Tuesday, August 16, 2016

The case of the disappearing classification

I'm starting some research into classification in libraries (now that I have more time due to having had to drop social media from my life; see previous post). The main question I want to answer is: why did research into classification drop off at around the same time that library catalogs computerized? This timing may just be coincidence, but I'm suspecting that it isn't.

 I was in library school in 1971-72, and then again in 1978-80. In 1971 I took the required classes of cataloging (two semesters), reference, children's librarianship, library management, and an elective in law librarianship. Those are the ones I remember. There was not a computer in the place, nor do I remember anyone mentioning them in relation to libraries. I was interested in classification theory, but not much was happening around that topic in the US. In England, the Classification Research Group was very active, with folks like D.J. Foskett and Brian Vickery as mainstays of thinking about faceted classification. I wrote my first published article about a faceted classification being used by a UN agency.[1]

 In 1978 the same school had only a few traditional classes. I'd been out of the country, so the change to me was abrupt. Students learned to catalog on OCLC. (We had typed cards!) I was hired as a TA to teach people how to use DIALOG for article searching, even though I'd never seen it used, myself. (I'd already had a job as a computer programmer, so it was easy to learn the rules of DIALOG searching.) The school was now teaching "information science". Here's what that consisted of at the time: research into term frequency of texts; recall and precision; relevance ranking; database development.

I didn't appreciate it at the time, but the school had some of the bigger names in these areas, including William Cooper and M. E. "Bill" Maron. (I only just today discovered why he called himself Bill - the M. E., which is what he wrote under in academia, stands for "Melvin Earl". Even for a nerdy computer scientist, that was too much nerdity.) 1978 was still the early days of computing, at least unless you were on a military project grant or worked for the US Census Bureau. The University of California, Berkeley, did not have visible Internet access. Access to OCLC or DIALOG was via dial-up to their proprietary networks. (I hope someone has or will write that early history of the OCLC network. For its time it must have been amazing.)

The idea that one could search actual text was exciting, but how best to do it was (and still is, to a large extent) unclear. There was one paper, although I so far have not found it, that was about relevance ranking, and was filled with mathematical formulas for calculating relevance. I was determined to understand it, and so I spent countless hours on that paper with a cheat sheet beside me so I could remember what uppercase italic R was as opposed to lower case script r. I made it through the paper to the very end, where the last paragraph read (as I recall): "Of course, there is no way to obtain a value for R[elevance], so this theory cannot be tested." I could have strangled the author (one of my profs) with my bare hands.

Looking at the articles, now, though, I see that they were prescient; or at least that they were working on the beginnings of things we now take for granted. One statement by Maron especially strikes me today:
A second objective of this paper is to show that about is, in fact, not the central concept in a theory of document retrieval. A document retrieval system ought to provide a ranked output (in response to a search query) not according to the degree that they are about the topic sought by the inquiring patron, but rather according to the probability that they will satisfy that person‘s information need. This paper shows how aboutness is related to probability of satisfaction.[2] 
This is from 1977, and it essentially describes the basic theory behind Google ranking. It doesn't anticipate hyperlinking, of course, but it does anticipate that "about" is not the main measure of what will satisfy a searcher's need. Classification, in the traditional sense, is the quintessence of about. Is this the crux of the issue? As yet, I don't know. More to come.

[1]Coyle, Karen (1975). "A Faceted Classification for Occupational Safety and Health". Special Libraries. 66 (5-6): 256–9.
[2]Maron, M. E. (1977) "On Indexing, Retrieval, and the Meaning of About". Journal of the American Society for Information Science, January, 1977, pp. 38-43


Claudio Gnoli said...

Did you see my previously submitted comments? CG

Karen Coyle said...

Claudio, it appears that they did not come through, and unfortunately I don't know why. I checked in the various comment folders. Can you try again? I'm sorry about this glitch.