In my local library last week, I was surprised to find Robert Pirsig's
Zen And The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance filed under Travel. Whenever I
encounter interesting classification events such as this, I find myself
asking the question 'what was the shelf-stuffer thinking?'. Here are
some possibilities I see.
1) The shelf-stuffer may have had no knowledge of the book, read the
back cover, encountered words like 'motorcycle' and 'road trip' and
concluded it was a travelogue. Fair enough.
2) The shelf-stuffer may have known a lot about the book and concluded
that, although the main journey in the book is an abstract one in search
of a meaning for the term 'Quality', perhaps 'Travel' is as good a shelf
as any. Fair enough.
3) The shelf-stuffer may have known a lot about the book and decided to
inject some humor or surprise into someone's life by planting the book
on the 'Travel' shelf. Fair enough.
My favorite example of shelf-stuffer type 1 came many years ago in a
Dublin bookshop where I watched a person file Douglas Hofstadter's
classic Godel, Escher, Bach under 'Religion'.
My favorite example of shelf-stuff type 3 came from the same bookstore
where they filed Dublin's Bus and Train timetables under 'General
fiction'. The Bus and Train company was not amused.
The physical world puts constraints on content classification that do
not occur in the electronic world. In the real world, we need to pick a
shelf for a book because both shelves and books are physical things.
There is no way that the same copy of a book can be on multiple shelves
at the same time.
In the electronic world, this constraint disappears. On the Web for
example, things have names (URLs) and these names have a built-in
retrieval mechanism i.e. you can click on them. Consequently, it is the
most natural thing in the world to create multiple pages (shelves!) that
contains the same book by referencing it (or indeed transcluding it)
via a URL.
On the Web, we would think nothing of a virtual library that listed
Pirsig's book under multiple headings - 'Travel','Zen' and 'Philosophy'
perhaps. On the Web, we think nothing of being able to locate Pirsig's
book by trying various likely words or phrases in a search engine.
The ease with which we have taken to this virtualization of content
classification and effortless text search tells us a lot about how we,
as humans, have chosen to resolve the shelf-stuffers dilemma. Instead of
spending a lot of time (and money) deciding on a perfect classification
for a piece of content, we prefer not to bother with classification too
much when we create content. Instead, we use external, ex post facto
methods - most notably, pages of links and search engines - to allow us
to retrieve content.
From a theory of information classification perspective, this is a bit
troubling perhaps. Proponents of metadata would argue that information
can and should describe itself. Authors can and should take the time to
classify the content they produce, preferably at the time they produce
it, for ease of retrieval later on.
Although I have sympathies with this view, the evidence would suggest
that metadata-in-content strategies end up being more honored in the
breach than in the observance. As a social phenomenon - embedded
metadata as classically formulated - has been, and continues to be a
On the other hand, search engines like Google have shown what a powerful
source of metadata the link structure of the Web can be. As a social
phenomenon, Google (and of course The web of links on which it depends)
has been a runaway success.
Such non-classical approaches to classification metadata look set to
expand greatly over the next few years. Perhaps the biggest buzz at the
moment surrounds the possibility of using relationships between
like-minded bloggers as a sort of 'collective intelligence' to tune
search results based on results that their peers think are relevant.
One might ask - is this sort of thing really metadata? Some would say
'no'. I would say 'yes'. It is metadata all right, metadata of the most
potent kind, organically grown and self modifying based on how
information is actually used in the real world.
It is metadata, but it has not been filed where we expected to find it.
The irony of that, really appeals to me.