Libraries are highly organized spaces, defined and produced by standards that determine everything from where a book sits on a shelf to the thickness of the paper in those books; from the placement of the reference desk to the organization of digital lab equipment. As much as they are about “stuff,” libraries are about processes. Collection development policies govern the selection and acquisition of materials, as well as their de-acquisition. Libraries have rules that tell us what is unruly; even our waste is organized. If libraries are fundamentally ordering machines, it is worth looking more closely at the instruction manuals that construct library systems, structures, and processes.
The “first cut” of library ordering systems is cataloging and classification. These two functions of the library turn a pile or heap of books into ordered shelves where books are grouped together by subject (classification) and described using a uniform language (cataloging). Libraries are not the only spaces that function with these kinds of systems of control. Herbariums organize plant specimens by taxon, record stores organize albums by genre. In the United States, libraries primarily use the Dewey Decimal System (DDC) and the Library of Congress Classification (LCC). DDC was developed by Melvil Dewey in 1876 and divides the messiness of the world into ten neat pigeonholes, each further subdivided by ten subclasses. The sum of human knowledge is disciplined into this system when it enters the library, including knowledge that Dewey could not have imagined in the nineteenth century: drone warfare, malware, emojis. LCC, developed in 1897 to organize the collections of the US Congress, classifies materials into twenty-one general classes, expanding the number of hospitable places where knowledge that enters the library might be shelved.
In both cases, library classification systems are not simply intellectual structures. They determine the physical nature of the library shelves. For the person browsing in the library, the order of things reflects the ideological underpinnings of the classification itself. A striking example is the 200 section of the DDC. In Dewey’s formulation, books about religion are classified in 200, which is divided into ten decimal subclasses that reflect Dewey’s ordering of the world:
210 Philosophy & theory of religion
220 The Bible
240 Christian practice & observance
250 Christian orders & local church
260 Social & ecclesiastical theology
270 History of Christianity
280 Christian denominations
290 Other religions
For Melvil Dewey, religion is a Christian affair, with all other religions relegated to the 290s or, in some cases, shelved elsewhere, in the 398 with folklore. This Christian bias is legible both when reading the text of the classification structure and when walking through a library collection organized this way. The library organized using DDC can’t help but emphasize Christianity, lumping all the rest together at the very end of the row.
LCC fares “better,” one might suggest, because it contains twice as many categories. Unlike Dewey’s scheme, LCC claims only to represent the actual existing materials in its collection, expanding categories and controlled vocabularies on the basis of the elusive “literary warrant.” Still, LCC remains an engine of ideology, producing and reproducing dominant stories about social worlds and ways of being. In her recent book Cruising the Library,Still, LCC remains an engine of ideology, producing and reproducing dominant stories about social worlds and ways of being. Melissa Adler demonstrates the ways that LCC orders and excludes certain kinds of sexuality in its description of Paraphilias, or sexualities that are marked with a medicalized vocabulary that enshrines their deviance from an unmarked normal. Sanford Berman, a cataloging librarian with Hennepin County, Minnesota, has spent much of his career lobbying the Library of Congress to change descriptive vocabulary that he describes as “parochial, jingoistic Europeans and North Americans, white-hued, at least nominally Christian and preferably Protestant in faith, comfortably situated in the middle- and higher-income brackets, largely domiciled in suburbia, fundamentally loyal to the Established Order, and heavily imbued with the transcendent, incomparable glory of Western civilization.”
There is nothing abstract about library classification and cataloging structures. They produce material realities: the order of books on shelves. Other library standards attempt to order something much messier: the ways librarians interact with patrons and students when they enter the library. The American Library Association’s Reference and User Services Association has developed a set of Guidelines for Behavioral Performance of Reference and Information Service Providers that governs the provision and evaluation of public services in libraries. The guidelines define everything from how to be approachable (“poised and ready to engage patrons,” “using a friendly greeting”) to ways to listen (“rephrases the question,” “avoids jargon”). People, of course, are less easily controlled than books. Reference transactions in libraries are not uniformly approachable, cordial, informative, and useful, as any user of a library can attest. But the RUSA Guidelines seek to produce in the world a certain kind of reality, one of smiling and attentive friendliness on the part of the library worker. The document also reflects an ideology that sees social relations between worker and patron in a library as determined by the individual librarian, rather than as a product of socioeconomic forces that might determine whether or not a librarian feels like smiling. Smiling, after all, can be affected by things like institutional racism or a lack of pay equity. Under the RUSA guidelines, social factors like these are simply not relevant to the interaction of a patron and a librarian.
