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Melvil Dewey and The Legacy of Google’s “Knowledge Group”

/ May 3rd, 2011 /

Tech Crunch is reporting today that the “Search Group” at Google is no more.  From now on, it will be a part of a team called the “Knowledge Group.”

Engineering lead Udi Manber describes the mission of the new group:

“The challenge posed to us by Larry, Sergey and Eric was to find a way to help people share their knowledge. This is our main goal.”

In his TED talk and book, Eli suggests that we’ve replaced the human editors of the past with the algorithmic ones of the present.  In many areas — particularly news where  personalized facebook and twitter feeds have taken the place of shared mainstream media sources — this is true.

Google’s step today to create a “Knowledge Group,” however, makes me reconsider whether the algorithmic editing of information is really so new at all.  Since the beginning of the written word, people have been devising systems to classify information and “put it in order” so that individuals can find the particular knowledge that is relevant to them at a certain time.   Google’s engineers can be understood as the new generation of the unsung heroes of information ordering — librarians.

The Dewey Decimal System provides as a quite relevant historical example for Google engineers.  Created by Amherst professor Dr. Melvil Dewey at the end of the 19th century, the Dewey Decimal System is now used to order information in over 200,000 libraries in at least 135 countries.  The values baked into it have been shaping the information diets of people all over the world for over 100 years.  The advantage of historical perspective allows us to understand the biases of the system in ways that even Dewey could not have understood.

Wayne Wiegand’s article ‘The ‘Amherst Method’: The Origins of the Dewey Decimal Classification Scheme” examines the values which influenced Dewey and still shape the shelves of libraries today.

Dewey’s own goals were remarkably similar to those of Google engineers who strive for “efficiency.”  In describing the moment when he first thought of the system — naturally while day dreaming in church — he expresses his fixation on “simplicity.”

while I lookt stedfastly at [the pulpit] without hearing a word, my mind absorbd in the vital problem, the solution flasht over me so that I jumpt in my seat and came very near shouting ‘‘Eureka!’’ It was to get absolute simplicity by using the simplest known symbols, the arabic numerals as decimals, with ordinary significance of nought, to number a classification of all human knowledge in print; this supplemented by the next simplest known symbols, a, b, c, indexing all heds of the tables, so that it would be easier to use a classification with 1000 heds so keyd than to use the ordinary 30 or 40 heds which one had to study carefully before using.

Wiegand, however, shows how Dewey’s quest for “simplicity” could not be done without implicit values.  He drew heavily on a system created by St. Louis librarian Torrey Harris that Wiegand argues “was based upon a structure of knowledge articulated by Sir Francis Bacon but inverted by German philosopher G. W. F. Hegel.”

More importantly, Dewey almost certainly did not realize the extent to which these values and the ones which surrounded him at Amherst in the 1870s influenced the system.

For the most part, historians of library classification have looked for the origins of the Dewey Decimal Classification only in classification systems that preceded it. What they have not realized was that beyond Harris’s basic structure, most of the scheme emerged from a worldview defined on the Amherst College campus between 1870 and 1875.  And because Dewey regarded this as a ‘‘natural’’ world—an integral part of the discourse of his culture—he felt no more need to cite his sources than contemporary scholars feel the need to verify ‘‘general knowledge.’

The implicit nature of the values embedded in the Dewey Decimal System has meant that they have persisted in spite of the emergence of more pluralistic worldviews over the course of the 20th century.  Wiegand describes Dewey’s legacy as “mixed.”

On the one hand the scheme has over the decades saved millions of dollars and countless hours of time. Because it has become so widely accepted throughout the world it has permitted one person to classify one title for the hundreds of thousands of libraries using the decimal system. In addition, the system itself has become familiar to millions of people who can feel relatively confident that their knowledge of the system used in one library will serve them well in another. On the other hand the doctrine of Anglo-Saxonism Dewey wove so tightly into his system has over the years resisted the introduction of new threads with more culturally pluralistic origins.

Google’s engineers are not the first people to build systems for ordering information — but they are certainly the most influential.  The example of Melvil Dewey and others who have done this work for previous generations can give us some valuable perspective.  Many of the values embedded in today personalized search and news algorithms may be as invisible to us as the air we breathe.   But like Melvil Dewey, they may create a mixed legacy for Google’s “Knowledge Group.”


One Response to “Melvil Dewey and The Legacy of Google’s “Knowledge Group””

  1. Facebook hires a public relations firm to throw crap at Google saying as justification that Google swipes Facebook data and uses it in its search results. Well if you want to look at it that way, it does. What do we have here? Two of the biggest companies in the world, acting like giant kids. For shame!

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