Information Organization: The Greatest Hits

deweyApril 12–18 is National Library Week, and it turns out that our web solutions team has a lot in common with librarians. Both jobs require someone who can ingest a huge amount of information, organize it in a sensible way and create an interface that helps others navigate through the system. So in honor of librarians, designers, developers and information architects everywhere, let’s run through the greatest hits of information organization and web design.

Francis Bacon
Or more properly, Sir Francis Bacon 1st Viscount St Alban, is well known as a philosopher, politician, cryptographer and author. (When people suggest Shakespeare didn’t write his plays, Bacon is one of the prime candidates for the actual playwright.)

One of Bacon’s works, published in 1605, is “Of Proficience and Advancement of Learning Divine and Human,” an attempt at dividing and classifying human knowledge. He created three categories: History, Poetry and Philosophy, corresponding respectively to memory, imagination and reason. Each category also had three subcategories, divided into divine, human and natural versions.

While seemingly naive (and maybe a little goofy), the system is surprisingly flexible. In comparing taxonomists to the internet, this makes Bacon the “early web” of knowledge organization. Maybe our 28.8k modems couldn’t handle fancy streaming videos, Java or even large images, but it was easy to learn, quick to load and worked across multiple platforms. It also gave us what Bacon would undoubtedly classify as divine poetry: ASCII art. But like Bacon’s system of taxonomy, the text-based internet had to be abandoned as the things we created got more complicated and interdisciplinary. We needed more. We needed…

Melvil Dewey
In 1873, perhaps striving for a more unwieldy publication title than Bacon, Melvil Dewey gifted the world with A Classification and Subject Index for Cataloguing and Arranging the Books and Pamphlets of a Library. This “pamphlet” (clocking in at 44 pages and 2,000 index entries) proposed shelving books next to books with similar topics. It seems obvious now, but up until that point, libraries gave books permanent positions based on their size and when they were acquired.

Dewey’s other passion was spelling reform. He advocated for “simpler spelin,” as exemplified in this directive from his Adirondac Loj: “All shud see the butiful after-glo on mountains to the east just befor sunset. Fyn vu from Golfhous porch.”

In our minds, this makes Dewey the library equivalent of that glorious 90s internet of GeoCities, Angelfire and web rings. Once you found a site you liked, you could amble around until you were filled to bursting with sparkling gifs, view counters and auto-loading MIDIs. He even wrote in leet! What could be better?

SR Ranganathan
Oh, right, this guy’s better. Dewey’s system, while more effective than the previous size-based sorting, was needlessly complicated, and the subjects were biased toward Anglo-Americans. Ranganathan, a mathematician and librarian, created the five laws of library science in 1931:
1. Books are for use.
2. Every reader his [or her] book.
3. Every book its reader.
4. Save the time of the reader.
5. The library is a growing organism.

Following these, he created the colon classification system, which was the first faceted classification system. This meant that an object could belong to multiple taxonomies rather than being filed under only one heading.

Initially, it was criticized for being more complicated than existing systems—since books could belong to multiple sections, it was deemed impractical. However, with the advent of the internet and digital libraries, it became much more practical. Digital objects are very easy to link to from multiple sources or headings. Many e-commerce sites, Amazon included, use faceted systems to organize their products. The colon classification system predicted the adaptable, agile internet that understands where a user is coming from and predicts where they might go.

The struggle to understand how humans view and classify the world stretches as far back as the written word, and it remains at the forefront of the design and development industry. User experience, SEO and information architecture are just some of the fields built on the systems developed by librarians and taxonomists of the past. Looking to their successes (and mistakes) can inform an internet that is cleaner to navigate and easier to use.

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