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63rd IFLA General Conference - Conference Programme and Proceedings - August 31- September 5, 1997

The Order of Catalogues - Towards Democratic Classification and Indexing in Public Libraries

Hanne Albrechtsen
Royal School of Library and Information Science
Copenhagen, Denmark



During the last decade, bibliographic classification systems in public libraries have developed from standard orders to guard collections and catalogues, towards social instruments supporting dialogue and cooperation among libraries and their user communities. Recently, it appears that both the theory and practice of classification is taking a more sociological and historical orientation. That is, classifications are viewed as social tools, ideally as democratic tools for communication and interaction in distributed communities. In their role as discursive arenas in the open systems of modern electronic libraries, classifications replace their hitherto role as tools for control of order in closed systems, such as the traditional bureaucratic library. Thus, from the perspective of sociology of science, Hjørland (1997) and Star (1989) argue for a pragmatic philosophy of classification, functioning in the same way as science serves human action. Within the analogy between a scientific enterprise and the activities in the library, Albrechtsen & Jacob (1997) argue that classification research today does not only take place within the framework of traditional R&D in LIS, for instance library schools and centralized library services, but also develops within modern libraries, functioning as information ecologies (Nardi & O’Day, 1996). Recent studies of public libraries in the information society (Thorhauge et al, 1997) and of mutual design activities in classification between libraries and their users (Albrechtsen, 1997; Hidderley & Rafferty, 1997), point in the same direction. In this paper, I will discuss how classifications have developed from invisible work in central agencies, toward articulation work in modern electronic libraries - as found in projects involving cooperative design of classificatory structures, and democratic classification and indexing.


Bibliographic classification systems (see figure 1) have served different pragmatic purposes in the history of libraries and information retrieval systems. In a recent European study of public libraries in the information society (Thorhauge et al., 1997), it was demonstrated that public libraries have progressed through three distinct stages, evolving from manual, paper-based services, via the automated library, to the current phenomenon of the electronic, multimedia library. This progression should not be understood to imply that the current status of libraries has been driven entirely by technology. Rather, the electronic, multimedia library must be understood from a more integrated socio-technical point of view, where the various actors, including librarians, computer suppliers, and researchers in computing and information science, constitute a heterogeneous network of agencies that bring certain technologies to the foreground while marginalizing others. In the recent development and use of communication technology, for example, there is a convergence of hitherto separate, even disparate, media and activities. This is apparent in the development and application of Web technology, which integrates text-based materials, graphic illustrations and audio materials with interactive features such as online conferences and e-mail. It is characteristic of this development that the technology is not only plastic and customizable to almost any context of use, rather like a boundary object, but is constantly re-negotiated and re-developed through such use.


In the recent past, manual, paper-based libraries focused on collection building. Intermediaries, or librarians, served both as collection builders and as agents controlling and interpreting the order of the libraries. Classification systems were frequently standardized in order to support interlibrary cooperation with the result that classification research was itself dominated by the development of universal schemes which could be adopted by central agencies to control the organization of knowledge across libraries. As a result of this universal standardization, classification became invisible work performed without regard to the needs of the local community of users. And, because maintenance and development of these classification schemes was often based on literary warrant, reflecting only those subjects represented in large, national collections, they can be interpreted as imposing an implicitly empiricist view of knowledge. There was, then, at this stage in the library evolution, a mix of rationalist and empiricist epistemologies underlying classification research and development.


The role of librarians as intermediaries was challenged during the 1980s by the development of online retrieval systems, and, in particular, by the introduction of online public access catalogues [OPACs] for end-user searching. During this decade, classification research was dominated by work on thesauri and indexing systems. There were numerous experiments with automated indexing, including the application of text analysis techniques developed in computational linguistics. OPAC development was often based on studying users in controlled experiments, sometimes in naturalistic settings, but generally without prior analysis of their different social worlds or the functional role of libraries in knowledge production and mediation. Research in information retrieval systems was very much oriented by a mechanistic conception of human competence in information searching, indexing and classification, thereby neglecting the variety and heterogeneity with which human agents, both librarians and users, information sources and technology interact in different settings. Furthermore, as technological fixes -- the so-called 'intelligent intermediaries' -- were thrust to the foreground, displacing the search competence of the librarians, the librarian's role as intermediary was gradually becoming marginalized as invisible work -- work that occurred without contact with or recognition by the users.


