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Enumerating and Erasing Eugenics in the DDC

Methodological Concerns at the Intersection of Literary Warrant and Scheme Change

Thursday, April 19, 2012
12:00 - 2:00

Joseph T. Tennis
University of Washington

About the Speaker: Joseph T. Tennis is an Assistant Professor at the Information School of the University of Washington, a member of the Textual Studies faculty at UW, an Associate Member of the Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Study at The University of British Columbia. He has been a visiting scholar at the State University of São Paulo since 2009.
He is Reviews Editor for Knowledge Organization, Managing Editor for Advances in Classification Research Online, and on the editorial board for Library Quarterly. He is also a member of the Dublin Core Usage Board (an international standards body that works toward the implementation and maintenance of interoperable metadata). He has been active in the InterPARES research project (working on digital records preservation) since 2005, and currently serves as an advisor and researcher on metadata issues.
He holds a B.A. in Religious Studies. He received his M.L.S. from Indiana University, an Sp.L.I.S. in Book History, and the Ph.D. in Information Science from the University of Washington. He works in classification theory, the versioning of classification schemes and thesauri (a.k.a. subject ontogeny), and the comparative discursive analysis of metadata creation and evaluation, including archival metadata, both contemporary and historical.


Classification schemes, in order to stay “up to date,” change to reflect contemporary understandings. For example, in 1911 it was possible to say that eugenics was a biological science. Now the same number in the DDC means the reproductive parts of plants. This means that in libraries there are books in the same spot on the shelves (and in the catalogue) that are not closely related. Where this happens the scheme is broken. The entire purpose of classification, used as a tool to collocate kinds of documents, is thwarted because of revisions like this. It seems commonsense that we should not have single classes with two divergent meanings.  

This means we must (1) plot how schemes like the DDC change over time, (2) see how this affects cataloguer decisions about classification, and (3) propose ameliorations such that we maintain the functionality of classification over time. We have started work on describing how schemes change (Tennis, 2002; 2005; 2007; 2012), and how these affect cataloguer decisions (Tennis, Thornton, and Filer, 2012). We have also looked at how we can design ameliorations (Tennis, 2007; Tennis and Sutton 2008), which have been considered by implementers in various fields (cf. Panzer, 2008; Hillmann et al., 2010; Isaacs and Slavic, 2009; Ma et al., 2011; and Tuominem et al., 2011).

At first sight, this problem seems tractable. However, there are some methodological considerations that must be accounted for when making claims about how schemes have changed, and what effect this has on the semantics and functionality of the scheme. For example, what does it mean to say that a book is about eugenics? What is the difference between saying that now, in 1946, and in 1911? In an enumerative classification scheme (or even partially faceted one like DDC) has a single place for every concept.  

The decisions made as to whether or not to include or exclude a concept is based on literary warrant, among other things. This means we need to know more about literary warrant contemporary with every phase of life of a scheme. In the next phase of research we must look at the relationship between schemes like the DDC and literary warrant. Tools like Google Books and The Hathi Trust are potential sources of data, but how do we deal with them in relation to schemes and change in schemes?

In this talk I will introduce the problem of scheme change, and using eugenics, show how the DDC changes over time. I will also show cataloguers’ decisions as the DDC changes over time – showing where librarians placed books on eugenics in the DDC from 1911 to the present from libraries around the world. I will then introduce the problem of literary warrant in relation to these findings. Incorporating ideas from Langridge (1989) and Green and Panzer (2010) I hope we can start a conversation about the appropriate way to consider the structure of DDC in relation to literary warrant, even as it changes over time. This way we can reckon with enumerations and erasures of the living scheme.


Green, R.; Panzer, M. (2010). The ontological character of classes in the Dewey Decimal Classification. In Paradigms and conceptual systems in knowledge organization: proceedings of the Eleventh International ISKO Conference, 23-26 February 2010, Rome, Italy. Edited by C. Gnoli, F. Mazzocchi. (Würzburg: Ergon) p. 171-179.

Hillmann, D., Coyle, K., Phipps, J., and Dunsire, G. (2010). RDA Vocabularies: Process, Outcome, and Use. In D-Lib Magazine 16(1/2).  

Langridge, D. W. (1989). Subject analysis principles and procedures. (London: Bowker-Saur).

Ma, X. G. et al., (2011). A SKOS-based multilingual thesaurus of geological time scale for interoperability of online geological maps. In Computers and Geosciences 37(10):1602-1615.

Panzer, M. (2008). Cool URIs for the DDC: Toward a Web-Scale Accessibility of a Large Classification System. In Proceedings of the International Conference on Dublin Core Metadata and Applications2008. p. 183-190.

Tennis, J. T. (2012) The Strange Case of Eugenics: A Subject’s Ontogeny in a Long-Lived Classification Scheme and the Question of Collocative Integrity. In Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology TBA, forthcoming.

Tennis, J. T., Thornton, K., and Filer, A. (2012). Some Temporal Aspects of Indexing and Classification:Toward a Metrics for Measuring Scheme Change. In Proceedings of the 2012 iConference. ACM.

Tennis, J. T. and Sutton, S. A. (2008). Extending the Simple Knowledge Organization System (SKOS) for Concept Management in Vocabulary Development Applications. In Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology. 59(1): 25-37.

Tennis, J. T. (2005). SKOS and the Ontogenesis of Vocabularies. In International Conference on Dublin Core and Metadata Applications: Vocabularies in Practice. (Madrid, Spain: Universidad Carlos III de Madrid): 275-278.

Tennis, J. T. (2002). Subject Ontogeny: Subject Access through Time and the Dimensionality of Classification. (2002). In Challenges in Knowledge Representation and Organization for the 21st Century: Integration of Knowledge across Boundaries: Proceedings of the Seventh International ISKO Conference. (Granada, Spain, July 10-13, 2002). (Würzburg: Ergon) p. 54-59.

Tuominem, J., Laurenne, N., and Hyvönen, E. (2011). Biological Names and Taxonomies on the Semantic Web – Managing the Change in Scientific Conception. In Proceedings of Extended Semantic Web Conference2011.

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