Web Magazine for Information Professionals

Review: The Intellectual Foundation of Information Organization

Maurice Line reviews Elaine Svenonius' 'The Intellectual Foundation of Information Organization', published by MIT Press.

Cataloguing, long respected as the prime task of librarians, declined somewhat in status in the 1970s, when libraries became conscious of the need to serve users more directly than by merely providing finding tools; also, a need to change the image of librarians (represented by the middle-aged female cataloguer) was perceived to be important. More recently, the growth of the Internet has led to increasingly desperate cries for the imposition of some order on the vast quantities of unstructured information that it made accessible, and to attempts at doing so. Cataloguing is one form of organising information, a lot better planned and structured than some of the suggested alternatives.

This book examines the intellectual underpinnings of the organisation of information. To quote the blurb on the book jacket, ‘Integrating the disparate disciplines of descriptive cataloguing, subject cataloguing, indexing, and classification, the book adopts a conceptual framework that views the process of organizing information as the use of a special language of description called a bibliographic language’. This is an ambitious aim, which is triumphantly achieved.

‘The book’, we are warned in the Preface (which incidentally gives a very good summary of the contents), ‘is not … a catechism of rules, a compendium of practice, or a training manual. … [It] is directed towards two groups of people: those who are interested in information organization as an object of scholarly investigation and those who are involved in the design of organizing systems.’

The work’s first five chapters are concerned with an ‘analytic discussion of the intellectual foundation of information organization’, beginning by identifying the main purpose of systems for organising information - ‘bringing like things together and differentiating among them’. The history of such systems, starting with that great asylum seeker Panizzi and ending with IFLA’s Functional requirements for bibliographic records, is then reviewed. ‘Ontology’, the information entities mandated by the objectives; the ‘special purpose bibliographic language’ used in organising information; and the principles guiding the construction of systems are considered in chapters 3-5.

The second group of five chapters deals with particulars, surveying three ‘languages’ used in describing works: work, document and subject languages. Along the way it looks at the common systems such as AACR in its various versions, DDC and LCSH; PRECIS is also considered. An Afterword ‘speculates on the continuing development of bibliographic languages as reflected in trends towards formalization and automation.’

The book is intellectually rigorous and conceptually stimulating. It is something of a tour de force to encompass the subject matter in 200 pages (the remaining 50-plus pages are devoted to notes, an excellent bibliography, and a good index.). It will be apparent from the above outline of the contents that the book is not bedtime reading. However, the writing is very stylish, and so clear that no-one should find it hard going.

I have one or two comments (I would hesitate to call them criticisms), since it seems to me that some practical needs have been neglected in the author’s intellectual analysis. The objectives of catalogues, as defined by Lubetsky, refined by IFLA and further developed by the author, include the very worthy and necessary one of ‘select[ing] an entity that is appropriate to the user’s needs (i.e. to choose an entity that meets the user’s requirements with respect to content, physical format, etc….)‘. One common need is to identify the level of audience at which the entity is aimed, which is by no means evident from the usual elements included in a record. Another need was suggested to me by Svenonius herself, in her remark that ‘many [Internet documents] … are of an ephemeral nature’: ephemerality. To be sure, some documents that were conceived as ephemeral (including Shakespeare’s plays?) have proved to be permanent in their own right, or because they are historically interesting (first recorded instance of …); but in most cases coding would not be too difficult. My point is that these needs are as valid as others that catalogues try to provide for. And if some commercial databases indicate audience level, why can’t catalogues? And why can’t we have access to book indexes?

The chapter on ‘Bibliographic entities’ does not discuss the desirable size or level of entity: e.g. there is no discussion of whether papers in composite works should be catalogued, let alone chapters in monographs; or, to go down a further level, sections within chapters or articles. There is a good case to be made for any or all of these for serving the subject searcher. This issue is dealt with in chapter 6, ‘Work languages’, but entirely neutrally. Why should fragments of information on the Internet be indexed, and substantial chapters in major works of scholarship not?

Svenonius mentions (almost in passing) cost as a factor in designing systems, but not speed or immediacy. In the real world, for current access to information most of us would rather have a ‘quick and dirty’ (sometimes even immediate and filthy) system than a superb and delayed one - although the former should be superseded as soon as possible by the latter.

It is fine to consider the intellectual foundations of information systems, but they should not (on Svenonius’ own terms) lead to systems that do not serve some needs. There is no reason why the above needs cannot be subjected to the same kind of analysis as the needs that are covered in the book. Perhaps a future edition could take this on board..

Nicely though the book is produced (one would expect no less of MIT Press), I must make the same complaint as I did when reviewing two other books in this series. It is by no means obvious what are headings within chapters and what are subheadings; both use bold lower case. The only difference is that headings are followed by a line space, while subheadings are not. (Sub-subheadings are more obvious, as they are in bold lower case italics.)

I spotted two misprints. On p.135, Wyndham Hulme appears as Wyndam; and in the Index, ‘aggregation’ should be given as appearing on pp.102-104, not pp.102-194.

This work is a major contribution to information and library science. It is not only informative; it makes the reader think more carefully about what information control systems are for and how they do or should work. I shall be surprised if it does not become a classic.

‘The Intellectual Foundation of Information Organization’ By Elaine Svenonius (Digital Libraries and Electronic Publishing; William Y. Arms, series editor) MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2000, xv, 255 pages, ISBN 0 262 19433 3 £24.50. (UK)

Author Details

Maurice B. Line