End User's Corner - March 1998

Aimee GlasselWas Ranganathan a Yahoo!?

Aimee Glassel, Internet Cataloger

March 1998

This month we turn the End User's Corner over to Aimee Glassel, Internet Scout Project's lead Internet Cataloger, for her views on the relationship between the work of S.R. Ranganathan, the famed Indian classificationist and librarian, and that of Yahoo! (http://www.yahoo.com) the online subject directory of Internet resources. Aimee has developed the cataloging guidelines used for the Scout Report Signpost (http://www.signpost.org/), a browsable and searchable catalog of Internet resources that applies Library of Congress Subject Headings and Classfication scheme to Internet resources, while using a cataloging structure based on a sub-set of the Dublin Core elements (http://purl.oclc.org/metadata/dublin_core_elements). Aimee's other tasks with the Internet Scout Project include cataloging database management and design, scouting for humanities resources, and researching diverse aspects of metadata as it relates to the description of and access to Internet resources. [Jack Solock]

While studying cataloging and classification in library school I learned about the basic concepts of library classification and how classification schemes are formulated. In addition to the general concepts, specific schemes and their creators were introduced. Some of the schemes discussed are used worldwide, and are familiar to the general public, such as the Library of Congress Classification (http://lcweb.loc.gov/catdir/cpso/lcco/lcco.html) and Melvil Dewey's Dewey Decimal Classification (http://www.oclc.org/oclc/fp/ddchome.htm). Of course there have been other classificationists and schemes that have been known to the world, but for many reasons, haven't stood the test of time. And yet just because a classification scheme wasn't widely accepted, this doesn't necessarily mean it didn't leave a lasting impression. This might describe the situation of Shiyali Ramamrita Ranganathan, a librarian from India who introduced the Colon Classification system to the world in 1933. (That's "colon" in the sense of the punctuation mark, not as a part of the digestive system.)

While a student in librarianship in 1924, Ranganathan found that the Dewey Decimal Classification and other classification schemes in use at the time were faulty in their underlying principle of attempting to list all the possible subjects, assign each a predetermined class number, and subsequently fit every book into existing pigeon-holes. What Ranganathan recognized was that the world of knowledge was growing very quickly, with new areas of knowledge being discovered and new ways to combine existing subjects, and that any classification that attempted to enumerate a finite number of subjects without full capabilities for expansion to allow for new areas of knowledge could never meet the needs of the future. (Satija, p.2)

Ranganathan wanted to classify knowledge into broad classes which were then "broken down into ... basic concepts or elements according to certain characteristics, called facets" (Chan, p.389). Individual facets were then synthesized to form a complete class number which could describe in great detail a single book. This is the underlying principle for Ranganathan's Colon Classification. The major element that gives rise to the name of his classification is the use of colons in its notation scheme, along with three other punctuation marks, to distinguish between facets in a single notation or class number.

An example of a notation formulated using Colon Classification, provided by Chan (p.391), describes "Research in the cure of the tuberculosis of lungs by x-ray conducted in India in 1950s":


This notation restated using words in place of the symbols is given as:


When expressed in words, I'm impressed with the level of specificity that can be achieved using Colon Classification. Although Ranganathan strived to avoid the linear in terms of classification structure, he was forced to create a notation in which a combination of facets could be expressed in a linear fashion so that the books being classified using Colon Classification would have a single place on a shelf in a library. The thought of having to shelve a book with a class number as complicated as this is unnerving. This is perhaps why I am initially inclined to ask whether Ranganathan was a Yahoo!?

When compared to a class number formulated using the Dewey Decimal Classification, I don't think there is any question as to which of the two is more intuitive and which requires a higher learning curve. If one can interfile whole numbers with those containing decimals in numerical order, they already understand the basic filing structure of a Dewey Decimal class number. One look at the multi-faceted Colon Classification notation leaves me with only questions. Does the .44 in the example above signify a decimal number or is that dot just a place marker? Which comes first, numbers or letters, and in the case of letters, is there a difference in the filing order between upper or lower case letters, and if so, is it AaBbCc... or ...XYZabc...? Just thinking about the possibilities is exhausting! I am almost relieved that the example given doesn't include any Greek letters, which Ranganathan also integrated into the Colon Classification notation scheme! Perhaps Ranganathan was a Yahoo! after all?

But if I set aside the Colon Classification notation and just look at Ranganathan's principles of facet analysis, I am more likely to think of his theories as coming from a man ahead of his time. Consider how frequently the notion of "facet" is being mentioned in the literature today in connection with information storage and retrieval in an online environment. This comes full circle back to Ranganathan, who is credited with being the first person to apply the term "facet analysis" to classification (Navalani, p.124).

