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The OSC will not be Shredded Swiss Cheese.

It may well be a week or so before I can wrap my head around all of the stuff that has been happening here at the ALA Midwinter Meeting in Denver, but I wanted to drop a note about the Open Shelves Classification (OSC) meeting that happened in a hotel basement the other day.  Some interesting progress was made in this ambitious and complex effort to reorganize library materials according to contemporary mental models.  The OSC, to recap, is “a free, “humble,” modern, open-source, crowd-sourced replacement for the Dewey Decimal System.”  Read more about it here on this blog, or even better read about it over here at LibraryThing.

To best describe the nature of one bit of progress made at the basement meeting, I invite you to view and consider this piece of video art called “Shredded Swiss Cheese” by Noah Fisk.

When I saw this video of someone acting out the tongue-twister “Shredded Swiss Cheese”, the first thing I did was laugh.  Then I reflected on what Fisk might be getting at.   A tongue-twister completely loses its meaning once it is removed from its oral origins.  Fisk’s piece is a media ecologist’s prank.  The video remediation of the phrase essentially turned it all into nonsense, and the joke is on you.

Back over to the OSC project.  Right now, anyone with a LibraryThing account can fit their books into the OSC’s  first draft of 20 top-level categories.  Here are their instructions and here are those 20 categories:

Want to help? Go to a work page in LibraryThing and scroll down to the bottom. You’ll find a chart of the top-level categories. If you see a good match, click on it. You’ll be prompted to say whether you know the book yourself or not. And then you’ll get to see how your classification vote match up with anyone else on the site.


So, for now, the only people who are contributing information to a project designed to arrange materials in a physical space are individuals browsing an online catalog.  As a public librarian myself, I can attest to the fact that many of the users still use a library staff member as a discovery tool rather than the catalog.  Everyone at the meeting agreed that gathering data from LibraryThing users to create these 20 top level categories is the logical place to start, but it is absolutely essential that data come from flesh-and-blood humans to inform the very flesh-and-blood activity of locating the book you want in a room full of other books that you do not want.

By gathering your data in a digital environment to inform a project that is realized in a physical environment, you run the risk of accidentaly making a video tongue-twister.  The rules are different, the users are different, experience is different.  For this reason, I’m excited to hear that the OSC is going to be developing some kind of survey for distribution in actual libraries.  I’m also really excited for a library to buy into this project so that when the OSC folk are ready to do so some prototyping and user testing it can happen in a real world architecture with real library users.  I do think there is value in this project.  I don’t hate on Dewey, but I think libraries and librarians should always be testing and pushing at the things we take for granted or lean back on.  Watch and participate in this OSC project; its success can only come from everyone’s participation.