On the 1st July 2021, the Decolonising Through Critical Librarianship group hosted a workshop on practical approaches to reclassification. This roundtable discussion arrived in good time for the summer period, in which academic libraries are usually quieter and librarians are more easily able to access the shelves for large-scale classification projects.
Several libraries had already undertaken their own reclassification projects, and gave brief overviews of these talks as an introduction to the discussion.
The African Studies Library had moved from the UDC to Library of Congress – previously, books had been classified by country first and subject second, which meant that there was an overwhelming wealth of first-level subsections, with similar subjects being distanced from one another. The new classification scheme means that writers across a certain diaspora (e.g. Anglophone, Francophone) are now within borrowing distance of one another, which improves the user browsing experience and is simpler to explain to new users; more scope is allowed for comparative literatures, and there is no longer a backlog of cataloguing due to difficulties in deciding classifications.
The African Studies librarian noted that this reclassification process might not work in the same way elsewhere due to the focused scope of the library; while these books would be siloed into specific geographic sections in more general libraries, in the African Studies library ‘African literature’ is just literature, ‘African economics’ just economics, and so on. This was a useful demonstration of the way in which suitable classification schemes will depend on the collection of a library and its primary user base.
The Divinity Library reclassification project had started in 2015. Of particular concern was a so-called ‘section 11’ for ‘non-Judeo-Christian religions’ – this contained not only religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism but philosophical and comparative texts on a variety of other miscellaneous subjects. Due to the scale of the project, a split-approach to classification was taken after the new librarian joined in 2015. Books which had arrived before March 2016 remained in the old Section 11, while books which arrived after were classified according to the new classification system, which distinguished non-Judeo-Christian religions in more detail: section 11 became Islam, section 15 Buddhism, 16 Hinduism, 17 Other Religions or religious movements (e.g. Greco-Roman pagan, Zoroastrianism), and 18 Comparative or Inter-Faith texts. At the current rate of staffing the project was expected to take 15 years; the length of time taken to fit in reclassification around daily activities was shown to be a recurrent concern throughout all the discussions.
The Squire Law Library had – enabled by the lockdowns of the past 18 months – had time to identify areas to be reclassified throughout the library. The library itself was structured on an in-house classification system written in the 70s loosely based on Moyes (a legal classification system), which is kept on paper and is not regularly updated. This classification system organises books according to the country to which the legal system applies; this itself poses problems, as countries have changed over time and are sometimes contested. However, there are also higher-level organisational problems: these countries themselves are organised into two sections depending on the origin of their legal system, which has its roots deeply embedded in colonial history (that is to say, often dependent on who the country was occupied by in the past). This also means that countries are not represented in geographical order; neighbouring countries may be on opposite sides of the library. This distinction is notable enough to have been queried by some students and was said to be both complicated and embarrassing to explain; this was noted as an example of reclassification being motivated by reader-stimulated input.
Pembroke Library had recently undertaken an extensive overhaul of their history section, reclassifying around 8,000 books. The in-house classification system, which was theoretically based on Dewey but more accurately reflected teaching practices, started with two specific classmarks which heavily centred colonial empires: the history of the British Empire and Commonwealth, and the Expansion of Europe (this being the other colonial powers and their commonwealths). The new classification system maintained the geographical subdivisions in history, but divided by continent and subsequently by period, which allowed for all continents to be placed on an equal standing in their own right rather than being seen through a Eurocentric lens. This also allowed gaps to be identified and supplanted in the collection, often ahead of the curriculum – for example, expanding the section for Oceania – and for buying patterns to be critically analysed in the future.
A representative from the technical support team explained how issues of classification applied to Alma and iDiscover. A particularly high-profile case which had occurred recently had been the changing of the subject heading ‘Illegal Aliens’ to ‘Undocumented Immigrants’ and associated terms (such as ‘children of’). This change had occurred at the local level in Cambridge Libraries following the blocking of the intended terminology change at the top level by Congress. It was explained that this subject heading had only been changed at the display level rather than at the back-end for a number of reasons: Alma records get exported so there is a need to stick to the agreed rules; the searchability for the original subject heading should be maintained for external users – and, most crucially, as subject headings were usually decided centrally by the Library of Congress, a display-name change allowed the subject headings to be changed automatically rather than manually in the future should a change occur at the top level. This was a useful insight into the technological background of reclassification and the practical problems which could arise.
Some practical advice was offered more generally by those who had already done reclassification – Pembroke suggested a pre-arranged workflow with books being sorted and done a bay at a time to limit the ‘switching’ from decision-making to updating Alma. Newnham suggested a similarly systematic approach, noting that available space should be considered and that the area to be reclassified should work around stockcheck (or vice versa) to avoid books getting lost. Parts of the reclassification project – such as comparing old and new shelf lists – could also be done at home. Pembroke also noted that books on loan have to be considered – Newnham suggested that this could be resolved by adding fulfilment notes, but that this was quite a laborious way of approaching the process.
In addition to some unexpected budgetary concerns – the stationary spend for one library was massively extended from the cost of book labels and tape alone! – it was widely acknowledged that reclassification projects were rarely given extra funding; however, much of the time, a larger budget would not have helped, the pace of the project decided by other limiting factors such as library space and time available around daily tasks. The skillset of the involved librarians was also important, and many teams were limited by the number of cataloguers they had.
There were some concerns raised regarding specific classification systems – people argued that Dewey Decimal Classification poorly managed the distinction between history and history of a topic. This meant that ‘lenses’ on history – such as women’s history, LGBTQ+ history, and Black history – were placed in the early 300s and effectively siloed away from the ‘mainstream’ historical canon. In addition to the problem of the implicit theoretical hierarchy which this entailed, on a practical level this also meant that library users were less likely to encounter these ‘lenses’ on history while browsing the ‘mainstream’ canon on the shelves.
Some participants enquired what they could do to indicate to users the inadequacies in the current classification system if they did not have the resources to undertake a full-scale reclassification project. Multiple librarians recommended putting up signs indicating where other relevant material might be found. One noted that it was appropriate to train staff so they could answer any enquiries on the subject appropriately. The Scott Polar Research Institute Library had had some success hosting workshops with users on the classification scheme; while primarily an information literacy event, it also increased familiarity with the collection and the way it was structured.
As a trainee relatively new to the field of classification, the discussion was incredibly eye-opening and helped me think about classification more broadly at both the practical level – considering how classification could impact browsability – and theoretical level – how existing classification schemes reinforced or subverted existing power structures. Such a workshop made me think more carefully about how I personally approached classification, reminding me that what often seems like the ‘easiest’ or most obvious classification for an item might not necessarily be the most appropriate: for example, rather than siloing an item on LGBTQ+ history into a general LGBTQ+ section, we might consider where it might fit into the core history collection to increase its general browsability. This sometimes might involve reclassifying whole groups of items which could be better placed rather than adding new acquisitions to them just for the sake of consistency – classifcation should be an ongoing, considered, and fluid process, rather than a strict and immovable system which should be adhered to.
As a final note, I was particularly enthused by how many libraries noted their classification systems had been remarked upon by users: this surely demonstrates that reclassification is not only worthwhile for its own sake, but is noticed and appreciated (and sometimes initiated!) by users who, as one librarian put it, ‘appreciate that something is being done in the library for them’.
– Katherine Knight, Newnham College