The Ordering of Knowledge

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One of the benefits of my recent living space changes has been the opportunity to revisit my library cataloguing scheme.

For years, I used Dewey Decimal Classification coding to organize my books. The Dewey system has the advantage of having had the majority of books already catalogued within the system – and most of the newer volumes include a Dewey number assignment within the Library of Congress cataloguing information after the title page, meaning that not only would I not need to go through the process of categorizing and assigning lookup numbers to the books, but I would often have the cataloguing information readily at hand, without even having to look them up in another library’s holdings. It’s a ready-made system that can be implemented with very little effort – and, furthermore, knowing the system makes it very easy to find works in many other libraries.

However, I decided a few years ago to move to a simpler system – and lacking ready access to a suitable alternative, I resorted to making up my own. The problem I had with the Dewey system was that it made too fine a distinction,for a library as small as mine, among subjects. I find it very useful in larger libraries that the Dewey system co-locates books based on fairly precise subject matter (all within a simple framework of basic disciplines), but it tends to scatter multiple books by the same author, which is pretty non-intuitive. Moreover, in a small library, there won’t be a lot of exact duplication of call numbers among the various volumes, unless the collection is quite topically focused. The end result is a library that seems inadequately grouped.

A library ordering scheme needs to implement two organizing functions: grouping and sequencing. For a personal library like mine, I think a broader categorization at the subject level is appropriate, facilitating the co-location of most or all of a writer’s body of work. For example, Thomas Oden wrote a three-volume systematic theology, where one volume focused on God the Father, a second on the Word of God, and a third on the Spirit of God. One could argue that these belong together as a set regardless, but apart from that, in a large theological library, one could justifiably locate the second volume among Christological works, the third volume among Pneumatology, etc. But this would hardly make any sense in a library with few if any other pneumatological works.

Sequencing the collection is equally important, as good sequencing not only makes a logical path through a collection to facilitate finding things, but should also serve the grouping principle so as to keep somewhat more loosely related works near each other. But sequencing, done well, should also reflect the order of knowledge. One of my beefs with the Dewey system is that it fails to reflect any concept of the hierarchical ordering of knowledge in its sequencing – even though it does a pretty decent job of reflecting such a hierarchy in it grouping. To wit, the Dewey system basically places miscellany at the head of the order of knowledge, very much reflecting the modern era’s loss of any sensibility of teleology. Ironically, this “General” section has of late largely been taken over by Computer Science – a perhaps ominous development.

My system, in contrast, reverts to the pre-Enlightenment recognition of theology as the queen of the sciences (and their necessary unifying principle), and goes even further, recognizing Revelation as the source of all knowledge (including, of course, theology). The following table reflects the differences between my ordering and the Dewey system, at the highest level:

Dewey “Disciplines” My High-level Categories
000 Computers, information & general reference (1000s) Revelation
100 Philosophy & psychology (2000s) Theology
200 Religion (3000s) Spirituality & Religion
300 Social sciences (4000s) Philosophy & Human Culture
400 Language (5000s) The Word (Language, Art, Music)
500 Science (6000s) History
600 Technology (7000s) Mathematics & Modernity (Natural & Social Sciences, Technology, Business)
700 Arts & recreation
800 Literature
900 History & geography
B. Biography
D. Drama
F. Fiction
P. Poetry
S. Short Stories

If I had more books in the higher numerical ranges, I would break up the 7000s into hard and soft science (making soft science and technology an 8000 range), but there’s no point in doing that given the content of my collection – especially since I’ve thrown out the vast majority of my IT books, which have no lasting value.

The system is still far from perfect. For starters, there are many works that could fit into more than one classification – even at the highest level (e.g. should Aquinas be classified under theology or philosophy? I chose theology, but that’s certainly debatable). An electronic “tagging” system would be an ideal means of classifying (so that works could easily fall into multiple categories), but there’s no way that’s going to help me arrange the shelves.

However, having all the books in the same room is helping me see how I could improve some of the inner sequencing. I’ve already made minor revisions to the scheme at least twice since moving everything in here in late May. But I still have refinements to make, and I’d like to complete them by my birthday. I’ll post the detailed schedule when I’m done. Perhaps I’ll break up the empirical and pseudo-empirical sciences after all – I’d really like to find a way to sequence psychology to flow into fiction, it would be just.