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Weinberger's Well-ordered Miscellany

Submitted by Karen G. Schneider on May 3, 2007 - 2:36pm

Emma ponders WeinbergerThis book is dangerous. Everything is Miscellaneous takes all the precious ideas we are taught as librarians and throws them out the window. Structure, order, precise metadata, bibliographic control: gone, gone, gone, gone. Even, for you edgier types, ye who tell of your Semantic Web and your RDF triples: old-school, good-bye, don't let the door hit you on the way out.

Disorderly conduct

Weinberger--geek-philosopher and fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School--flies into the danger zone at warp speed, beginning with his description of the first order, in which physical objects (books on a shelf, tchotchkes in a hardware store, leaves on a tree) can only be in one place at one time. The first order is tidy by necessity; if you put your hairbrush in the wrong cabinet, you may never find it again.

Dewey fretting over RDF triplesThe second order is like the old card catalog, where order is useful, even clever: with metadata separate from the item itself, now items can be organized conceptually and accessed in more than one way (all works by an author, or all works on a given subject). Weinberger's discussion of the evolution of the second order slides easily and entertainingly between thousands of years of discovery, from Dewey to Carlyle to Jewett and back to Cicero and then to Dewey again, who in spatializing subjects had found the “big-boned joints of knowledge” to slice up into his decimal system.

The train leaves the station

The meat of this book, and its primary momentum and entertainment value, come from Weinberger's lengthy discussions of the third order, which (not surprisingly, coming from a co-author of the Cluetrain Manifesto) grounds itself in the digital world, where all the old rules are blown out of the water. Parcels of knowledge are no longer bound by “either-or decisions,” and can be in many places at once; knowledge does not fit into finite boxes or even have a shape; and--most disturbingly, though in Weinberger's hands, also most entertainingly--messiness is a virtue. He explains this point repeatedly but no better than in a section discussing Flickr, where automated and human-supplied metadata create “a mess than gets richer in potential and more useful every day. … Third-order messes reverse entropy, becoming more meaningful as they become messier, with more relationships built in.”

The third order is about the richness of relationships, the value of more over less, and—by implication—the arid sparseness of categorizing systems that insist on impossibly unambiguous definitions and neat, clear-cut borders. The third order is most definitely not about attempting to perfect second-order rules and weld them to a third-order universe; it is not about predictive information; it is not about the primacy of accuracy over volume. The third order, in other words, is the opposite of how we do things in LibraryLand.

Chaos is come again

Heraclitus ponders MARC

But wait, I hear you say, isn't it possible that a user might miss a valuable resource if information is thrown into a digital pot with user-supplied meta-ingredients tossed in after it? Weinberger says yes, and shrugs that off—then convinces us of the correctness of a sliding-scale, “sort-of, kind-of, 73 percent” approach in which information constantly shifts and changes and gains meaning—a point he elegantly illustrates, among other ways, through the example of Heraclitus, who said you could not step twice into the same river.

Weinberger hits very close to home throughout the book, but nowhere closer than when he remarks, “We've only forced ideas into unambiguous categories through authority and discipline.” On reading this, my mind roved uneasily toward the meetings currently being held by the Library of Congress Working Group on the Future of Bibliographic Control.  What would Weinberger make of a group of librarians imagining they can control information? One hundred years from now—hell's bells, ten years from now—will we laugh at the idea that we even play a role in the third order? We have barely heeded our own canaries in the mine. When we start hearing from canaries in other mines, it is time to fly toward new theory or be buried by the weight of our anachronisms.

My one sustained peeve about Everything is Miscellaneous is the implication, if unintentional, that libraries still use “card catalogs.” I assume philosophers no longer wear togas and sandals; Weinberger has surely visited a library with an online catalog. Then again, I worry that Weinberger will find out what an OPAC is and start writing about MARC, and then we're really in trouble.

Start the bonfires now!

