Everything is miscellaneous reviewed

Everything is miscellaneous by David Weinberger

This book has caused quite a stir in library blogs, and beyond. It’s dangerous! We all need to read it!

I don’t know about dangerous. Reading it I often had a sense of deja vu; pomo, relativism, social constructivism etc all go by. And a great many of the ideas are familiar from my library school days; Ranganathan gets a look in. It’s nice to see previous ideas given credit; often books like this read like a giddy ‘whoah, we’ve found a new world!’ exposition.

What do I think Weinberger is saying in the book? That all orders are parochial and contingent; that what we need is not set orders but richer metadata so people can build their own orders. That the more information the better, so long as we let it be free. All of which seems reasonable to me.

Now to my arguments with the book. Most fundamentally, most things aren’t born miscellaneous. They become it on the web. But are all the possible combos as useful? The ‘ordered’ ones, ironically, will win out.

There needs to be a balance when looking at information; the pure ‘weightless’ nature of information should not lead us to overplay its place and impact. The web is not the world. I don’t think Weinberger is saying that, but in discussing ‘information’ this view is often reached. The physical will be with us for a long time, and we need to work on better ways of ordering it for all- which many librarians have been doing.

Weinberger argues that we will inevitably have more; more photos, nore documents. This may be so, but can we not learn to ‘postpone’ before even making information? The ease of digital creation is an issue here. A lot of the ‘need’ for miscellany derives as much from the volume of information as in its digital nature.

In terms of the impact of miscellany, is it more about tools than ontological shifts? Using digital information and related tools, we can do a lot of what was foreseen, e.g. Ranganathan’s adjustable shelves. A great deal of what is suggested in the book could have been done before; it is the ease of so doing that allows us to realise those ambitions in the digital world.  

I see the third order of order as easier in the digital world, not something that could only happen with it. Individual libraries, subcultures etc; all have ordered differently from the ‘accepted,’ even with the restrictions of paper.

We can still usefuly use second order schemes, Weinberger argues; so long as we realise that they are not the only order, or even the best. I can’t see any problem with that; we increasingly realise that the map is not the thing. Some second-order schemes, such as UDC, could be used as switching languages; for example, to translate people’s individual tags so as to improve finding.

My principal concern is with the reality of power; the issue of theownership of miscellany. Maybe we ‘own’ it in a psychological sense, but legally? Google et al are companies; someone somewhere has control. There is a need to shift laws on ©, as many have noted, before all this sharing can be a practical worry free long-term operation. Unless Open Source lives up to its promise. And then there is the issue of preserving all of this data. Weinberger is relentlessly positive, and any issues will be solved through the existence of the problems themselves- ‘we have to.’

There is also the ease with which the past is patronised. Only ‘we’ have social reading/consuming, only ‘we’ share, only ‘we’ know the fallacy of trees of knowledge. To take the example of sharing our experience of reading, we can do so more easily, but reading a paper book is not inhererently asocial. 

Reading this book put me in mind of a criticism of a history book; that it reads with the breathless certainty that the truth has been run to ground only in our time- even if that truth is that there is no ‘truth.’

That said, it’s not a bad book. The writing style is easy and Weinberger provides a lot of examples to back up his position. He has a passion for miscellany, and it would be churlish to be too critical of someone for writing with passion. Where it becomes a problem is in the ahistorical, uncritical and either/or tone that sometimes crops up.

As one voice amongst many it deserves to be heard, and in library circles it could offer a useful introduction to the idea that the digital actually isn’ t that scary.




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