The RUSA Guidelines for Behavioral Performance may not signal the production of a reality as ordered as that of the bookshelves, but they indicate the belief in American libraries that reality can be governed by documents that define what and how libraries are supposed to be. The ALA lists dozens of standards on its website, all intended “for the purpose of helping others improve library service.” Each of these standards is about more than library services. Each will tell an ideological story just as DDC, LCC, and the RUSA Guidelines do.
Like everything else in libraries, the various standardizing mechanisms that govern our work have come under question as knowledge work moves from catalog records to digital search interfaces, from the reference desk to Google. What do ideological ordering schemes matter when we can find anything we want online? Why does the reference interaction matter when nobody needs a librarian anymore? In the haste to consign the library and its ordering mechanisms to history, the lessons we can learn from reading standards for their ideological stories must inform the ways we think about digital collections and services, too.
As Lawrence Busch has put it, standards and related forms are “the ways in which we order ourselves, other people, things, processes, numbers, and even language itself.” Standards enable access to things, allowing social worlds to interact. Standards tell cars when to stop and go. Standards direct the flow of water and power. In libraries, standards do similar work, enabling some ways of knowing and being and not others due to the pathways they create through space. Smiling, after all, can be affected by things like institutional racism or a lack of pay equity.Users must adopt the vocabulary of the knowledge organization scheme to efficiently retrieve books on a topic, opting for Gays or Lesbians rather than Queer or Same-gender-loving or any of the myriad terms people use to describe their sexual selves or communities. David Wojnarowicz’s accounts of life with AIDS under Reagan will be classified with other books about AIDS (Disease)—Patients, reducing his fiercely political text to the story of an individual sick body. Librarians at the reference desk will smile, whether that smile is culturally or contextually appropriate. Standards have material effects in libraries.
Standards are not, of course, wholly determinative. Even when paths are clearly marked, walkers will move as they want to. As Adler argues, readers in libraries make their own meaning from the rigid designations on the shelves, reading “perversely” to tell stories other than those told by the classification schemes. And in digital spaces, search and retrieval is not bound by the same kinds of conventions as traditional library systems. If the card catalog enabled patrons to search only by author, title, and subject, the database expanded search to include keywords. Once the internet arrives, search and retrieval sidesteps completely controlled vocabularies and categories structured in advance. On the internet, we can sustain a fantasy of freedom.
And yet, digital spaces are constructed just as much by standards, though the stories they tell may be more difficult to parse. In the library, we can begin with the standards documents themselves. The classification of religious materials in DDC makes clear that the knowledge organization scheme used in the majority of public libraries in the United States is a Christian one. In digital spaces, the standard is code, challenging for the non-specialist to interrogate. While critical code studies works to surface the ideology inherent at the level of code-as-linguistic-sign, this analysis requires significantly more specialized knowledge than that needed to read the standards documents that construct the analogue library.
And yet, understanding the politics of code is critical. Code is language as pure speech act, determining effects even more explicitly than J.L. Austin’s “I do.” We can see the political effects of code in what gets retrieved, as Safiya Noble documents in her forthcoming book, Algorithms of Oppression. Unlike the organizational systems that comprise the library, the algorithms that determine what we do and don’t see on the internet cannot be parsed. As Noble argues, “It’s impossible to know the specifics of what influences the design of proprietary algorithms, other than that human beings are designing them, that profit models are driving them, and that they are not up for public discussion.” In the case of privatized corporate information organization systems like the Google search engine, what orders what we can know is impossible to discover. The fantasy that digital spaces mean freedom from the constraints of standardized structures is just that: a fantasy. Instead, the structures that govern what we can know and not know are effaced and erased. We don’t feel ourselves to be governed at all.
The irrelevance of the library in the age of Google is a drumbeat librarians hear every day as we fight to maintain budgets for core functions like resource acquisition and description, and reference services that connect people to resources. Why is a library necessary when anyone anywhere can type a few words into an online interface, hit enter, and retrieve something? Even more than the contents or services of the library, the history of library functions reminds us that what we take as natural in information spaces is in fact constructed. This is as true online as it is in the stacks, only more challenging—and therefore more urgent—to interrogate and contest.