During the 1990s, the library has increasingly switched its service emphasis from building and guarding the collection or offering users access through the local OPAC to providing local access to global information resources available on the World Wide Web. This represents a shift from a closed to an open system. In some European public libraries, for example, traditionally introverted and bureaucratic organizations have migrated toward a project-oriented culture, where librarians and users cooperate on the development of new services, using the interactive affordances of Web technology and the Internet. In general, such projects have not involved the library schools in Europe, the traditional research communities in the library and information sciences. Close cooperation between libraries and the community of LIS researchers in Europe has yet to be manifested (Albrechtsen & Kajberg, 1997). In the United States, communities of LIS researchers have come together in workshops and research projects related to the social informatics of what are called "digital libraries", but could equally well be termed 'electronic libraries' (Bishop & Star, 1996). In this research area, major topics include how knowledge is structured in digital libraries, including cataloguing and classification, and how digital libraries are used -- how knowledge is produced, communicated, applied and recycled in distributed social worlds. Research methods comprise ethnographic studies of communication and knowledge production in [digital] libraries as well as comprehensive sociological studies of professional classification schemes in medicine (Bowker & Star, 1994) and nursing (Bowker, 1996). Thus it seems apparent that classification research is gradually evincing a more sociological, historical orientation.


Ballerup, a Danish public library, is a medium-sized library on the outskirts of Copenhagen. In 1995, the library started a new project called Database 2001. This project, which was evaluated by Albrechtsen (1997), involved the development of an enriched multimedia catalogue on the Web. In addition to the evaluation researcher, the project group for Database 2001 included six librarians with different areas of expertise. During the development of Database 2001, the project group collaborated with user groups and colleagues in the library to identify different kinds of materials, including books, musical recordings on CD, CD-ROMs, and audiotapes of books. Text, pictures and sound were selected as enrichment for the database, the idea being to emulate a kind of virtual library on the Web. The menus were designed as graphical layers of icons representing both user groups and the kinds of materials available. The subject icons in Database 2001, which represent the subject content of materials in the database, went through several iterations. In addition, the interface designed for browsing the menus was customized for both children and adults. The librarians arranged evaluation session with users who represented different user communities and their evaluations were very positive: users with different interests were able to use the icon-based interface for browsing in the database even though they had very different interests and different goals for searching.

In the database, documents were indexed using standard call numbers from the Danish variant of the Dewey Decimal Classification [DDC]. Even though indexing by class number would take advantage of the hierarchical structure of DDC, and hence be potentially useful for browsing by users, the librarians knew from their practice as intermediaries that users found it very difficult to understand the standard classification. They experimented with a more pragmatic and much more weakly structured classification which could reflect the kinds of questions actually posed to library staff by the different user groups. For instance, for the children, they worked with the seven categories listed below and designed for each of these categories an icon for subject browsing on a Web page:

  1. Computers
  2. Astronomy, nature, animals, environment
  3. irst love, star signs, being young today
  4. Horses
  5. Excitement, humor
  6. Fantasy, science fiction
  7. Books that are easy to read

From a semantic or disciplinary point of view, the separation of subjects like animals and horses would appear to be "incorrect" or "illogical". For the children, however, this classification worked very well. Category 2 [Astronomy, nature, animals, environment] was intended for a broad group of interests, including fact literature, whereas Category 4 [Horses] was intended, in particular, for girls interested in novels about horses. There is, in Denmark, a special research tradition within children's librarianship, based on Wanting's research on how children ask questions in libraries (Wanting, 1984), that advocates mediating literature according to the different user interests of children. Pejtersen (1994) has also studied children's use of libraries in Denmark and their communication with librarians. In her development of the Book House system in the 1980s, Pejtersen used a collaborative prototyping approach, engaging librarians, information scientists, and users in Danish public and school libraries, and subsequently designed a special interface of subject icons for browsing of the Book House system by children. Database 2001 took advantage of both of these research approaches to children's information searching.

In England, Hidderley and Rafferty (1997) have developed a strategy for indexing images and fiction, which they call "democratic indexing". The basic principle of democratic indexing in their approach is that users will have their own, potentially different, interpretations of an image. Each image is indexed by users and librarians on different levels, ranging from significant objects on the image to an overall interpretation of the image. The users’ indexings are reconciled into a public view, which is a shared vocabulary of terms associated with the images. All users can search for information in the image database using this public, shared vocabulary, and, in addition use their own private view of terms. Hidderley and Rafferty’s approach to democratic indexing is different from the approach taken in Ballerup. Both projects aim to accommodate dissent, and to create classificatory structures functioning as boundary objects. However, Hidderley and Rafferty’s research is a controlled experiment, which does not build on prior analysis of the social worlds involved in image and fiction retrieval and indexing. And, the reconciliation of different views in realized using a special software tool, implying a mechanistic conception of the different social worlds involved in the creation of the catalogue and the classification. In contrast, Ballerup developed Database 2001 from prior knowledge and assumptions about the needs of their local user communities, and engaged the users in a mutual design activity of classifications and graphical interfaces. However, both approaches are promising in the sense that they engage users in the production of catalogues and classification systems.


