I think, therefore I classify

Stevan Harnad, source WikipediaWell, what a fascinating talk on Monday on the cognitive basis of categorization. The occasion was the ISKO UK/BCS IRSG‘s day conference “I think, therefore I classify“. Among a whole array of interesting presentations – some ten altogether – I found Stevan Harnad’s the most exhilarating. Stevan is Professor in the Department of Psychology at the Université du Québec à Montréal and also Affiliate Professor in Electronics and Computer Science at University of Southampton.

Prof. Harnad reminded us that categorization is something we do from the minute we are born. It is our way of understanding and interacting with the world around us and underlies our very existence throughout our lives. It’s true to say that if we did not classify and categorize things we encounter, then we would not survive. I first understood the fundamental importance of classification after reading George Lakoff’s books “Women, Fire and Dangerous Things” and (with Mark Johnson) “Metaphors We Live By”.

Classification is so fundamental to the human condition that it’s understandable that it does not appear in the primary or secondary education syllabi. It’s innate; we do it without thinking. But where this subconscious function needs to be surfaced and examined in more detail (for example in LIS courses at the FE/HE level), why does it tend to be relegated to a mere footnote if indeed it is mentioned at all?

Sandra Knapp’s fascinating talk on biological classification – “Order out of chaos – classification and naming in biology” – helped me to appreciate that, to the man/woman-in-the-street, understanding the detail of classification techniques is irrelevant. Just as he/she has little interest in the detail of biology, so she/he can get along just fine without an appreciation of the detail of labelling things so they can be found when wanted.

So much for them in-the-street. But the issue remains that there are communities of professionals who would undoubtedly benefit from familiarity with the intricacies of classification, namely any individual or organization that needs to receive, store, retrieve and make sense of information. And that’s almost everyone!

It’s ironic therefore that classification techniques seem to be retreating into a small number of specialized domains where the immense value they add is hidden: libraries and other resource collections, e-commerce product filters, and perhaps what will be recognized as the apotheosis of classification/categorization, the semantic web. It is doubly ironic that LIS professionals are minority contributors to all but the first-mentioned.

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