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portal: Libraries and the Academy 1.3 (2001) 358-359

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Book Review

The Intellectual Foundation of Information Organization

The Intellectual Foundation of Information Organization, Elaine Svenonius. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2000. 255 p. $37 (ISBN 0-262-19433-3).

While in library school almost all librarians take a course with a grandiose title such as "The Organization of Knowledge" or "Information Structures." In many cases, after a passing nod to Charles Cutter and S.R. Ranganathan, the class turns into a discussion of cataloging systems and practice; the conceptual bases for cataloging and indexing codes are lost. Elaine Svenonius, emeritus professor of Information Studies at UCLA, seeks to return us to the core principles in this examination of the historical, philosophical, and intellectual bases for library cataloging and indexing practices. Her goal is to synthesize and to generalize the intellectual systems at the root of current library practice.

The book is divided into two parts. The first five chapters are an analytic discussion of the intellectual foundation of [End Page 358] information organization. In them Svenonius discusses definitional issues, such as what constitutes information or a document; the objectives of systems designed to retrieve information; the nature of bibliographic entities; the nature of the language used to describe bibliographic entities; and the principles of description followed in bibliographic analysis. Included in this section are discussion of some of the most vexing problems in librarianship, including a reassessment of the IFLA bibliographic objectives, a rephrasing of the multiple version problem as part of a discussion on edition, subedition, and versions, and an exceptionally clear delineation of the relationship between a work and its physical manifestations.

In the second part of the book, Svenonius discusses in detail what she describes as three bibliographic languages used to organize information--namely work languages, document languages, and subject languages. For a practicing librarian, these chapters may be the most approachable because they make clear the connection between current practice and information theory.

Svenonius also has the laudatory goal of making known to information professionals outside of library science the implicit principles at the root of library cataloging practice. From to Microsoft's Corbis image collection to the Google search engine, nonlibrarians are revisiting many of the issues that have bothered librarians for over a century. No information retrieval specialist is going to sit down with AACR2 and tease out from it the principles of bibliographic description on which the rules are based. Svenonius does this for us; she manages to synthesize a diverse literature and history into coherent and understandable principles.

Whether future information retrieval specialists will choose to build on the foundations that library science has laid and which Svenonius articulates is still open for debate. While reading this book, I could not help but wonder what a computer scientist, interested in the principles that librarians have discovered, might make of the principles. Confusion might be the first reaction. In spite of Svenonius's best efforts to write in a clear, rigorous fashion, there are numerous passing references to recent projects and initiatives in information retrieval. One sentence on the National Library of Medicine's metathesaurus project, for example, is more likely to confuse than illuminate. Revelation may be the second reaction for nonlibrarian readers who make the effort to stay with the book. The closing chapters on subject indexing in particular present an excellent overview of developments in this area.

Svenonius does not present bibliographic description as a magic wand that can cure all ills. She is acutely aware that current library descriptive practices are labor intensive and often idiosyncratic (in spite of their presumed basis in principles). She tries to identify areas where algorithmic approaches to information organization would work, and hence could be conducted by machine. Whether or not information continues to be organized on the principles developed over the past century and so clearly articulated in this volume, or whether new methods of organizing, accessing, and retrieving information will be developed, remains to be seen. In the meantime, Svenonius's book will stand as a clear statement...


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