I checked out David Weinberger’s Everything is Miscellaneous from the local library with every intention of reading the whole book, but after 150 pages, I just can’t waste any more of my time on it. It is just too sloppy — badly researched and the conclusions are flimsy.
One of my father’s frequent sayings is “Do your homework.” This doesn’t mean to finish your spelling paper, it means you should research your subject and not go in half-prepared. Weinberger has not done his homework and his book shows it. He repeatedly starts with bad assumptions, so the book crumbles into a pile of anecdote and opinion.
I find it especially embarrassing to finish something and find out that I’ve done a halfway job of reinventing a known solution, so I try to follow Dad’s advice and do my homework. I’ve been working in search for the past ten years and I’ve done a lot of homework. In multiple places in this book, Weinberger just gets it wrong, and wrong in places where it shoots down his argument.
Let’s take Chapter 3, where he criticizes how libraries organize information. Libraries have been beating on this problem for centuries and they have something that works. It isn’t always pretty, but it works. Weinberger takes the Dewey Decimal Classification (DDC) as representative of all library organization. It isn’t. DDC looks like a classification scheme, but it is really used to put books on shelves in some useful order, not to fully describe their topics. The goal is to get the WWI books near the WWII books, not to decide whether war is history, politics, or technology.
Then he makes fun of Library of Congress Classification (LCC) for putting the the Balkans at the same level as Africa. He manages to make three ignorant mistakes in one example. First, LCC is enumerative, so it doesn’t have a strong hierarchy. It is designed so it is easy to add space at the end, perhaps because there is no end to knowledge. Second, book classification schemes are shaped by when they were designed and by the universe of books. There are lots of books about the Balkans, probably as many as there were about Africa when the scheme was designed. Of course, he makes the same mistake as he made with DDC, confusing a locating scheme with a subject classification scheme.
He certainly should have looked at the Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH). These have the cross-referenced graph structure that he wants DDC and LCC to have. They are updated weekly, extensible, and on-line.
Weinberger picks The Little House Cookbook to demonstrate that Amazon’s info on the book is superior to a library “card catalog”. He shows the Amazon categories below, then uses a customer’s list to find additional books about and by Laura Ingalls Wilder.
Children’s Books>Authors & Illustrators, A-Z>Williams, Garth
Children’s Books>History & Historical Fiction>United States>1800s
Children’s Books>Sports & Activities>Cooking
Now let’s look up the record in WorldCat. Amazingly, it is already tagged with Laura Ingalls Wilder as one of the subjects. We don’t need user lists to do that, just good categories and catalogers (both of which are expensive). Aside from the quaint word “cookery”, this list of categories seems more useful than the ones at Amazon:
Cookery, American — History — Juvenile literature.
Wilder, Laura Ingalls.
Cookery, American — History.
Frontier and pioneer life.
This is his crowning example in Chapter 3, which he uses to show that Amazon is better than his misunderstanding of DDC. But Amazon isn’t better in this example, so the whole thing falls flat.
If an author makes these kind of mistakes in a book about organizing information, I can’t trust him. Library technology has been continually developed since at least Callimachus at Alexandria. If you care about information, you need to grok library technology and its true strengths and weaknesses, not tell us why Melvil Dewey spelled his name oddly.
I recommend you don’t waste your time on this book. I gave up when I was spending most of my time picking apart his examples and not learning anything in the process. Disagreeing with someone who has done their homework is invigorating, but this was just red pencil time.
Instead, choose one of these books. I found each one of these increased the depth and breadth of my thinking. You might not agree with the authors, but you’ll get a good workout doing it.
- The Social Life of Information, John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid
- Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud
- A Theory of Fun for Game Design, Raph Koster
- Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things, George Lakoff (I just read the first part, part two is for linguistics geeks only)
- The Nature and Art of Workmanship, David Pye
- Managing the Flow of Technology, Thomas Allen
- Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville
- Decisions and Organizations, Jim March
By the way, Clay Shirky is just as sloppy. His Ontology is Overrated makes the same mistakes. What a mess.