According to Aluri et al. (p.132-33), there are three advantages of faceted classifications over enumerated ones:

  1. "The schedule of a faceted scheme takes up much less space than the schedule of an enumerative scheme with the same amount of specificity."
  2. "Faceted classifications permit far more specific classification than do most enumerative schemes."
  3. "Even before the advent of the computer, [faceted classifications] permitted a detailed form of indexing -- chain indexing -- which provides access to every facet of the combined notation."

As I thought about these three advantages I became convinced that Ranganathan may have been a Yahoo!, which may not be a bad thing. Were he still living today I think he might be pleased to see how information agencies still appreciate and are applying his ideas, especially with regard to the third point noted above.

Take another look at the verbal interpretation of the Colon Classification notation above. If you replaced all the punctuation marks with colons, where else have you seen a similar string of terms used to describe a resource? Yahoo! (http://www.yahoo.com/) of course! If there existed in Yahoo! a resource similar to the one described in the Colon Classification example above, that Internet resource might be listed under one of several strings, including:

Health : Diseases and Conditions : Tuberculosis
Regional : Countries : India : Health

Yahoo! has made its mark as a subject directory of Internet resources, accessible primarily through a browsable hierarchy of categories, subcategories, sub-subcategories, and so on. Some people may liken it closer to a thesaurus because Yahoo! uses words instead of symbols for their notation string. Yet Yahoo! is more complex than a thesaurus in its ability to combine categories, as Ranganathan did with facets, to create a more complex description of a resource. Each term in a Yahoo! notation string contains individual words which have meaning on their own, but once combined with other words into a string, a context is created, providing a deeper meaning. In this way it is much like a faceted classification.

One important advantage that virtual collections such as Yahoo! have over the print environment, in terms of notation schemes and their citation order (the order in which the facets are put together), is that the order of the facets in a string doesn't have to be set in stone. An electronic resource isn't limited to a single physical location. In a library, a book is only supposed to live in one place on a shelf. In the digital world, what is to stop us from classifying a resource in multiple places within a hierarchy? Nothing! By applying facet analysis to an online hierarchy, Yahoo! is able to take a string of categories and subcategories (facets) that describe a resource and by, rotating or permutating these terms, Yahoo! is able to provide access to a single resource from a variety of branches in the larger hierarchy. The ability to accommodate different users who may approach the same information from different perspectives is an essential feature for a successful information retrieval.

To illustrate Yahoo!'s ability to provide access to a single resource from two perspectives, I tried to locate information on the University of Wisconsin-Madison using the browsable hierarchy. I decided to start with the Regional category, thinking I would look for Wisconsin and then universities in Wisconsin. In the end, the category path I followed was:

Regional : U.S. States : Wisconsin : Cities : Madison : Education : Colleges and Universities : University of Wisconsin - Madison

I then wanted to see if I could find the same information by starting from the top of the hierarchy with the Education category. Once at "Education: Higher Education: Colleges and Universities" the next link for the geographic subcategory ("United States@") actually drops me back into the Regional hierarchy, as noted initially. Yahoo! uses the "@" symbol after any subcategory to indicate a cross reference, and also signifies that the link will take the user to another branch of the hierarchy in order to locate the information they seek. So in the end, anyone looking for the University of Wisconsin-Madison by entering the hierarchy by way of the Education category will be led to its home under the Regional category. But the important thing to remember is that no matter which path is followed initially, the user will end up with the information.

So, was Ranganathan a Yahoo!? Perhaps it's a matter of semantics. Considering his complex notation scheme developed for the Colon Classification, as well as his principles of facet analysis as applied to the organization of digital information, I would say yes.

Works cited:

Aluri, Rao, D. Alasdair Kemp and John J. Boll. Subject analysis in online catalogs. Englewood, Colo. : Libraries Unlimited, 1991.

Chan, Lois Mai. Cataloging and Classification : An Introduction. 2nd ed. New York : McGraw-Hill, c1994.

Navalani, K. and M.P. Satija, eds. Petits Petales : A Tribute to S.R. Ranganathan. New Delhi : ABC Pub. House, 1993.

Satija, Mohinder Partap. Colon classification, 7th edition : a practical introduction. New Delhi : Ess Ess Publications, 1989.

InterNIC News

This article originally appeared as part of the End User's Corner, a featured column of InterNIC News, which was published monthly by Network Solutions, Inc. and InterNIC from May 1996 through March 1998. As of April 1998, End User's Corner will be published by the Internet Scout Project.

Copyright Susan Calcari and the University of Wisconsin Board of Regents, 1994-1998. Permission is granted to make and distribute verbatim copies of the End User's Corner provided the copyright notice and this paragraph is preserved on all copies. The Internet Scout Project provides information about the Internet to the US research and education community under a grant from the National Science Foundation, number NCR-9712140. The Government has certain rights in this material.

Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the University of Wisconsin - Madison or the National Science Foundation.

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