Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Cutter Classification, Reloaded

Abstract: Let's bring back Cutter as the first free, open and socially assisted classification system.

UPDATE: I'm well aware there are some serious objections to the idea, and challenges to make it a reality. Use amandaellis set up a group for discussion of the idea. Check it out.

Open data is in the news. Casey Bisson is going to give out Library of Congress records for free. MIT put its records up, only to yank them when OCLC objected (or so I've heard). Talis hosted a wonderful podcast on open data—out tomorrow. Some nut on the lists proposed an open-data covers database. I've even heard something about authority files I'm just dying to talk about, but can't.

That leaves classification. Since blogging about the evils of LCC (free, unavailable) and Dewey (unfree, unavailable), I've become increasingly attracted to the not-quite-dead "Cutter Expansive Classification." Yesterday, I went to the library to xerox a 20 year-old article by Robert L. Mowery, "The Cutter Classification: Still At Work" (LRTS, 1976). It listed fifteen libraries using Cutter in the early '70s. I intended to find out who was left. To my great pleasure, I found a 2004 LRTS article. "The Contracting World of Cutter’s Expansive Classification" by R. Conrad Winke (here, p. 122). Winke really did his homework, finding 57 libraries that once used it, 23 that maintain books in it, and four still using it. And I thought it was just the Forbes!

As Winke describes it, Cutter died a social death:
"Despite the fact that in its day, EC was commonly regarded as superior to DDC, Cutter’s failure to provide for the continuing revision, expansion, and publication of his work essentially assured its demise. ... EC still might have been salvageable in the immediate years after Cutter’s passing had the librarians using the scheme at the time banded together and worked cooperatively at maintaining the schedules.... Instead, librarians at EC libraries seemingly did not pursue working together, but worked on their own until, in all but four cases, this became impractical and they abandoned it."
What died socially, society can resurrect. And who better than LibraryThing to do it? Let's bring Cutter back to life, as a free, open-source alternative to Dewey. Libraries shouldn't PAY for their classification system, and it shouldn't be controlled by one institution.

I think that, with all the statistical work we do with LCC, Dewey, LCSH and tags, LibraryThing can make some very educated guesses at where an unclassified book might fit within Cutter, particularly once it assimilates all the current Cutter records. LibraryThing users (more than 1,000 of whom are real live librarians) will, I think, be glad to help classify books, something never before tried in cataloging. And LibraryThing can can coordinate necessary schedule expansions.

Cutter is nearly dead because the libraries using it failed to connect with each other. I propose to reverse this, to bring it back to life as the most connected system ever devised—Cutter, Reloaded.


Blogger Amanda Ellis said...

Sounds good. I've created a new group called Cutter on LibraryThing so we can workshop exactly how this would work.

12/14/2006 5:36 AM  
Blogger Jane L. Hyde said...

Man, oh man, I'd love to see that NUT's cover image database become a reality! It would benefit everyone and hurt no one, I should think!

12/14/2006 9:24 AM  
Anonymous Mark Phillips said...

Just saw your mention of Cutter, and we just got finished digitizing

"Rules for a dictionary catalog, by Charles A. Cutter, fourth edition, rewritten"

I don't know if it will be helpful or useful for anyone.

12/14/2006 10:00 AM  
Blogger sabreader said...

hmmm. just looking over the classification system as presented at Forbes library, I think it would need some tweaking if it is to be used as an international, not just US, cataloguing system, in particular categories B, C, and D (where non-Christian and -Jewish religions are lumped together with "occult", and "Church history" -- meaning Christianity -- gets its own entire category -- obviously an artefact of the time/place it was developed); and H and J, where for some reason political science gets its own entire category while "social sciences" is lumped together with business, investment, etc.

In principle, great idea, but this particular system needs some serious tweaking.

12/14/2006 10:03 AM  
Blogger Tim said...

Mark: I've got that on my shelf. But also, Google's done it! (Yours is probably much cleaned up, though.) Come post it on the reading section of the new Cutter group.


12/14/2006 10:33 AM  
Blogger Tim said...

sabreader: See board for a reply. I think it's a real issue, but I'm not convinced it's a problem larger than what we lose by changing the system on a deeper level, or making a new one.

12/14/2006 10:44 AM  
Blogger sabreader said...

thanks Tim. I do think this is a great idea, and I don't think it would be too hard to take something like Cutter and tweak or update the classifications slightly. I'm all for open sourcing this kind of stuff.

12/14/2006 11:00 AM  

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