Sunday, August 13th, 2006

Angry about classification

This mural is said to depict Dewey and the railroad service he gave to Lake Placid, FL. Is it just me, or does it look like the train is about to hit him?

So, I’m working on an extension to LibraryThing that requires getting my hands on one or more full classification schemes, such as Dewey or LC Classification. In theory, I could use LCSH too and I have an underdog fondness for Cutter.*

I want to do something new, interesting and experimental, moving traditional classification in a new direction.

Ha! Shouldn’t have even tried. I can’t get any of them in anything more than a “survey” or “outline.” Full printed versions cost huge amounts of money. Digital versions are even more expensive. Use of either involve restrictive terms. It’s infuriating.

Preventing open access to Dewey is, of course, in the interest of its owner, OCLC. (We’ll leave aside the issue of OCLC’s non-profit status.) But why do I need to pay for access to the LC’s data? Libraries exist to give information away, and the federal government exists because I consent to and pay for it. So, how does this lead to me paying $575 for a 1-4 user site license of LC’s primitive Classification Web? I can’t see any way to get that to work with LibraryThing, and my proposed use would also violate their terms of service anyway. These require all users to share the same physical location. Fortuantely they no longer need to be related or share the same barber.***

So much for creative use of library data. What’s the use of talking about APIs and mashups when the lowest level of all library data is unfree?

The solution. Here’s my thinking. I can use Cutter, or resort to a version of Dewey published long enough ago to be out of copyright. (Dewey’s original 1876 publication is available online at PG.) But there’s a wrinkle. Although OCLC can’t claim copyright over versions of Dewey before 1923, they have perpetual trademark rights.**** So I’ll have to call them Melvils, after Dewey’s first name. Let’s hope nobody needs to catalog anything about computers or, say, the phonograph. “Saddlery and shoe-making”? No problem.

We all understand why authors’ need legal protections for their books. Can someone explain to me why cataloging systems need them?

I’ve previously dismissed the question of which is better, tags or traditional classification? Both have uses, it’s true. They do different things. Neither is going to go away. But one is free and can, in this crazy, tubed-up age, be offered to people all over the world.

Pick the winner, kids.

*I’d love to use Cutter, mostly in support of my beloved Boston Athenaeum, which still uses it (along with four other libraries). I like underdogs. But Cutter’s inclusion of book size within the call number is singularly unsuited to the digital shelf. “There is no shelf, and there sure as hell is no oversized shelf.” The core system is, however, perfectly good. And since only five libraries use it, no one has a profit motive in it.
Cutter himself seems to have been a pioneer of openness; this is from the Forbes Library biography of him:

“Cutter’s vision for the Forbes, in his own words, was for “a new type of public library which, speaking broadly, will lend everything to anybody in any desired quantity for any desired time.” There were to be no bothersome rules and children would be welcome. [I]n another of Cutter’s major departures from the standard practice in most libraries of the time, the Forbes’ patrons were free to browse the open stacks rather than having to request books at the front desk, which a staff member would then fetch.”

(Dewey, meanwhile, was a racist and antisemite.) Actually, Cutter is starting to look good to me. Does anyone know the best, most recent unrolling of the system—something that tells you where to put books about, say, wifi communication?
**I’d love to do my own library in the Blegen system, used apparently in only one library, the American School of Classical Studies at Athens. This would work wonders for my Teubners, I’m sure. But my O’Reilly’s would be a problem.
***In the course of cataloging, LibraryThing has amassed a rather large set of LCSHs. But it’s nowhere near the full list, which similarly must be paid for.
****No doubt some of you are aware of the infamous Library Hotel case, when they sued a hotel for organizing its floors by the DDCS (room 800.001, “Erotic Literature” is particularly coveted).

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