Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Work matters


I found a fascinating post over at Log of a Librarian about making changes to UDC - This is it concerning possible ideological language problems entailed in the previous system (some readers may also enjoy this post on radicalism - to which I may return sometime.

To keep the story short, these are good changes to the tables - racist terms and derogatory terms should be excised. My question is over the role of bibliographers in this process.

This article (PDF) also expands on the points raised.

I note, incidentally, that the UDC homepage lists Table 1f as "Ethnic grouping and nationality" which leaves out the scientifically dubious term of race itself.

Now, to problematise the story. Bibliographers are intermediaries in discourse, we should, in theory, have no influence or control over the discourse - the author and reader of a text should have their meaning and understanding undistorted by the ministrations of the bibliographer. Their jobs is simply to record who said what about what, to join up the two halves of signification.

Now, to do this requires on the one hand an act of intepretation - the decision of what someone has said something about - and of communication - relaying that in abstracted form (abstract, index, classification number, etc.) Two points of transformation of information at which the story may be distorted.

To return to the main point - imagine a book called, The Essential Guide to Mullattos - so far as I know no such book exists and if it did it would be, I'm sure you'd agree, a disgusting racist tome. Now, the subject of that book is Mullattos that's the organising concept. It's not much use filing that with a book about race relations, population genetics or sociology, I'd suggest.

My point is, I suppose, if a concept is used in discourse then bibliographers have an obligation to provide a way of describing that concept - no matter how erroneous or objectionable it is. To take a less loaded example, should Intelligent Design must have a classification place. Cf. Dewey blog's discussion on creationist works.

Thesuari and indexes can certainly help in this - but we still have to choose preferred terms among synonyms. Put another way, we have to translate the objective classification language of numbers/abstract codes into language that users can comprehend. For that we require standards - rationales for our decisions.

Referring to academic consensus is vital, I suggest, especially in social sciences where correlating and identifying concepts is much more fuzzy than in natural sciences.

The aim of an enyclopeadic, a universal classification is a noble goal, and the scientific enumeration and identification of concepts should never been seen as endorsement or promotion.

It's not the librarian's job to say whether ideas are true or not, merely to say that there are ideas.


Blogger DespairToWhere said...

Now there's two words you don't see often see together in the same sentence: "fascinating" and "librarian". ;-)

12:48 PM  
Blogger Phil said...

It's not the librarian's job to say whether ideas are true or not, merely to say that there are ideas.

Interesting post - and interestingly close to my day job (statistical researcher). My work blog is here.

6:54 PM  

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