Like leaves on a tree….

September 30, 2011

…so are the days of our data (picture Macdonald Carey’s deep voice).   This is the way that information used to be, but no longer.

I just finished the very thought-provoking book Everything is Miscellaneous: The Power of the New Digital Disorder by David Weinberger.  It goes through a brief history of how, over all the ages, humans have endeavored to organize things in various ways.  From the “lump and split” to alphabetizing, to Dewey (Dui) and his Decimal System, information has been put into categories, which were decided based upon logic, personal taste, expediency, politics, and religion, to name a few.

Weinberger lays out the three types of order:

  • The first order is the physical arranging of items (examples he gave are silverware in a drawer (by type) or photos as collected (by chronology)).
  • The second order is the “pointing to” the physical: for example, a card catalog, or ledgers listing what is in a box.
  • The third order is where Weinberger really reaches his stride: the digital order.  This order makes information miscellaneous, as things don’t have to be put into just one category or another.  They don’t even have to be physically anywhere, as long as they can be pointed to and retrieved.

The first two types of order are what everyone has been used to using up until the rise of computing and the Internet. 

Weinberger uses the following analogy.  In the digital order, instead of having “branches” of knowledge with “leaves” of items and information organized on each branch, the “leaves” are now in a big pile at the bottom of the tree, waiting to be “lumped and split” according to each individual’s needs and judgment at that moment.  As knowledge is always diverse and changing, this frees information and really makes it more accessible and useful to the individual. He explains the concept of “faceted classification”, which means the user can “slice” the information according to his needs (by price, by language, by color).  So, the idea is that everything becomes “miscellaneous”, with meaning to the user(s) at the point of need.  Until that time, there is no need to put items into categories(arbitrary or otherwise) that may cause people to miss something.  The leaves are all there, just waiting to be picked up!

How cool is that?

However, as an organizer myself (my clothes are in my closet by type/color and my music is organized by genre), there are reasons to at least have a general framework (taxonomy or folksonomy) that can help point people to a piece of information.  This works particularly well in specialized situations (a great example is the MeSH headings from NLM).  Tagging by your public brings another level of value-add that should not be feared, but embraced and built upon.  A combination of controlled vocabulary and tagging makes for a very powerful piece of data.

Everyone, from marketers, to librarians, to business leaders,  should read this book.  The digital explosion is changing the game, and we all need to be aware of it, embrace it, and use it to the best of our ability to bring to the customer/patron/user the best possible access to information, and ideally, knowledge.

So, think of information as all those leaves off the branches, ready to be scooped up, free and ready for discovery!

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