Inherent Bias in Classification Systems

December 10th is Dewey Decimal System Day. Maybe it’s only librarians who care much about it but to us it’s a big deal.

The entire history of our profession has been a quest to organize information. Sometimes organizational schemas were focused on preserving resources, on merely keeping a list of a collection’s holding, and sometimes systems were intended to restrict access. Indeed, for most of our history, knowledge institutions were exclusive and exclusionary.

But beginning with the birth of public libraries in the 1800s, we conceived the idea that knowledge should be accessible for the betterment of all people. The challenge was—and continues to be—to find ways to accomplish this goal through practical application in real-world situations, in day-to-day activities.

Melvil Dewey’s system was a massive paradigm shift. It seems like such an esoteric thing to celebrate but realize this: before Dewey’s organizational scheme, there existed no universal method for organizing collections of materials, and too many systems were obscure and overly complicated, to the point where people were often discouraged from attempting to access them.

Dewey created a system that anyone could understand and use. For the first time, people could walk into a library and find what they wanted on the shelf, or explore the catalog, without the mediation of a specialist. In a real sense, the Dewey system effectively transferred our collections of knowledge out of the hands of specialists and into the hands of the general populace. *

Still, for all my appreciation and admiration of Dewey’s achievement, when a coworker asked if I wanted to participate in Dewey Day activities at my library, my response was this:

“I have no interest in celebrating the Dewey system. It’s an archaic monument to Western superiority and colonial oppression which obscures the diversity of human cultures and silences diverse voices.”

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Are We Really Living in a Golden Age of Information?

Information professionals like to crow that we’re living in a Golden Age of Information. More information is available to more people than ever before in history, and it’s easier to access than ever.

The standard response is to point out that there’s more bad information than ever before. A whole lot of the information currently circulating around out there isn’t reliable.

This is true. But it’s also true that there’s more good information available to us than ever before, too. Just as bad information has increased, good information has increased alongside. I believe this firmly and I’ll stand by this statement.

But I’m not sure if the increase in good information is keeping pace with the increase in bad. It may be the proportion of good-to-bad has become more unbalanced. It may be that good information is being increasingly overwhelmed by the bad.

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Public Library Reference: An Unscientific Test

I debated for several weeks about writing this post. Some of what I want to talk about I already discussed in my post, The Pain of Bad Reference Interactions. I think there’s more to say, though.

My concern is that I have some strong criticisms of the reference interactions I’ve had with some public libraries in the United States. I use no names and I leave out all identifying details—but it’s still possible that some of these libraries, or even some of their librarians, will be able to recognize themselves if they read this.

I have no desire to shame anyone with this post. I find online public shaming culture abhorrent and I refuse to participate in it.

I believe that criticism is necessary for improvement. I offer all criticisms in the sincere hope that it will help us all to serve our communities even better than we already do, and in my desire to help define the best path forward for public libraries in the Digital Information Age.

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The Pain of Bad Reference Interactions

People love to ask the question, “Why go to the library when you can just Google everything?” In answer, we tend to fall back on some version of Neil Gaiman’s famous quote:

Google can bring you back 100,000 answers. A librarian can bring you back the right one.

We talk about the authority of librarians, our ability to sift through the vast oceans of data with a far better eye toward quality than any search engine can match. We talk about the personalization of the interaction—librarians can recognize not just the right answer, but the answer that’s right for you.

Often, people don’t know how to ask their question. Google is stuck with whatever you enter—if you ask your question the wrong way then you only get results that aren’t what you need, and you’re left to your own devices to try and figure out what went wrong. A librarian can figure out what you really meant and guide your search, to bring you information that’s actually useful in a much more intuitive and rewarding way.

I agree with all of the above. Librarians can serve people’s information needs in ways that Google, or any other online search engine, simply can’t.

Which is why it especially pains me every time I have a bad reference interaction.

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Serendipitous Discovery: A Critical Perspective

Given my passion for serendipitous discovery in libraries, I was delighted to read this paper by Patrick L. Carr:

Serendipity in the Stacks: Libraries, Information Architecture, and the Problems of Accidental Discovery (PDF)

It had never occurred to me to consider serendipitous discovery from this angle before. Serendipity can be construed as a failure of a user-centered information environment to properly meet the needs of a user. Perhaps serendipitous discovery isn’t a benefit so much as it’s a compensation mechanism for the failures of our search systems.

This suggests interesting avenues for inquiry and development. I think it’s a beneficial perspective. Serendipity isn’t all good and librarians should approach it strategically.

I’m particularly struck by this passage on page 18:

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Book Reviews in the Age of Goodreads

A few weeks ago, I read Reza Aslan’s book Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth and I loved it. I went to my Goodreads account and posted a glowing review.

I recommended this book to some historians I know and they both read it. I’ve been speaking to them about it and I was surprised to learn that they’re far more critical of the work than I am. Not because of their religious beliefs but because they don’t think it’s very good history.

Both of them have advanced degrees in history. One of them works as an administrator in higher education. They’ve both been trained in the work of history and both have expectations molded by the standards of academic work.

They see significant flaws in Dr. Aslan’s book. If someone expects to challenge the orthodox historical consensus on a subject (as Dr. Aslan does) there are standards that must be met, the work must uphold a certain level of academic rigor.

Zealot fails to meet these standards. As my friend suggested—he can’t believe that this work would ever survive peer review.

After hearing what my friends had to say about the work I decided to do what a good librarian should do and find out more about Dr. Aslan’s qualifications, his authority to speak on this matter, and the critical reception his work has received from professional historians in the field.

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A Third Way for Net Neutrality?

Given what’s at stake in the current debate over net neutrality, it’s easy to approach the issue as either/or. The idea that there might be a third way to address the issue, one that’s less polarized and more plausible, is something to be seriously considered by parties on both sides.

AT&T’s fascinating third-way proposal on net neutrality by Brian Fung (posted by The Washington Post on September 15, 2014)

I like that this creates a case for compromise. It worries me, though, that no one seems able to envision how this would actually work. I’m very interested to see how this proposal develops or if other people present alternative “third-way” options.

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