Tuesday, July 8th, 2008

Build the Open Shelves Classification

This mural is said to depict Dewey and the railroad service he gave to Lake Placid, FL. It’s time to throw Dewey under the train.

I hereby invite you to help build the Open Shelves Classification (OSC), a free, “humble,” modern, open-source, crowd-sourced replacement for the Dewey Decimal System.

I’ve been speaking of doing something like this for a while, but I think it’s finally going to become a reality. LibraryThing members are into it and after my ALA panel talk, a number of catalogers expressed interest too. Best of all, one library director has signed on as eager to implement the system, when it comes available. Hey, one’s a start!

The Call. I am looking for one-to-five librarians willing to take leadership on the project. LibraryThing is willing to write the (fairly minimal) code necessary, but not to lead it.

As leaders, you will be “in charge” of the project only as a facilitator and executor of a consensus. Like Wikipedia’s Jimmy Wales, your influence will depend on listening to others and exercising minimal direct power.

For a smart, newly-minted librarian, this could be a big opportunity. You won’t be paid anything, but, hey, there’s probably a paper or two in it, right?

Why it’s necessary. The Dewey Decimal System® was great for its time, but it’s outlived that. Libraries today should not be constrained by the mental models of the 1870s, doomed to tinker with an increasingly irrelevant system. Nor should they be forced into a proprietary system—copyrighted, trademarked and licensed by a single entity—expensive to adopt and encumbered by restrictions on publishing detailed schedules or coordinating necessary changes.

In recent years, a number of efforts have been made to discard Dewey in favor of other systems, such as BISAC, the “bookstore system.” But none have proved good enough for widespread adoption, and license issues remain.

The vision. The Open Shelves Classification should be:

  • Free. Free both to use and to change, with all schedules and assignments in the public domain and easily accessible in bulk format. Nothing other than common consent will keep the project at LibraryThing. Indeed, success may well entail it leaving the site entirely.
  • Modern. The OSC should map to current mental models–knowing these will eventually change, but learning from the ways other systems have and haven’t grown, and hoping to remain useful for some decades, at least.
  • Humble. No system–and least of all a one-dimensional shelf order–can get at “reality.” The goal should be to create a something limited and humble–a “pretty good” system, a “mostly obvious” system, even a “better than the rest” system–that allows library patrons to browse a collection physically and with enjoyment.
  • Collaboratively written. The OSC itself should be written socially–slowly, with great care and testing–but socially. (I imagine doing this on the LibraryThing Wiki.)
  • Collaboriately assigned. As each level of OSC is proposed and ratified, members will be invited to catalog LibraryThing’s books according to it. (I imagine using LibraryThing’s fielded bibliographic wiki, Common Knowledge.)

I also favor:

  • Progressive development. I see members writing it “level-by-level” (DDC’s classes, divisions, etc.), in a process of discussion, schedule proposals, adoption of a tenative schedule, collaborative assignemnt of a large number of books, statistical testing, more discussion, revision and “solidification.” 
  • Public-library focus. LibraryThing members are not predominantly academics, and academic collections, being larger, are less likely to change to a new system. Also, academic collections mostly use the Library of Congress System, which is already in the public domain.
  • Statistical testing. To my knowledge, no classification system has ever been tested statistically as it was built. Yet there are various interesting ways of doing just that. For example, it would be good to see how a proposed shelf-order matches up against other systems, like DDC, LCC, LCSH and tagging. If a statistical cluster in one of these systems ends up dispersed in OSC, why? 

I have started a LibraryThing Group, “Build the Open Shelves Classication.” Members are invited to join, and to start working through the basic decisions.

Labels: DDC, Dewey Decimal Classification, Open Shelves Classification, OSC

4 Comments:

  1. PLR eBooks says:

    my God, i thought you were going to chip in with some decisive insght on the end there, not leave it with ‘we get away from it to you to decide’.

  2. “It’s time to throw Dewey under the train.”

    Way to recognise his contribution there…

    It’s all very well to claim to be modern, forward thinking and it’s great to advocate what seems at least somewhat close to free and open source.. But seriously.. throwing Dewey under the train?

    Not necessary. Melvil Dewey (not to be confused with John Dewey) made a historical contribution that was very useful, but has outlived its time. That’s all that needs to be said.

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