Weinberger's Well-ordered Miscellany

By Karen G. Schneider |

Emma ponders WeinbergerThis book is dangerous. Everything is Miscellaneous takes all the precious ideas we are taught as librarians and throws them out the window. Structure, order, precise metadata, bibliographic control: gone, gone, gone, gone. Even, for you edgier types, ye who tell of your Semantic Web and your RDF triples: old-school, good-bye, don't let the door hit you on the way out.

Disorderly conduct

Weinberger--geek-philosopher and fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School--flies into the danger zone at warp speed, beginning with his description of the first order, in which physical objects (books on a shelf, tchotchkes in a hardware store, leaves on a tree) can only be in one place at one time. The first order is tidy by necessity; if you put your hairbrush in the wrong cabinet, you may never find it again.

Dewey fretting over RDF triplesThe second order is like the old card catalog, where order is useful, even clever: with metadata separate from the item itself, now items can be organized conceptually and accessed in more than one way (all works by an author, or all works on a given subject). Weinberger's discussion of the evolution of the second order slides easily and entertainingly between thousands of years of discovery, from Dewey to Carlyle to Jewett and back to Cicero and then to Dewey again, who in spatializing subjects had found the “big-boned joints of knowledge” to slice up into his decimal system.

The train leaves the station

The meat of this book, and its primary momentum and entertainment value, come from Weinberger's lengthy discussions of the third order, which (not surprisingly, coming from a co-author of the Cluetrain Manifesto) grounds itself in the digital world, where all the old rules are blown out of the water. Parcels of knowledge are no longer bound by “either-or decisions,” and can be in many places at once; knowledge does not fit into finite boxes or even have a shape; and--most disturbingly, though in Weinberger's hands, also most entertainingly--messiness is a virtue. He explains this point repeatedly but no better than in a section discussing Flickr, where automated and human-supplied metadata create “a mess than gets richer in potential and more useful every day. … Third-order messes reverse entropy, becoming more meaningful as they become messier, with more relationships built in.”

The third order is about the richness of relationships, the value of more over less, and—by implication—the arid sparseness of categorizing systems that insist on impossibly unambiguous definitions and neat, clear-cut borders. The third order is most definitely not about attempting to perfect second-order rules and weld them to a third-order universe; it is not about predictive information; it is not about the primacy of accuracy over volume. The third order, in other words, is the opposite of how we do things in LibraryLand.

Chaos is come again

Heraclitus ponders MARC

But wait, I hear you say, isn't it possible that a user might miss a valuable resource if information is thrown into a digital pot with user-supplied meta-ingredients tossed in after it? Weinberger says yes, and shrugs that off—then convinces us of the correctness of a sliding-scale, “sort-of, kind-of, 73 percent” approach in which information constantly shifts and changes and gains meaning—a point he elegantly illustrates, among other ways, through the example of Heraclitus, who said you could not step twice into the same river.

Weinberger hits very close to home throughout the book, but nowhere closer than when he remarks, “We've only forced ideas into unambiguous categories through authority and discipline.” On reading this, my mind roved uneasily toward the meetings currently being held by the Library of Congress Working Group on the Future of Bibliographic Control.  What would Weinberger make of a group of librarians imagining they can control information? One hundred years from now—hell's bells, ten years from now—will we laugh at the idea that we even play a role in the third order? We have barely heeded our own canaries in the mine. When we start hearing from canaries in other mines, it is time to fly toward new theory or be buried by the weight of our anachronisms.

My one sustained peeve about Everything is Miscellaneous is the implication, if unintentional, that libraries still use “card catalogs.” I assume philosophers no longer wear togas and sandals; Weinberger has surely visited a library with an online catalog. Then again, I worry that Weinberger will find out what an OPAC is and start writing about MARC, and then we're really in trouble.

Start the bonfires now!

This is, I repeat, a dangerous book. Ban it, burn it, or take it to heart. The most dangerous part of this book is not that Weinberger says these things, and so much more: the danger comes if we don't listen.