This is, I repeat, a dangerous book. Ban it, burn it, or take it to heart. The most dangerous part of this book is not that Weinberger says these things, and so much more: the danger comes if we don't listen.

Comments (13)

Nina, I would encourage you

Nina, I would encourage you to read his book. Weinberger isn't writing about the death of the library... he's writing about changes in the organization of information. I believe you are correct: libraries can survive quite nicely, as long as they know what their game is.

Commentary from the

Commentary from the admittedly hi-tech and high-brow philosophically challenged: if someone thinks of a library just as a place to research modern subject matter, then they may be right in saying the library, that library, is dead or dying. If, however, someone sees a library as a community hub, gateway to info the internet passes by, and refuge for parts of our society which can't afford entertainment expenses or own research books (and with gas prices going higher, that's a lot more of us), the library is forever. We serve our public, and become what it needs us to be while trying to make sure there's room at the table for all members of that public. After reading the responses, the only thing that worries me about Weinberger is his apparent misunderstanding of this.

Haven’t read the book yet,

Haven’t read the book yet, but heard Mr. Weinberger give a presentation about it at his book launch at Harvard. Reading this review and the comments has helped me solidify some thoughts. From his talk, I got the impression that the nature of the organization of information had to change when it went from being a physical presence (books, etc.) to being virtual (available through a computer/online). He really trashed Dewey and his decimal system. But now, thanks to computers, information can now be in more than one place at one time. I have to say that organization of the internet has been something librarians have been watching, using and participating in all along. There have been attempts to use Dewey online (ie. and tons of other brilliant ways developed to help us find information. Will tags invalidate them, or take them over? The fact that a form of order is coming from “the people” may be unsettling, but Weinberger convincingly shows that it does work. When he mentioned in his talk that he had dedicated his book to librarians, he almost seemed to duck, as if he was expecting to be hit. Indeed, in a brief conversation with him he seemed to think that the libraries will be a thing of the past. To illustrate, he said that he didn’t use the library to write his book - the books that he needed, he ordered online. I don’t see that the new way means a death to the old way, as is often predicted when a new technology emerges. I don’t think libraries or librarians are a thing of the past. I see a role for librarians in the organization, retrieval and access to information, whatever form it takes. Of course I’m hugely biased. I may be restating part of what Nathan posted earlier, but I think Weingerber has several things going for him. 1. He’s a very smart person who can convey complex ideas in an understandable, and entertaining way. 2. He speaks in a very self assured voice. PS. Great review Karen. Thanks!

'The reason such books are

'The reason such books are dangerous is that they sound so progressive why the traditional order sounds so outdated.' (MYH) I was surprised to see such a poorly constructed post from a person that I assumed to be a librarian. Being the research junkie that I am, I used my (substitute? try supplemental...) personal internet library to find some substance to your claim. I found a posting you made at The posting, while free of the grammatical liberties of the above comment, is not any more convincing. The reasons you provide seem like unconvincing opinions with no real meat to them. What about the ability to search for key words within a text? Hyperlinks? The immediacy of available material? 'Finally, vendors delivering e-books allow only one digitized copy per library.” (MYH) The ebook availability issue is more a bureaucratic obstacle than a digital one. Seattle has an excellent public library system, but I still wait for book availability. There could easily be a change in ebook availability, but I don't expect my public library to be able to access an unlimited amount of paper text. 'When young people aren’t getting their sex education off XXX-rated sites, they’re learning politics from the Freeman Web page, or race relations from Klan sites.'(MYH) I hate free speech as much as the next librarian, but… oh, that’s right, librarians are sort of the caretakers of ideas. The beauty of the internet is that you can get (sometimes idiotic) information from the original source. What better person to tell me that Klansman Jim is an idiot than Klansman Jim himself? What better way to fact check Klansman Jim than immediate access to websites and documents created by people already dedicated to denouncing Klansman Jim. With the internet, we have the ability to witness history in real time rather than in editions. “The Internet is like a vast uncataloged library.”(MYH) I’m beginning to wonder if your library is a vast un-cataloged library. Hopefully you have learned about informatics and the ongoing efforts to help uninitiated internet users find information more effectively. If you need some help limiting your Google search radius, please let me know. “Aren’t There Library-less Universities Now?” (MYH) Nobody wants that. It sounds like you are painting the pro-internet contingent as book burners. I want my university to be open to every media available to them to get the job done. By no means would I, or any other sensible person want to deny that. “But a Virtual State Library Would Do It, Right? Do what, bankrupt the state? Yes, it would. The cost of having everything digitized is incredibly high, costing tens of millions of dollars just in copyright releases.” (MYH) Well you almost got it right. Copyright releases are the culprit here. Google was digitizing books at no cost to the consumer. Mark Y. Herring, Dean of library services, Dacus Library, Winthrop University, Rock Hill, South Carolina; you scare me. Please tell me that your point of view has changed a bit since you posted. -Brian Reference: Herring, Mark. '10 Reasons Why the Internet.' 2007. 11 May 2007 .

