On the educational potential of the Rickroll

In this, my second term of library school, one of my required foundational courses is “The Organization of Information.” This class is our theoretical precursor to more specific practical courses down the line – cataloging, metadata, and so on. We talk about Dewey and Brown and Bliss and Ranganathan, and we talk a bit about LCC vs. LCSH, and MARC and AACR2, facets and tagging and so on. Every MLS/MLIS program has a version of it.  And one thing I’ve learned as a result of taking it is that, as interesting as this stuff is, I’m probably not cut out to be a cataloging librarian.

But one big idea behind everything I do in library school is that every class and every assignment is an opportunity to do work that matters to me.  For my part, I’m really interested in the Internet and the Web, and how we as librarians are going to manage that feral beast in the future.  Another big idea that I lean on as a guide through the learning process is that if you don’t know how to do something, the best way to learn is to try doing it. School is a perfect opportunity for that. I think a lot of ambitious students, overly-concerned with their grades, stick to things they’re already good at. But school is a time when it’s okay to make a total mess of an ambitious project as long as it was screwed up in earnest; and sticking to the familiar is a waste of that opportunity.

With all this in mind I approached an assignment we were given at the beginning of the term: choose a subject, and organize it.  It could be anything: sailboats, monsters, knitting needles, simple machines, Impressionist painters… such a deceptively simple task, to just take some part of the world, and make orderly sense of it.  I knew immediately that I wanted to tackle something Internet-related; I also knew that it had to be a small aspect of the Internet if I had any hope of making a tidy presentation of it in the end.  I also knew that when presentation day came, it would be a long, tiring day for my whole class, and so I wanted to choose a subject that was engaging enough to not weigh too heavily upon my cohort’s collective attention span, but meaty enough for me to take seriously as a subject.

So I chose to classify and organize Internet memes: the Rickroll, the advice animal, the rage comic, that sort of thing.  It was a great excuse to load my presentation with jokes, while also being completely relatable to the serious work I most want to do. Memes are the very epitome of the uncontrollable, organic web, but they follow some clear-cut conventions. After some time playing with different approaches to classification, I figured that a faceted system was the clear choice, but I was still fuzzy on how exactly they work. I read a lot of papers and opinions and dug into the literature. I worked through a number of iterations of the system, making up new facets and throwing others away, making fine distinctions between one quality and another.

And eventually, I ended up with this: LOLbrarian, a faceted classification system for Internet memes. (Sadly I haven’t yet found a good way to post that presentation on the web so that the animations and videos play seamlessly, but I’ve provided links where I can.) To be totally honest, I’m still not completely sure that my system really works – to get there, I’d ideally want to build a small collection, apply the system, create a search interface, and try it out, but that was all just a bit beyond the scope of a second-term class.

But it was a fun little project, and one that I’m proud of in spite of its inherent silliness. I learned not only about how one might approach the organization of a collection, but I got to dig into issues related to digital media, the Internet, and get a good grasp of some organizational concepts about which I still felt shaky after only the required course readings.  I wrung every possible drop of insight out of what was initially just a simple assignment, and by extension I think I squeezed some extra learning out of the larger course. And who knows? When my collection development, metadata, and digital initiatives courses come around, maybe I’ll be revisiting this little collection concept of mine. Because every assignment is an opportunity to do work that matters.

9 replies

  1. I’m in the Portland, Oregon cohort of Emporia State University’s SLIM program. And yeah, once the assignment was over, we were all talking about all the other subjects we could’ve done… hipsters (and a corollary subject of ironic mustaches), dubstep music, soda, pinball… there were far more potential subjects than there were students. 🙂 As it was, we also had some great projects on comics, typography, even one really good one on celebrity gossip. Post-apocalyptic fiction sounds amazing, too. 🙂


  2. My cataloging professor said that “librarians don’t go postal. They go cataloger.” I always thought that was pretty funny.


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