The Library Without a Map

One of my favourite exercises from library school is perhaps one that you had to do as well. We were instructed to find a particular term from the Library of Congress Subject Heading “Red Books” and develop that term into a topic map that would illustrate the relationships between the chosen term and its designated broader terms, narrower terms and related terms. Try as I might, I cannot remember the term that I used in my assignment so many years ago so, here is such a mapping for existentialism.


Recently we’ve been spending much attention on the language of these subject headings as we come to recognize those particular headings that are reductive and problematic. For example, undocumented students are denied their basic humanity when they are described as illegal aliens. And as most of you already know, the act of reforming this particular heading was seriously hindered by Republicans in the House of Representatives.

A word after a word after a word is power.

As troubling as this interference is, this is not what I want to write about LCSH for you today.  For this post, I want to bring greater attention to something else about subject headings. I want to share something that Karen Coyle has pointed out repeatedly but that I have only recently finally grokked.

When we moved to online library catalogues, we stripped all the relationship context from our subject headings — all those related terms, broader terms, all those relationships that placed a concept in relationship with other concepts. As such, all of our subject headings may as well be ‘tags’ for how they are used in our systems. Furthermore, the newer standards that are being developed to replace MARC (FRBR, Bibframe, RDF) either don’t capture this information or if they do, the systems being developed around these standards do not to use these subject relationships or hinder subject ordering [ed. text corrected].

From the slides of “How not to waste catalogers’ time: Making the most of subject headings“, a code4lib presentation from John Mark Ockerbloom:

Here’s another way we can view and explore works on a particular subject. This is a catalog I’ve built of public domain and other freely readable texts available on the Internet. It organizes works based on an awareness of subjects and how subjects are cataloged. The works we see at the top of the list on the right, for instance, tend to be works where “United States – History – Revolution, 1775-1783” was the first subject assigned. Books where that subject was further down their subject list tend to appear appear further down in this list. I worry about whether I’ll still be able to do this when catalogs migrate to RDF. [You just heard in the last talk] that in RDF, unlike in MARC, you have to go out of your way to preserve property ordering. So here’s my plea to you who are developing RDF catalogs: PLEASE GO OUT OF YOUR WAY AND PRESERVE SUBJECT ORDERING!

I highly recommend reading Karen Coyle’s series of posts on Catalog and Context in which she patiently presents the reader the history and context of why Library of Congress Subject Headings were developed, how they were used and then explains what has been lost and why.

It begins like this:

Imagine that you do a search in your GPS system and are given the exact point of the address, but nothing more.

Without some context showing where on the planet the point exists, having the exact location, while accurate, is not useful.

In essence, this is what we provide to users of our catalogs. They do a search and we reply with bibliographic items that meet the letter of that search, but with no context about where those items fit into any knowledge map.

And what was lost? While our online catalogs make known-item searching very simple, our catalogues are terrible!dismal!horrible! for discovery and exploration.

Perhaps this is one of the reasons why there is so much interest in outsider-libraries that are built for discovery, like The Prelinger Library.

This remarkable library – which is run by only two people – turns a collection of ephemera, found material and of library discards into a collection built for visual inspiration and support of the independent scholar through careful selection and an unique arrangement that was developed by Megan Prelinger:

Inspired by Aby Warburg’s “law of the good neighbor” the Prelinger Library’s organization does not follow conventional classification systems such as the Dewey Decimal System. Instead it was custom-designed by Megan Shaw Prelinger in a way that would allow visitors to browse and encounter titles by accident or, better yet, by good fortune. Furthermore, somewhat evoking the shifts in magnitudes at play in Charles and Ray Eames’s Powers of Ten (1977) the shelves’ contents are arranged according to a geospatial model departing from the local material specifically originating from or dealing with San Francisco and ending with the cosmic where books on both outer space and science fiction are combined with the more ethereal realms of math, religion, and philosophy.

“The Library As Map”, Megan Shaw Prelinger & Rick Prelinger in conversation with Erin Kissane, from Fantasies of the Library.

Of particular note: The Prelinger Library does not have a library catalogue and they don’t support query based research. They think query based research is reductive (Situated Systems, Issue 3: The Prelinger Library).

Frankly, I’m embarrassed how little I know about the intellectual work behind our systems that I use and teach as a liaison librarian. I do understand that libraries, like many other organizations such as museums, theatre and restaurants, have a “front of house” and “back of house” with separate practices and cultures and that there are very good reasons for specialization. That being said, I believe that the force of digitization has collapsed the space between the public and technical services of the library. In fact, I would go as far to say that the separation is largely a product of past organizational practice and it doesn’t make much sense anymore.

Inspired by Karen Coyle, Christina Harlow, and the very good people of mashcat, I’m working on improving my own understanding of the systems and if you are interested, you can follow my readings in this pursuit on my reading journal, Reading is Becoming. It contains quotes like this:

GV: You mentioned “media archeology” and I was wondering if you’re referring to any of Shannon Mattern’s work…

RP: Well, she’s one of the smartest people in the world. What Shannon Mattern does that’s super-interesting is she teaches both urban space and she teaches libraries and archives. And it occurred to me after looking at her syllabi — and I know she’s thought about this a lot, but one model for thinking about archives in libraries — you know, Megan was the creator of the specialized taxonomy for this pace, but in a broader sense, collections are cities. You know, there’s neighborhoods of enclosure and openness. There’s areas of interchange. There’s a kind of morphology of growth which nobody’s really examined yet. But I think it’s a really productive metaphor for thinking about what the specialty archives have been and what they might be. [Mattern’s] work is leading in that position. She teaches a library in her class.

Situated Knowledges, Issue 3: Prelinger Library, Geogina Voss, Rick Prelinger and Megan Prelinger.

I understand the importance of taking a critical stance towards the classification systems of our libraries and recognizing when these systems use language that is offensive or unkind to the populations we serve. But critique is not enough. These are our systems and the responsibility to amend them, to improve them, to re-imagine them, and to re-build them as necessary- these are responsibilities of those of our profession.

We know where we need to go. We already have a map.