Cataloging the tree of knowledge | At The Library Column … – Fairbanks Daily News-Miner

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Partly cloudy. Low 14F. Winds light and variable..
Partly cloudy. Low 14F. Winds light and variable.
Updated: March 18, 2023 @ 5:37 pm
Books line the shelves of Tanana Middle School. FNSBD photo
Books line the shelves of Tanana Middle School. FNSBD photo
There’s a lot to be said for being well-informed.
Wise old Ben Franklin, for instance, claimed that “An investment in knowledge pays the best dividends.” Where information is concerned, however, we live in a best-of times/worst-of-times situation where our society is deluged with a tsunami of information at a scale completely unforeseen 250 years ago. And yet, here I am agreeing with Callimachus, the ancient Hellene scholar-librarian, who stated “I am greedy of getting information,” and my own library stands as proof of that. Actually, my large, unruly collection is an “antilibrary.” I learned of this in an online essay by Kevin Dickinson titled “The Japanese Call This Practice Tsundoku, And It May Provide Lasting Benefits.” He wrote that “Tsundoku is the Japanese word for the stack(s) of books you’ve purchased but haven’t read.” It comes from combining “tsunde-oku” (letting things pile up) and “dokusho” (reading books), and “originated in the late 19th century as a satirical jab at teachers who owned books but didn’t read them.” But such collecting misses the point of the antilibrary.
To describe the antilibrary, Dickinson cites statistician Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s bestselling book, “The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable,” which describes the prolific author Umberto Eco’s 30,000 book personal library. However, according to Dickinson, “Eco’s library wasn’t voluminous because he had read so much; it was voluminous because he desired to read so much more.” Eco had figured out that if he read a book a day from age ten to eighty, he’d have only gotten to 25,200 out of the many millions in large libraries. Taleb wrote, “Read books are far less valuable than unread ones. [Your] library should contain as much of what you do not know as your financial means, mortgage rates, and the currently tight real-estate market allows you to put there. You will accumulate more knowledge and more books as you grow older, and the growing number of unread books on the shelves will look at you menacingly. Indeed, the more you know, the larger the rows of unread books. Let us call this collection of unread books an antilibrary.” Dickinson adds, “The antilibrary’s value stems from how it challenges our self-estimation by providing a constant, niggling reminder of all we don’t know … These shelves of unexplored ideas propel us to continue reading, continue learning, and never be comfortable that we know enough. Jessica Stillman calls this realization intellectual humility.”
We antilibrarians revel in possessing knowledge we’ve yet to explore; still, there can be too much of a good thing, as the Ptolemys found out when they decided to collect every book ever written for their magnificent Library of Alexandria. That’s where the aforementioned Callimachus created the “Pinakes” in 245 BCE, the first Western library catalog. The director of the Alexandrian Library hired Callimuchus and charged him with organizing the library’s 500,000 scrolls into some sort of order so that scholars could locate them easily. “Pinakes” means “tables” in Greek, and Callimachus divided the scrolls into discrete subjects: rhetoric, law, tragedy, comedy, history, medicine, etc., including “miscellanies” for everything else. The 120-scroll Pinakes became the model for organizing information for many centuries. Ibn al-Nadim used it in 998 CE to create his “Kitab al-Fihrist” (“The Book Catalog” in Arabic), which described 10,000 important Arabic books, and besides the usual author and title, al-Nadim’s catalog included author biographies and literary criticism. “Ibn al-Nadim’s interest ranges from religions, customs, sciences, with obscure facets of medieval Islamic history, works on superstition, magic, drama, poetry, satire and music from Persia, Babylonia and Byzantium,” including “the mundane, the bizarre, the prosaic and the profane,” according to Wikipedia.
The German polymath Gottfried Leibniz worked along the same lines around 1700 CE to create his “Characteristica Universalis,” an “ideal language … whose categories and combinations accurately mirror the structure of reality itself, with no potentially misleading human perspective contaminating it,” according to That didn’t quite work out for Leibniz, but it did help lay the groundwork for literary taxonomy. Originally taxonomy, “the practice and science of categorization or classification,” only referred to biology, being coined by Swiss botanist A.P. de Candolle in 1813 from the Greek words “taxis” (arrangement) and “nomia” (distribution). The explosion of written information that came with industrialization and rising literacy levels in the late 1800s required something similar for organizing other types of knowledge, and that’s why the New York Times has a Taxonomy Team today. One team member, Senior Taxonomist Jennifer Parrucci, got her library degree at the prestigious Pratt Institute, and she’s quick to note that she has nothing to do with taxidermy.
Taxonomists are information scientists who study how different ideas and entities can be categorized. They create and follow systems for categorizing information into hierarchies, like Melvil Dewey did with his decimal system that grouped all information into ten categories, from 000 – “General Works” to 900 – “History and Geography,” and split each category into subcategories. For example, the 500s for “Science” are further broken down into “General Science” (500-509), “Mathematics” (510-519), “Astronomy” (520-529) and so on. These are further reduced, so that Mathematics includes “General Mathematics” (510), “General Principles of Mathematics” (511), “Algebra” (512) etc. Library catalogers decide the best subject headings for finding each new item, and taxonomists do the same for the articles in newspapers.
The NYTimes noted that Parrucci is also a certified archivist and “has always been passionate about books, organizing content … and making sure everyone can find what they need, like a good librarian.” Herbert Putnam, appointed Librarian of Congress (LC) in 1899 by President McKinley, was another. Unlike the cheerful, outgoing Parrucci, Putnam was the epitome of a shy retiring librarian, who, like so many in our profession, masked his steely resolve to enable his fellow humans easier ways to access more information. The son of the founder of Putnam’s Publishing, he graduated summa cum laude from Harvard and began law school, but on a whim moved to Minneapolis to run the Athenaeum Library, and then the Minneapolis Public Library. In 1891 Putnam quit to be near his ailing mother-in-law in Boston, where he practiced law, but in 1895 he was appointed Librarian of the Boston Public Library, then the largest in the country.
Four years later Putnam was Librarian of Congress where he successfully lobbied to triple its staff, especially adding catalogers. His first year on the job he oversaw the complete recataloging of every book, and the next year he acquired a dedicated branch of the Government Printing Office to crank out sets of catalog cards (a card each for author, title, and the various subject headings they touched upon), all on “the best linen ledger stock,” according to the 1900/1901 “Report of the Librarian of Congress.” The third year he contacted 400 American libraries offering to sell them sets. Back then, librarians came up with their own, sometimes wildly imaginative subjects to list their books under, but soon most American library catalogs were using the same uniform subject headings from the LC, “allowing the smallest libraries in the farthest reaches of the country to possess the same quality of cataloging as the greatest libraries in the world,” as expressed in the 2017 book “The Card Catalog,” which our library owns. As librarian blogger Salman Haider noted, “I’m a Librarian, Librarianship is my religion, Libraries are my temple, and Catalog is my key weapon to unlock the wealth of wisdom and knowledge … Who needs a librarian and cataloger when you have Google and Internet? Well, who needs a teacher when you have Wikipedia? And, who needs a doctor when you have WebMD?”
Greg Hill is the former director of Fairbanks North Star Borough libraries. He can be reached at [email protected].
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