The role of classification systems in public libraries is changing towards as role as social instruments, facilitating communication and cooperation in the open, distributed environment of the modern electronic library. Standard classifications developed by central agencies, are being thrust in the background in favor of local classifications, developed by libraries and their user communities in mutual cooperation. The power of the catalogues, which was once centralized in a few agencies, is now being distributed to their users and that is, both the librarians and the user communities with which they cooperate. The practice of classification is changing from invisible work carried out in centralized agencies, to articulation work emerging within the socio-technical networks of modern libraries. As the role of the library evolves from collection guardian to facilitator of connections, the role of classification is similarly transformed from control of collections, to facilitating communication, cooperation, maintaining a shared conceptual context. Recent projects on democratic indexing and cooperative development of classifications involve users in the creation of local catalogues. This is a promising. However, approaches vary in their view of the social worlds of library users, and there is a danger that the creation of user-oriented catalogues and vocabularies will follow a mechanistic conception of knowledge, instead of a social view. Future developments of democratic indexing and cooperative classifications need to be guided by a theory of knowledge, and gain more consciousness on the underlying relationship between user access in libraries and collective knowledge structures, that are the basis for knowledge production.


Albrechtsen, H. (1997). Database 2001: design af en multimedie Web katalog på Ballerup Bibliotekerne. Copenhagen: Royal School of Librarianship. [In Danish:. English title: Database 2001 - The Design of a Multimedia Web Catalog in Ballerup Public Library]

Albrechtsen, H. & E. Jacob (1997). Classification systems as boundary objects in diverse information ecologies. In: Efthimis Efthimiadis (ed.). Proceedings of the 8th ASIS SIG/CR workshop, 1 November 1997 Washington (D.C.). (In press)

Albrechtsen, H. & Kajberg (1997). Professional Development: Education, Training and Continuing Professesional Education. Public Libraries and the Information Society/ edited by Thorhauge et al. (pp. 82-91)

Bishop, A.P., & Star, S.L. (1996). Social informatics of digital library use and infrastructure. In M.E. Williams (Ed.), Annual review of information science and technology, vol. 31 (p. 301-401).

Bowker, G. C. (1996). Lest we remember: organizational forgetting and the production of knowledge. Available at http://alexia.lis.uiuc.edu/~bowker/pubs.htm

Bowker, G.C. & S. L. Star (1994). Knowledge and Infrastructure in International Information Management: Problems of Classification and Coding. Information Acumen: The Understanding and Use of Knowledge in Modern Business/edited by L. Bud. - London: Routledge

Hidderley, Rob & Rafferty, Pauline (1997). Democratic indexing: an approach to the retrieval of fiction. In: Hanne Albrechtsen & Clare Beghtol (eds). Fiction, OPACs, Networks. Proceedings of the 1st Research seminar on Electronic Access to Fiction, Multicultural Knowledge Interaction, and Communication of Culture via Networks, held at Royal School of Librarianship, Copenhagen 11-13 November 1996. (in press)- Copenhagen: Royal School of Librarianship.

Hjørland, B. (1997). Information seeking and subject representation: an activity-theoretical approach to information science. Westport, CN: Greenwood Press.

Jacob, E. K. (1994). Classification and crossdisciplinary communication: breaching the boundaries imposed by classificatory structure. In H. Albrechtsen and S. Oernager (Eds.), Knowledge organization and quality management: Advances in knowledge organization, vol. 4 (pp. 101-108). Frankfurt/Main: Indeks Verlag.

Nardi, B., & O'Day, V. (1996). Intelligent agents: what we learned in the library. Libri 46 (2), pp. 59-88.

Pejtersen, A.M. (1994). A new approach to design of document retrieval and indexing systems for OPAC users. In D.I Raitt & B. Jeapes (Eds.), Proceedings of the 17th International Online Information Meeting (p. 273-290). London: Learned Information.

Star, S.L. (1989). The structure of ill-structured solutions: boundary objects and heterogeneous distributed problem solving. In L. Gasser & M.N. Huhns (Eds.), Distributed artificial intelligence (p. 37-54). London: Pitman.

Thorhauge, J; Larsen, G.; Thun, H.-P. & H. Albrechtsen (1997). Public Libraries and the Information Society. - Luxembourg: Office for Official Publicationof the the European Communities (in print). EUR 17648 EN.

Wanting, B. (1984). How do children ask questions in children's libraries? Concepts of visual and auditory perception and language expression. Social Science Information Studies 4, 217-234.