How Information Is Organized

card catalog with childI like to point out, whenever possible, how library systems encode bias just as newer algorithmic search systems literally encode it while seeming blissfully, mechanically, inhumanly incapable of being anything but neutral. I’m reminded of something one of our faculty members said when discussing what critical concepts about information our students should grasp.

Information has to be organized and how it is organized matters.

That’s profoundly true, and so easy to forget when helping students find information in systems that are complicated enough without explaining how they got that way. The exoskeleton of the library stacks is hidden from view unless you step back and wonder about why this subject is next to that, or why there’s loads of room for one subject but not for another.

But the embedding of named categories inside a call number . . . this post from a metadata blog with a terrific name (I Never Metadata I Didn’t Like) shows just how ubiquitous and problematic our ghostly past of categorization is. It’s a piece of call numbers used in academic libraries all over the country and once you see it you can’t unsee it.

In this case it’s the letter N, used to subcategorize things that refer to black folks as a subject within a broader category. Yes, that’s a holdover from the days when the word was Negro. It’s also a holdover from the days when whites were assumed to be the norm, and blacks were set aside as a special category, an afterthought, an oddity, like the subject headings “women scientists” and “women artists” – male scientists are just scientists, male artists are artists.

We seem to be a time when a lot of people simply resist the idea that bias exists, or if it exists it’s against people who are used to being unchallenged. But here it is, in plain sight, built right into the library itself. As plain as the letter N.

photo courtesy of Rossie

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