The Taxing Nature of Taxonomies

Both the library world and the academic world is dominated by taxonomies. These systems of classification often rest on defined hierarchies of categories. Carl Linnaeus’ 18th century taxonomy of living things is still a fundamental part of biological science. TheBolton-linnaeus Dewey Decimal System and the Library of Congress classification schemes, still dictate how we arrange collections in a vast number of public, school and university libraries around the world. They are a fundamental part of how we organise knowledge and information. Author David Weinberger identifies taxonomies as part of the second order of ordering information (Weinberger, 2007). Despite the ubiquity of taxonomies, they have come in for some criticism and pose challenges to how we think and find information.

They are unresponsive and slow to adapt.

Taxonomies have been criticised for being unresponsive to changes in knowledge and slow to adapt. Knowledge is fluid and ever-evolving, and yet changing taxonomies to virus-213708_640keep up seems to be a difficult and bureaucratic process. There seems to be something about taxonomies that gives the knowledge they organise (and how they organise it) a rigidity and perception of being fixed and unchangeable. Taxonomies only provide a snapshot of knowledge at a certain time; they do not grow or live as we might say of certain documents. Linnaeus’s work is being constantly revised but change comes slowly amidst great debate, such as the current scientific debate around adding an additional kingdom to the existing five for viruses (Science Learning Hub, 2018).

In libraryland, the problem of charting changing knowledge through the way we organise our collections suffers from a similar challenge. The Dewey Decimal Classification was developed in the 19th century and reflected the shape of Western conceptions of knowledge at that time. The prominence given to Religion (a whole top level category) seems somewhat disproportionate today, with computers having to be sandwiched into the 000s to accommodate new disciplines. Indeed, this was recognised by Paul Otlet when he developed the Universal Decimal Classification (strongly influenced by Dewey’s system). Otlet proposed merging linguistics and languages into the 800 literature category, and leaving the 400 top level category to absorb new fields and disciplines (Wright, 2014). Even creating new subcategories to keep up with societal changes and knowledge growth can take a very long time, as was the case with HIV-AIDS (Bawden & Robinson, 2012).

They are expert defined.

Weinberger criticises taxonomies like the Dewey Decimal System and other second order ways of ordering things, for being too dependent on experts defining and classifying where information belongs. Weinberger recognises this was necessary as the explosion of physically encoded information and the development of printing took off, but argues that the world wide web gives us a new way of ordering. He advocates for information to be organised through tagging and faceted classification systems. He is especially keen on user generated classification for its normative potential, to borrow from Glushko for abonito-fish-1617338_640 moment (Glushko, Hemerly, Petras, Manoochehri, & Wang, 2013; Weinberger, 2007).

Weinberger correctly identifies the gap between expert speak and controlled vocabularies, and the way people actually speak and think about things. He gives the example of how the word “bonito” is used on the US eastern coast to describe one type of fish and one the west coast to describe an entirely different fish. That’s just in one country. The bonito creates an issue for categorisation in that any formalised system would use terminology significantly different to that used by users needing to find information about it (Weinberger, 2007).

In my experience in libraries, the very structures of classification schemes such as the Dewey Decimal System and its prescriptive nature in terms of what can go where, can be deeply problematic. Especially if we think about Ranganathan’s Fourth Law of Library Science: save the time of the reader (Ranganathan, 1931). When I worked in further education, I phased out the Dewey Decimal Systems as the top level category for organising our collections and opted for genre shelving instead. The problem we faced was serving the needs of students studying vocational programmes, when the books they needed Deweyed into odd places.

amber-1840045_640For example, under Dewey our childcare students had to look in five different top level categories to find all the books they needed for their course: the 100s, the 300s, the 600s, the 700s, and the 800s. This simply didn’t work for the students and left them confused and unwilling to engage with the library because it was just too hard. This approach wouldn’t work necessarily in other contexts, , but it exposes the limitations of classification systems like Dewey’s.


They can reinforce marginalisation.

Taxonomies and classification schemes can also marginalise and discriminate againsttea-lights-2223898_640 groups our society (or the society in which they were developed) see as other. The Dewey Decimal Classification scheme was developed by Melvil Dewey to organise the collection of a 19th century Christian college in the USA. Reflecting this (and societal norms at the time), religion constitutes an entire top level category. Furthermore Christianity dominates the majority of the subclasses, with the world’s other religions grouped together under “other religions” at the end as an afterthought (Glushko, Hemerly, Petras, Manoochehri, & Wang, 2013, p. 291). This not only makes organising and finding information about these religions difficult, it communicates the idea that Christianity has primacy and is the de facto religion of the world, sidelining and othering other faiths.

Yet classification systems and taxonomies can be used more progressively to give clues to users about the information they are encountering. University systems librarians, SimonXIX writes about how the Wiener Library classifies books promoting Holocaust denial within its collections by creating a subcategory called Revisionist History (2017). As SimonXIX notes, applying classification schemes uncritically can lead to this type of material being classified alongside the work of bonafide historians, conveying a false equivalence about truth claims. By creating a class for Revisionist History, the user is being primed to deploy their criticality with a dubious text (SimonXIX, 2017).


Bawden, D. & Robinson, L. (2012). Introduction to Information Science. London: Facet Publishing.

Glushko, R., Hemerly, J., Petras, V., Manoochehri, M. and Wang, L. (2013). Classification: Assigning Resources to Categories. In Glushko, R. (Ed.), The Discipline of Organizing. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.

Ranganathan, S. R. (1931). The Five Laws of Library Science. London: Edward Goldston Ltd.

Science Learning Hub. (2018). Classification system. Retrieved on November 19, 2018 from

SimonXIX (2017, Feb 7). The hidden politics of collection management [weblog post]. Retrieved from

Weinberger, D. (2007). Everything is Miscellaneous: The Power of the New Digital Disorder. New York: Times Books.

Wright, A. (2014). Cataloging the World: Paul Otlet and the Birth of the Information Age. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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