Out of politeness--perhaps a

Out of politeness--perhaps a misguided politeness--I've ignored 'Why the Internet Is No Substitute for a Library,' but it deserves some debunking.

For a different view from

For a different view from the prevailing zeitgeist of Google uber alles, see my Fool\'s Gold: Why the Internet Is No Substitute for a Library. The reason such books are dangerous is that they sound so progressive why the traditional order sounds so outdated. So many otherwise intelligent people follow suit and only later, when looking for the baby, do we realize we threw the poor thing out with that old-fashioned bathwater.

Not having read the book, I

Not having read the book, I am pretty hesitant to speak positively or negatively on it. However, I did notice that David Weinberger did have some very positive things to say about PennTags, at least as of June 10, 2006, in 'Many 2 Many: A Group Weblog on Social Software.' However, the title of his post 'PennTags - When card catalogs meet tags'...leaves a bit to be desired. :) Link:

Sealer, one point I could

Sealer, one point I could have made more clearly is that this book is highly accessible; Weinberger's writing style ensures it's for everyone. I encourage you to give it a try. Nathan, it's not clear to me if you've read the book, but if you haven't, likewise. Tom, a good argument, one that Peter Morville makes, but I'm on the fence. I don't think librarians are harmed by embracing the Semantic Web, but Weinberger makes some good points that SW may itself be grounded in first-order thinking. Jacobs, you get a special prize for that citation... I love finding the Herman Holleriths of technohistory.

