Meditative Maunderings on Culture

January 24, 2010

I’m busily taking the works of María Zambrano, Spanish philosopher and writer, and putting them together on the shelf, which is what classifications do. It’s a lovely thing: to go to the shelf (in the first place) and find there all the works by and about someone. When I took up this task, she was scattered about in 3 philosophy numbers, 4 Spanish-language literature numbers, and a couple of rhetoric / comparative literature numbers. Now, that ain’t right!

My boss, the principal cataloger, fussed because I had found and started cleaning up the mess. It’s too much work. It takes too much time, and there are lots of other books to catalog in order to get to the shelf. It probably suggests that I doubt the perfection of all cataloging work that has gone heretofore. (Which is only right, since…)

The administrators seem to hate cataloging, or at least to try to delude everyone into thinking it’s not important (how I hate that false idol “keyword search” — ye cannot serve Cataloging and Keyword Search) — it costs too much. First, it works best if those doing it know things like languages or even (god forbid!) subject areas, and so they have to be paid more (perhaps almost as much as administrators — wash yo’ mouth out!).

Which hasn’t deterred me, really. In Linde-land, precision is important: she belongs in 196.1 (Spanish philosophy) not 196 (Spanish and Portuguese, i.e. Iberian philosphy), and she has a lot of books there by and about her. She belongs in 865 in Spanish literature since 1801, not in Mexican literature (869.1). Her books on Spanish literature should all have the same number, not 3 different numbers. And her autobiography doesn’t need to be floating off in space in a comparative literature number or 2 of them (808/809). It’s a kind of justice, really, and truth — to give to each his or her due.

This made me think: It’s inconvenient to “the bottom line” of money for things to be meaningful — when things are meaningful (the difference between 196 and 196.1, say, or between Spanish literature and Mexican) then you should either (1) make NO mistakes or (2) forget ever correcting them. It costs too much.

But what does it cost, really cost, to make things random, sequential, meaningless? What is the cost of that level of trivialization? And what is the cost of never being allowed to either admit to a mistake or to fix it?

One cost is the loss of open access, it’s the imposition of closed stacks or remote storage: if you’re going to let people go to the shelf and see the array of books on a given subject or by a given author, then you have to use a classification scheme. One of the arguments for closed stacks and remote storage is that classification schemes, which require some expertise to apply well, aren’t necessary: BINGO! Magic budget bullet! Dumb it down — it’s cheaper. (One of my favorite bumper stickers is “If you think education is expensive, try ignorance.”)

It doesn’t protect “freedom of access” or “intellectual freedom” to put several layers of (generally technological) mediation between people and books — or to take away the structures of meaningful access. Not having a classification scheme requires rich description and subject headings (and you have to pay people for that so there’s no significant savings); then the computers and online catalogs to allow people to get at them, and then personnel to fetch and deliver them. Computers don’t necessarily bring people closer to anything real, just to simulacra of real things. And then there has to be a person to provide you with the real thing that you want. If the computer is down, if the book has been badly or merely insufficiently cataloged, if the guy who fetches the book is ill, if the person who’s supposed to hand it to you has an agenda… so many things can get in the way of “free” and adequate access to materials.

And on a cultural and spiritual level, what is the cost of that refusal to weave around ourselves structures of meaning? Isn’t that what makes life human, truly human? If everything is mass-produced, industrial, and without immediate and (frankly) urgent personal and cultural meaning, then is it worth living? It’s worth it for “consumers” to live that way, so that “profits” keep going to … who are the profits going to?

Are the principals of huge corporations and their communities “consumers” like we are? Presumably not. I don’t think that we shop in the same places (I shop in thrift stores). They don’t seem to believe they will share the same fate the rest of us will when we’ve utterly devastated the planet. Perhaps they’re the ones who’ll go live on Mars or the Moon… or who think they will. Perhaps that was the class or caste of whatever society produced the aliens who show up in the movie Independence Day and want to make Earth their next (free) vending machine.

And one doubts that their libraries are in random order or remote storage, or that the librarian who puts their library in order gets paid very well. Well, if they have a library, to be honest — although General Zaroff, in “The Most Dangerous Game,” is a very very cultured man, another aspect of that story that merits some analysis.

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2 Responses to “Meditative Maunderings on Culture”

  1. Will'o said

    This is a face of the Wikipedia problem – Information becomes Data – losing the semantic signal in the background noise. The Noise (Data) is easy to find, hard to filter it, to get to the meaningful signal (Information). It would seem that your job is cleaning up the signal, making it more available (Information), against the background noise (the chaos of jumbled up Data). Creating Order out of Chaos, oh my humble and yet wonderful librarian friend.
    (Please be free to edit if you wish to, Linde!)

    • linde4duende said

      Yes…
      And then there’s the T. S. Eliot quote:
      Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?

      Consider this, too: noise is converted into signal, and vice versa, depending. How shall we determine which is which?

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