- Afterword: The Strangeness of Subject Cataloging
It is a great privilege to contribute an afterword for “Strange Circulations.” Many thanks to Lisa Sloniowski and Kate Adler for the invitation. I especially appreciate the prompts and conversations provided by Kate, Lisa, and the other authors in this special and important issue. The papers here collectively and individually open up spaces to contemplate the experiences and values in the library that we cannot measure and often find difficult to speak about.
I was asked to write about cataloging and classification, and so my attempt here is grounded in my own experience as a cataloger, teacher of cataloging, and researcher. My sense is that all of the articles in this issue can be placed in the context of cataloging, not only because a catalog facilitates access to resources and makes a collection usable, but perhaps more importantly, a classified catalog is composed by many people across times and places, and reflects and produces ideas and states of mind. Library classifications are among the infrastructures that Ron Day describes as “entrances and exits for . . . desire” (present issue, 381). Indeed, a catalog and the classification system that organizes it designate the paths by which people find their desires, and at the same time, the catalog and classification are also rich with information about librarians’ own desires, beliefs, preoccupations, and priorities. Unlike proprietary algorithms that are hidden from view, a library’s subject classification reveals the grammars of the political unconscious by outlining the logics of the relationships across categories (see Day, present issue). The history of algorithms and metadata is necessarily a history of library classifications, and systems like Dewey and the Library of Congress provide insights into the constructions of categories and formulas and how they effect and are affected by the state, capital, and culture. [End Page 549]
I can’t presume to know how other catalogers view the systems, information resources, and institutions with which they engage on a daily basis. David Paton gives us a glimpse in this issue of the affective experiences of bibliographers and catalogers of artists’ books in South Africa, and it is clear that the emotional range among them is wide. What I can say is that catalogers’ feelings and worldviews, whatever they may be, give the library its shape. I think we can agree that the librarians who constructed the Library of Congress Classification around 1900, Melvil Dewey, and the many classifiers around the world past and present, have had particular sets of desires around control and access and order. We all are asked to submit to those desires in our library work, as well as our own pursuit of knowledge and pleasure reading. And every decision regarding the aboutness of a book, or about where to place it within a particular discipline, takes place in a cataloger’s affective and experiential world. While the classification provides the outlines, the catalogers color in the spaces with the books, based on their own readings of the book descriptions and their interpretations of the classification scheme. The decisions they make and the structures to which they are bound affect the circulation of books and their readers across the library. Indeed, some of the encounters will be unexpected, strange, frustrating, frightening, shame-inducing, awe-inspiring, and/or delightful. The emotional experiences of students described in Mabee and Fancher’s article, as well as those of any visitor to the library, are all affected by classificatory design. One concern is that a library’s ordering principles may reinforce or heighten already existing feelings of precarity or marginality. Because the classifications are hidden from patrons’ view, it is difficult to measure the way the order affects a person’s mind and body. That a person does not consciously register the associations does not mean that they are not affected.
I love the order of the library shelves, and lingering in one section and then another. And at the same time, I’m acutely aware of the tensions across them—the disciplining force, the very particularity of the “universal” systems, the histories of categories, the recognition that a section only contains a fraction of books on a given subject...