Saturday, September 13, 2014

Dewey Be Dammed

I like to have things that go together be together. Some stuff is easy: the fridge has a vegetable drawer, my dresser has one for socks and the middle one in the bathroom is mine. Red wine goes on the rack, while white goes in the fridge. And while I'm not obsessive about it, short sleeve shirts hang together, pens go in one cup on my desk and pencils in another, and in my workshop every tool has a specific hanger. (That being said, I love the approach of guy I worked with, who, when I asked if I could borrow a pliers, directed me to his toolbag. It had three big sections: Squeezy Things, Cutty Things and Pointy Things.)

With printed matter, whether paper or electronic, it's even more important. After all, if a pair of underwear accidentally mixes in with the socks, it's pretty easy to separate. No so with a bunch of books or magazines all about the same size and shape, or computer files with names like taxstuff.xls and taxthings.xls. Of course one peek inside will tell you if you have National Geographic or Playboy (actually, maybe that's a bad example), but it's still time you won't get back.

Then there's the library, the very paragon of organization. Not only does it have everything in a very specific place, but it catalogs it all as well. And not just fiction or non-fiction, but on beyond the alphabet: architecture has a different home from art, as do history and hieroglyphics. Find the book in the card catalog or its digital equivalent, and thanks to Mr. Dewey's efforts you know that "Children in the Films of Alfred Hitchcock" can be found on the shelf marked 791.4302/33092, while the "Colorado Breeding Bird Atlas" is elsewhere at 598/.09788.

But because of a variety of factors, almost all revolving around the electronification of data and the internet itself, libraries are wrestling with the most basic of concepts. After all, why organize it all if you don't need organization? Pick a topic, any topic: let's say staircases. Type the term into your favorite search engine, and up comes how to make one, where to buy one, and songs, movies and books with that in the name. If I add a few more search terms I can find other examples more specific to my needs, like plans to build one for the deck. I don't need to know where it lives or how it's classified. Click and I have it.

My librarian friends will likely take me to task for this heretical outburst. Someone has to organize it all, they will likely say, I'm just enjoying the fruit of that labor several steps removed. And they have a point. The links that enable me to find anything are just a different technical system of accessing information, one whose mechanics are transparent to me but no less real. I could as easily take my point of reference the Library of Congress catalog, the Metis system of holistic knowledge or even Tom Lehrer songs. ("There's antimony, arsenic, aluminum, selenium.")  

Indeed, we're even seeing different ways of organizing and teaching knowledge in general. There's the much debated Common Core, and Bill Gates' promotion and roll out of the Big History Project, which links lessons on the Big Bang to Einstein and the hydrogen bomb. For some the most dominant platform for a survey of all things turned out to the recent 12 day "Simpsons" marathon of all 552 episodes. There you could learn about the cosmos ("Deep Space Homer"), immigration ("Much Apu About Nothing") and even the criminal justice system ("Marge in Chains" and the iconic line, "Come out with your hands up, two cups of coffee, an auto freshener that says ‘Capricorn,' and something with coconut on it.").

But back to the library. As an avid eBook borrower, the system most useful to me has rearranged knowledge in yet another form. When I log in, I'm greeted with an interface that offers me a chance to slice and dice the available choices multiple ways. But in this ever growing collection, the most useful drop-down turns out to be "Added to Site." And so on one page I get Henry Kissinger's "World Order," Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird," the travel Guide "Best Chef's Tables in Portland" and Stacy McKitrick's "Bite Me, I'm Yours." Now, that's a new world order indeed.


Marc Wollin of Bedford likes to read. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

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