Wednesday, December 13th, 2006

Cutter Classification, Reloaded

Abstract: Let’s bring back Cutter as the first free, open and socially assisted classification system.

UPDATE: I’m well aware there are some serious objections to the idea, and challenges to make it a reality. Use amandaellis set up a group for discussion of the idea. Check it out.

Open data is in the news. Casey Bisson is going to give out Library of Congress records for free. MIT put its records up, only to yank them when OCLC objected (or so I’ve heard). Talis hosted a wonderful podcast on open data—out tomorrow. Some nut on the lists proposed an open-data covers database. I’ve even heard something about authority files I’m just dying to talk about, but can’t.

That leaves classification. Since blogging about the evils of LCC (free, unavailable) and Dewey (unfree, unavailable), I’ve become increasingly attracted to the not-quite-dead “Cutter Expansive Classification.” Yesterday, I went to the library to xerox a 20 year-old article by Robert L. Mowery, “The Cutter Classification: Still At Work” (LRTS, 1976). It listed fifteen libraries using Cutter in the early ’70s. I intended to find out who was left. To my great pleasure, I found a 2004 LRTS article. “The Contracting World of Cutter’s Expansive Classification” by R. Conrad Winke (here, p. 122). Winke really did his homework, finding 57 libraries that once used it, 23 that maintain books in it, and four still using it. And I thought it was just the Forbes!

As Winke describes it, Cutter died a social death:

“Despite the fact that in its day, EC was commonly regarded as superior to DDC, Cutter’s failure to provide for the continuing revision, expansion, and publication of his work essentially assured its demise. … EC still might have been salvageable in the immediate years after Cutter’s passing had the librarians using the scheme at the time banded together and worked cooperatively at maintaining the schedules…. Instead, librarians at EC libraries seemingly did not pursue working together, but worked on their own until, in all but four cases, this became impractical and they abandoned it.”

What died socially, society can resurrect. And who better than LibraryThing to do it? Let’s bring Cutter back to life, as a free, open-source alternative to Dewey. Libraries shouldn’t PAY for their classification system, and it shouldn’t be controlled by one institution.

I think that, with all the statistical work we do with LCC, Dewey, LCSH and tags, LibraryThing can make some very educated guesses at where an unclassified book might fit within Cutter, particularly once it assimilates all the current Cutter records. LibraryThing users (more than 1,000 of whom are real live librarians) will, I think, be glad to help classify books, something never before tried in cataloging. And LibraryThing can can coordinate necessary schedule expansions.

Cutter is nearly dead because the libraries using it failed to connect with each other. I propose to reverse this, to bring it back to life as the most connected system ever devised—Cutter, Reloaded.

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