Classification and Interpretation, and the Construction of Digital Resources

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In “The Alchemy of Turning Fiction into Truth” (Journal of Scholarly Publishing, [July 2008]: 354-372), David Henge examines the LC classification system and its treatment of “historical” works. Noting that works catalogued under the LC classification system’s D-DX, E and F categories are generally assumed to be factually based, Henge demonstrates the error of this assumption. He opens by discussing four types of works devoted to studying the past—“history based on solid evidence and argument, history based on less acceptable forms of these, pseudo-history, and counterfactual history” (354)—but his key concern is with the cataloguing of the last kind of history. Counterfactual histories or “pretend histories”

immediately and unabashedly depart from accepted versions of the past in order to hypothesize about what the course of the past and present might have been., if only different events and outcomes had taken place. They never quite pretend that these alternative histories did occur, but they clearly often wish they had. (357-58)

Despite addressing themselves to a past that never occurred, these counterfactual works are more often than not given LC designations that place them among works of actual history. Such placement seems all the more odd if we consider that the LC system does have other categories that would better signal their status. For example, the HX806-HX811 call numbers represent Utopias, the Ideal State, and these categories often seem a far better fit for the titles Henge discusses (368). Although most of these works end up in history, a few have been correctly placed under the classification designations for fiction. That some do end up in fiction ironically boosts the factual nature of those fictional works that remain classified as history. Further clouding the status of these “pretend histories” is their frequent adoption of the trappings of authoritative scholarly work—the appearance of “maps, footnotes, numbers, and pictures with false captions” (362) as well as the imprint of a university press.

While Henge identifies general readers as the population at greatest risk for viewing titles bearing D-DX, E or F designations as credible and factually based, his study does address issues relevant to the creation of scholarly digital resources. Henge notes that although “guides to the LC classification scheme spend considerable time classifying history, they ignore the equally important task of defining it” (363). Similarly, building digital resources entails designing classification schemes, and it is important to make the logic of those systems transparent. Henge’s article usefully reminds us that classification is an exercise in interpretation and that users must understand the rationale and assumptions behind the interpretative processes employed in the various classificatory designations. Even a cursory look at the description of the TEI header on the Text Coding Initiative’s website makes the link between classification and interpretation abundantly clear.

From another, less technical perspective, the desired feedback sought by Julia Flanders and John Melson for “Exploring Reception History in Women Writers Online” represents the type of forethought necessary for anticipating users’ needs and assumptions effectively and for creating the type of supporting contextual documents that will help lay bare the thought processes involved in creating a digital resource. In the process of discussing visionary failures of the LC classification designers, Henge points out that its originators assigned the essentially the same amount of classification space to the history of Asia as they did to the history of gypsies and labels this case “the most egregious example in the D-DX (history properly speaking) classes of the failure to anticipate growth” (360). While this decision seems inexplicable, generally it can be very difficult to predict future needs and build a resource capable of growth. This difficulty is compounded by the potential of digital resources to create new perspectives and new areas of inquiries not yet imagined.

The cataloguing of “pretend histories” as actual history that Henge identifies underscores that even accepted authorities like the LC classification scheme are not infallible. A parallel to Henge’s critique, work by Jim May, Stephen Tabor and others on problems with the ESTC have already received attention on emob, and both cases suggest a healthy dose of skepticism is often warranted even when dealing with respected and well-established resources.

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9 Responses to “Classification and Interpretation, and the Construction of Digital Resources”

  1. Anna Battigelli Says:

    Thanks, Eleanor. This post raises interesting and problematic questions. We seem to be constructing a tower of Babel, and I completely understand Henge’s concern with the ease with which readers can get woefully misdirected.

    I wonder, however, whether solutions to the problem Henge presents are as straightforward as he seems to think. This is certainly a political moment when many of us wish for greater clarity regarding truth and falsehood. Encouraging a rigorous search for truth seems more important than ever.

    But when it comes to studying the past, don’t we want to see the full spectrum of what people imagined to be “history”? We want that spectrum, not because we believe counterfactual history to be true but because that imaginative effort, especially its deviation from truth, might tell us something about a period’s desires and delusions. Seeing a counterfactual history next to more scholarly histories might actually be helpful–especially while browsing the stacks.

    The other problem is determining who distinguishes true history from false history. As Matthew Battles notes, anyone who reads books in libraries comes to realize “an obvious conclusion: most books are bad, very bad in fact. Worst of all they’re normal: they fail to rise above the contradictions and confusions of their times” (The Library: An Unquiet History, 16). Where do we draw the line? Don’t some scholarly histories unwittingly include falsehoods?

