the End of the Seventeenth Century," Library Association Record,
VI (March 15, 1904), 133.

11. Gustave Mouravit, Le Livre et la Petite Bibliotheque d' Amateur
. . . (Paris: Aubry, n.d.)

12. Phyllis A. Richmond, "Cats: An Example of Concealed Clas-
sification in Subject Headings," Library Resources and Technical
Services, III (Spring, 1959), 102-112.

13. B.C. Vickery, "The Need for Classification," Classification
and Indexing in Science (London: Butterworth, 1958).

14. Michael Polanyi, Personal Knowledge (Chicago: University of
Chicago Press, 1959) p. 95.

15. The author has made every reasonable effort to eliminate
duplicate entries though admittedly some may have escaped attention.
The data are also doubtless distorted by changes over the years in
the periodicals indexed by Library Literature especially in its cover-
age of foreign literature. Figures are also skewed by the publication
of a new edition of D.C. or a revised section of L.C. Finally, fre-
quence of publication is not necessarily synonymous with reader in-

16. See Norman T. Ball, "Committee on Organization of Informa-
tion" American Documentation, I (January, 1950), 24-34.



Donald E. Strout
Professor of Library Science
University of Illinois

What we attempt here is in no sense a formal summary of content.
We seek rather, in the tradition of the previous Allerton Park Insti-
tutes, to catch and record, through a series of informal observations
and impressions, the sense and feel of the Institute as it developed at
the hands of the hundred or more participants who, for three days,
paused to reflect upon the role of classification in the present-day li-
brary and to exchange with one another their thoughts on this topic of
mutual and (for the moment, at least) intensive concern.

From the inception of planning for this Institute, it was obvious
that it would be a study in contrasts, both within itself and in compar-
ison with the earlier Institutes. The very wide net which we spread
with our first announcement made such contrasts all but inevitable.
In that opening announcement, you will recall, the invitation to attend
was extended to all librarians who had an interest in classification
whether classifiers, administrators, or staff members from other de-
partments, whether college, university, public, or school librarians,
whether working in a very large or a very small library. This, then,
was our first contrast (in comparison with earlier Institutes) a very
wide spread in sizes of libraries and types of library work represent-
ed. A junior high school librarian sat next to several librarians from
the Library of Congress; ranged about them were small town and city
public librarians, college and university librarians, other school li-
brarians, and even a special librarian or two. This factor, in turn,
produced a second (and related) contrast with earlier Institutes a
decrease in the amount of public, or audience, discussion and parti-
cipationa decrease which we may hope was compensated for in some
degree by an increase in the more private corridor conferences, table
talk, and coffee chats.

As for what was said, thought, expressed at the Institute, here again
one must record the feeling of a study in contrasts. There is no need
to recapitulate here in vertical summary the contents of the papers,
ranging in time from Aristotle to Shera and Taube and in topic from
the theory to the practice of classification, with side glances and di-
gressions in time and topic along the way. Here it may be more ap-
propriate to look horizontally at the papers, to mark the contrasts, to
hint at the recurrent themes, to give a quote or two from papers and
discussion, and to add a word or two about the rather considerable


number of problems whose ghosts were raised, rather than laid, during
the past three days.

Our first series of contrasts was born of the persons themselves
who are involved in classification, either directly or indirectly. On the
library side of the picture, there was the skepticism of the administra-
tor over the costs and values of classification arrayed against the en-
thusiasm of the professional classifier who saw classification as the

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Online LibraryUniversity of Illinois (Urbana-Champaign campus).The role of classification in the modern American library : papers presented at an institute conducted by the University of Illinois Graduate School of Library Science, November 1-4, 1959 (Volume 1959) → online text (page 14 of 15)