a difficult book

As the semester nears its end — like a rogue semi reaching the top of a runaway truck ramp — I’m wrapping up a slow read of The Power to Name (Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2002), Hope Olson’s feminist critique of library classification systems. Although it’s hard to make time for reading, Olson’s book has complemented fall classes on archival arrangement, description and access, semantic web,and linked data. Description and classification are suddenly everywhere: a good time to turn to this modern classic of LIS criticism?

Olson’s aim is to deconstruct the white, male, heteronormative power structures encoded in subject representations like the Dewey Decimal System (DDC), the Anglo-American Cataloging Rules (AACR), and the Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH). She accomplishes this analysis through a close reading of core writings by Melvil Dewey and Charles Ammi Cutter. She also dissects the treatment of women and other “others” in LCSH, including through short case studies on the classification hits and misses (mostly misses) performed on several written works on gender, race, personal experience, and history. Finally, she offers guidelines for potential solutions to the problems identified, and gives examples of the solutions in action.

George Arents Collection, The New York Public Library. "A difficult in-off red." The New York Public Library Digital Collections.

George Arents Collection, The New York Public Library. “A difficult in-off red.” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47dd-be12-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99

This isn’t really a book review; it’s a reflection on reading a difficult book. The Power to Name was often desperately hard for me to understand. I usually have the luxury of sorting out what I think about written things, but the struggle to find a toehold in this text made that kind of navel-gazing irrelevant. This is not a book that responds well to reading tips for grad students, no matter how tried and true. One reason, for me, is that Olson’s close readings can be as alienating as the texts she close-reads. In order to “decenter” them — undermine their alleged universality, expose their biases, flaws, implicit assumptions, and exclusivity — she needs to put them front and center and read them repeatedly. This induces a certain nausea, which I don’t quite know how to interpret. Is it the strange sensation of a patriarchal orientation being blown apart, or am I just queasy at spending so much time with two texts that are themselves kind of awful? My stomach turns at Dewey’s simplified spelling.

Derridean treatment of language can be off-putting even for those of us who are totally fine acknowledging the mutability of words. I felt further shut out by Olson’s frequent use of “therefore” and “then” where I couldn’t manage to follow a clear argument. Lacking the scholarly background to really engage with a text makes it hard to say for sure whether one lacks the scholarly background — or if a lack of patience is to blame. HLS alumna Sarah Hume offers an excellent introduction to the main arguments for more representative representation in a pair of posts on Challenging LCSH and Challenging DDC; definitely recommended reading before tackling Olson. Learning can’t and shouldn’t necessarily be comfortable, but a friendly guide is always welcome.

I struggled with the first half of the book but found later chapters to be both accessible and engaging. Maybe you will too.

Building on her critiques of Dewey and Cutter, Olson demonstrates ways in which LCSH and other classification systems are terrible at representing intersectionality: “Covering the three facets of gender, race and class through separate headings is not acceptable for users seeking their interrelationship.” These factors don’t just coexist in real life; they interact. Classification cannot be true to the lived experience and scholarship of a very large swathe of society if it does not structurally reflect this interaction. And it’s not only the “universal languages” of library classification that are responsible for suppressing representations, including of intersectional others. Many library works as classified lack flexibility and links to other, related material, Olson writes, but the use of classification systems is as much to blame as how the systems are designed. Olson points out insufficient representation where the opportunity actually exists to make more links or use complex subject headings (such as by subdividing), and finds it inexcusable:

“Critical professionals should know that LCSH is not always hospitable to unconventional perspectives and, therefore, to marginalized groups of users. However, the Library of Congress (LC) should not be held responsible if individual libraries and groups of libraries exclude and marginalize by failing to contextualize their cataloguing to the shapes of their collections and the needs of their users. Ameliorative changes need to come from both LC and individual libraries because universal solutions are not viable options.”

Olson offers three principles to follow towards better “techniques” for subject representation: “Make breaches in the limit”; “Make spaces, rather than filling them”; and “Address the relevant discourses in a particular context.” I found the first of these to be especially interesting. “The limit” refers to the limits of universal languages and other classification systems based on set notions of how information and the world work. Limits are inflexible and exclusive. Olson argues that one must “make [the limit] permeable rather than redefining it or constructing a new limit”; avoiding a scenario in which one oppressive system merely gives way to another. It’s worth considering to what degree technologies like linked data represent a new paradigm of classification for discovery and use, and to what degree they merely reify existing modes of classification, down to the use of LCSH URIs.

Olson also writes, of the power to name, “Instead of possessing this power exclusively, we who are on the inside of the information structures must create holes in our structures through which the power may leak out.” Power “leaking out” is such a promising and evocative phrase. Among other trains of thought, I’m reminded of some excellent recent writing by Angela Galvan, April Hathcock, and most recently Fiona Blackburn at In the Library With the Lead Pipe, about whiteness in librarianship. When librarianship names or practices diversity and inclusion, they argue, it very often means inviting others into power structures from which they had previously been excluded, and then molding them to fit the structures. Olson acknowledges and, I think, sidesteps this trap with her descriptions of breaches, leaks, seams, and spaces.

I plan to spend more time with The Power to Name, now that I’ve found my access points; they make a fresh approach to the text possible. Here’s to difficult books.

— Amy Wickner | @amelish

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