    The assumption that books classified by the LC under “history” are “true” in any absolute sense suggests that history books can be read with confidence that the author got everything right. This might be a more pernicious assumption than reading with the awareness that the search for truth is always ongoing. The problem is sharing this idea with the general public without throwing readers into the sceptical crisis we now face, where everything and nothing is believable. We have failed to teach readers to read and to think critically. Part of that teaching ought to include how to approach books, libraries, and their catalogue’s classification system. For that process, this article is very helpful indeed.

  2. Eleanor Shevlin Says:

    Thanks, Anna. I fear my summary of Henge’s article was too reductive, for he does discuss the problems of authority and errors in writing histories–and would not exclude “bad” histories from the D-DX stacks. Nor is he recommending excluding histories from centuries ago that have since been proven erroneous or “imaginary”. Instead, he is taking aim at contemporary works whose expressed aims are not factual at all. In other words, he has a far more nuanced view of history than I conveyed.

    I suppose I was attracted to his article because of the meta-issues it raised about classification as an interpretive practice and the status of authority in accepted classification systems.

  3. Anna Battigelli Says:

    You are right to be interested in the meta-issues raised by this article. I did not mean, of course, that Henge would have bad histories placed in some other category, only that “history” as a category includes bad histories, and that’s a problem that classification alone cannot fix.

    This is a great article to share with advanced students in order to ask what we are searching for when we enter a library to collect books for a project–and what we might and might not expect from any book once we open it.

    And the general problem it raises about truth claims is one we should be examining in detail. How do we train students to search for truth, especially in the Babel-like world we now inhabit?

  4. Eleanor Shevlin Says:

    Anna,

    I’m glad you drew attention to the mixed quality of histories that appear under that classification (and the same is of course true for other categories).

    The article does seem useful for work with students on several fronts: information literacy, scholarly research, and genres.

    Henge is an historian as well as a librarian, so it is understandably that he examines the classification of history. It would be interesting to see the range of work appearing under various scientific classifications given current debates about global warming, creationism/evolution, and so forth.

    I compared some reviews by scholars for one of the titles he discusses–the discovery of America by the Chinese in 1421–against those found in amazon.com reader section. The differences were stark but not unexpected. While scholars pointed out the imaginary basis for the work and the lack of any existing evidence that could suggest some factual roots for the imaginative fancies the work contained, a number of lay readers called the work “history at its best” or remarked on the work’s uncovering of important events.

  5. Anna Battigelli Says:

    The divide you confirm between common readers and scholars as they evaluate faulty or imagined history is worrisome. We need to do a better job teaching reading.

    I would be interested in hearing librarians’ opinions on the classification issue.

  6. Dave Mazella Says:

    Isn’t some of this territory already occupied by the difficult notion of “critical thinking,” which is so domain-specific that the librarians doing the categorizations may or may not be aware of the debates that went into the construction of these categories?

    My own experience is that the only thing that teaches people such protocols of critical thinking is trying to solve problems in those areas: comparing and assessing sources, verifying and reconstructing accounts, studying the divergences in various source accounts, and so forth.

    The discipline-specific nature of such organizational issues means that the classifications really need to come about through collaboration with that field’s scholars, IMHO.

    DM

  7. Librarian-in-Training Says:

    Henge is not the first librarian to question the LOC, and cataloging and classifying books has been a concern for librarians long before LOC was implemented over a century ago. A particular critic of note is Sanford Berman, a librarian and cataloger for the Hennepin County Library in Minnesota, who wrote Prejudices and Antipathies: A Tract on the LC Subject Headings Concerning People (1971). There is a great review of his work and the response to it in Cataloging & Classification Quarterly [40.2 (2005): 123-45] by Steven A. Knowlton: “Three Decades Since Prejudices and Antipathies: A Study of Changes in the Library of Congress Subject Headings.”

  8. Eleanor Shevlin Says:

    Many thanks for these references. The Knowlton article seems especially interesting and helpful in providing a broader picture of these issues.

    Whenever one deals with classification, one is exercising interpretation, and I suspect questions and debates about cataloguing categories would arise and continue even if the efforts were undertaken collaboratively with scholars in the field.

  9. Anna Battigelli Says:

    Yes, many thanks for the references. I’d like to have a better sense of how solvable this problem is. It seems to me a difficult problem to solve without creating additional problems.

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