Conflicts with Cataloguing Structures

By nfesta

Emily Drabinski’s article, Queering the Catalog: Queer Theory and the Politics of Correction, demonstrates the challenges presented by our desires to open and unlock the classification and cataloging systems within library structures. Since the late 1960s, scholars and professionals of information studies have challenged the neutrality of the Library of Congress’s traditional classifications and subject headings, demanding that vocabularies be corrected to reflect current social and political contexts. While specific classification and cataloging decisions in library structures have been “fixed”, Drabinski’s queer theory demonstrates that any corrections made are only conditional and never final.


Libraries are stable spaces, controlled through traditional library classification structures and vocabularies systems that provide standards and guides for both producers and consumers of information. Consequentially, the static nature of the library makes them resistant to change. As Drabinski argues, this is problematic since libraries are dependent on language. Language transforms over time, it is adapted into new contexts and given new meanings. The information acquired through libraries are therefore organized and identified through classifications and subject headings that become socially and politically incorrect over time. More simply, information and materials within libraries end up being misrepresented.


The root of this problem steams from the static quality of hegemonic library classification and cataloging systems. In order to combat this misrepresentation, Drabinski considers continuous revisions and additions to the library’s classifications and subject headings necessary. While she acknowledges that such corrections are adequate, they conform to the hierarchical power structures within the library’s catalog. If we break down this system we can identify that the cataloguer that originally classified and catalogued a material within the organizational system, the critical cataloguer that requested the revision, and the Library of Congress which judges if classifications and subject headings are suitable, all hold significant hegemony in how information is represented. In order to compensate for our inability to dismantle this hierarchy, Drabinski asserts that librarians and catalogers should open and engage in discourse with users on the limitations of our cataloging systems. However, this response is not sufficient. Library’s may not have enough staff as well as resources to fully dive into its specific cataloging and subject heading issues. Users may not seek out library professions to voice their concern, or even have the luxury of time to listen to the history and reasons for the library’s current system. While Drabinski continues to approach the issues of hegemonic cataloging systems head on, I suggest we incorporate a sideways approach.


The purpose of forming knowledge organizations and structures within libraries is to enable both producers and consumers of information to navigate and access quality sources of information. How rich and extensive the records are in describing the various materials within the library, will determine how much quality information is communicated. As Christine Pawley states in her article, Information Literacy: A Contradictory Coupling, “The decisions that indexers, catalogers, and classifiers make in providing intellectual access to the contents of books and articles through subject headings, and index terms, and physically or virtually allocating works to particulars areas of the library collection, contribute to the ways in which researchers think” (Pawley, 2003). Pawley recognizes the production of accessible knowledge does not end at the physical or virtual library shelf, nor does it move in one linear direction. It is a process that continues to recontextualize sources, perpetually moving, connecting, and growing. Rather than remain within the confinements of the controlled cataloging structures, we should widen and loosen our perspective. As Pawley notes of Hope Olson’s argument, we must relinquish control and create openings within these structures so that power can leak out as well as in. Therefore when forming classifications and subject headings we cannot use what Ross Todd identifies as a “one-size-fits-all” approach. We must engage in a more critical and collaborative approach that considers all aspects of a source – its content, the context of its production as well as the author, its history (specific to the material item and larger picture), its relationship to works it was inspired by and the ones it inspired. Thus, as these facets change and evolve with time we must continue to engage in this process of reformation and discourse. Our classification systems should always be in flux, evolving, and changing relationships with one another.


While this method may be too much work for libraries to continuously manage as well as financially burdening, especially if they have large collections, such a model does exist and has been quite successful in dissolving the rigid structures of our current cataloging system. Artsy is an online art collection that is curated by its own classification system and technological framework, called the “The Art Genome Project”. The Art Genome Project maps characteristics – “genes” – that connect artists, artworks, architecture, and design objects through history, and currently, over 1,000 genes exist within this project. While this system is similar with tagging and mapping local vocabularies concepts, Artsy’s genes are more firmly rooted and cohesive. Artsy’s 1,000+ characteristics are weighted proportionally to one another. For example, categories within the Art Genome Project are displayed as complete list and are organized numerically and alphabetically. Therefore within “B”, we find “Bauhaus” (an artistic movement) is listed below “Bathers” (a subject found within artworks). If we closely examine the art that relates to the gene “Bathers”, Artsy provides a description of this subject matter and its larger history, a searchable list of artworks that contain this subject, as well as a list of related categories and artists. This structure enables users to access and obtain information through this web of related knowledge. Additionally, Artsy’s widen structured approach also allows for collaboration with Artists, Galleries, Museums, Auction Houses, Scholars and Institutions, as well as many others. Such collaboration and discourse ensures that the information within Artsy’s gene web is of quality and its information is accessible. Furthermore, as Artsy collaborates with other leaders in the field, it is continuously acquiring new artworks and information, adding new genes, and restructuring relationships. Although Artsy is a virtual collection, I believe that we can apply the same techniques within the physical spaces of the library. As seen with Artsy, the actual space where the work resides is not crucial. Rather, what is important is the ways in which information is represented within these webs and consequently communicated back to users.


Drabinski, Emily. “Queering the Catalog: Queer Theory and the Politics of Correction.” The Library Quartely: Information Community, Policy Vol. 83, No. 2 (April 2013), pp. 94-111.

Pawley, Christine. “Information Literacy: A Contradictory Coupling.” The Library Quarterly: Information, Community, Policy, Vol. 73, No. 4 (Oct., 2003), pp. 422-452.

Rosenzweig, R. (1991). “Politics and anti-politics in librarianship.” in ibid The Progressive Librarian No. 3 (Summer 1991) pp. 2-8.

Artsy – The Art Genome Project.

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