Wienberger: “We've only

Wienberger: “We've only forced ideas into unambiguous categories through authority and discipline.” I ask: is a self-discipline which observes the world and notices similarities, and classifies, a bad thing? Of course too much classification, or not being able to see beyond one's boxes, is not a good thing, but Wienberger takes things too far. It seems to me that Wienberger is taking advantage of the current situation where we can “have things in more than one place online” and the confusion some have about the purpose of the semantic web in order to make a larger philosophical point regarding our ideas about the physical world. For Wienberger, it seems, reality has everything to do with what you make of it – whatever your particular purposes might be. Order, and hence meaning, cannot be recognized or discovered in any real sense – namely in a way that we can even begin to really agree on. There is no truth except the truth we make as individuals… OK, maybe I exaggerate – after all, Wienberger does seem to believe there is a little bit of truth outside of us. Indeed, in the “first order world”, that stuff does seem to be real – he even calls it the “real world” in his Open Source interview ( For example, it is true that I put that very real hairbrush in that very real wrong cabinet and lost it forever – and you have no real reason for doubting that this really happened to me. Evidently though, besides the physical world, not much more can be said with any certainty…. I sympathize with Wienberger position on many fronts, particularly these two: 1) he is very gifted at describing the attitudes of the world we live in - and for such attention to detail and creative richness of expression this I commend him. 2) He, like many in the Western intellectual tradition, talks much of the importance of trying to get into the hearts and minds of others to understand the world from their perspectives – I think in this way we show our fellow human that we care about them… There are however, some big problems: Wienberger’s “well-ordered” book is not a “miscellaneous” thing, but can be “meaningfully categorized” as just one philosophy of what the world is like. Ironically, it puts forth its own systematic map of reality by making relatively coherent arguments using recognizable words, idioms, etc. from which common, shared, meaning can be derived – in other words, words aren’t “miscellaneous” (since people in general agree on words – which “classify” meaning [often their evolution can be traced as well] – we can actually communicate with other people). What this means, I think is that his thesis is fundamentally disproved – albeit perhaps only unconsciously / tacitly – by the very action of a person reading and understanding his book. Words can describe physical reality, emotions, ideas, etc., and therefore we are “in business” when it comes to communicating with others. Therefore, for example, with the proper training, a person can carefully and thoughtfully read Aristotle in the original Greek and can even understand most of what he is saying. And of course, from his reading of Aristotle, Wienberger concludes that Aristotilean thinkers are the last thing this world needs right now (from his radio interview above), even as he says he wants a thousand taxonomies to bloom. Ironically, it seems that for Wienberger though, that all of them should bloom except for those that actually posit that we can get closer to understanding one truth, one reality – something that we all have in common and inevitably share by virtue of our humanity – not only for things at a physical level, but even beyond…. The eternal problem, it seems to me, is that despite all our insistence to the contrary, all of us end up insisting on our own particular mental map of reality (some specific, some more fuzzy) – re: God, man, personhood, purpose, ethics, etc. – even as we try to secure other’s allegiance in various ways (some peaceful, some not so). Wienberger’s book may be accurate in that it describes, and hence resonates with, the current attitudes and beliefs in our world – but just what would be the advantage of prescribing and encouraging such views? Perhaps someone could enlighten me.

I agree that this is a

I agree that this is a dangerous book, and one that librarians need to absorb. For all you Vannevar Bush groupies, please look into Paul Otlet. Otlet was talking about hypertext and the beginning of the Web as early as 1893, well before Bush. Boyd Rayward has written an excellant article entitled, 'Visions of Xanadu: Paul Otlet (1868-1944) and Hypertext'. But back to Weinberger, this is a must read for anyone interested in the organization of the internet and the 'digital order.' (p.22-23)...But now we -- the customers, the employees, anyone -- can route around the second order. We can confront the miscellaneous directly in all its unfulfilled glory. We can do it ourselves and, more significantly, we can do it together, figuring out the arrangements that make sense for us now and the new arrangements that make sense a minute later. Not only can we find what we need faster, but traditional authorities cannot maintain themselves by insisting that we have to go to them. The miscellaneous order is not transforming only business. It is changing how we think the world itself is organized and -- perhaps more important -- who we think has the authority to tell us so.

Thanks, Frank. I'm back in

Thanks, Frank. I'm back in the first order, wondering where I hid the ground coriander. :-)

Dr. Weinberger points to the

Dr. Weinberger points to the Memex on page 191 and provides a citation (Vannevar Bush: 'As We may Think,' Atlantic Monthly, vol. 176, no. 1, July, 1945, pp. 101-18). Naturally he also includes a web link: which today seems to resolve to: Thank goodness for good old second order indexing.

I haven't yet read

I haven't yet read Weinberger's book, but after reading this excellent post, his 'third order' concept immediately reminded of passages from the seminal paper by Vannevar Bush 'As We May Think' (1945) in which Bush proposes an imaginary information retrieval system, the Memex, based on a system of 'associative trails' (e.g. relationships) that researchers could follow, create new trails, etc. in place of traditional document indexing. From Karen's post: 'The third order is about the richness of relationships, the value of more over less, and—by implication—the arid sparseness of categorizing systems that insist on impossibly unambiguous definitions and neat, clear-cut borders.' From As We May Think: 'Our ineptitude in getting at the record is largely caused by the artificiality of systems of indexing. When data of any sort are placed in storage, they are filed alphabetically or numerically, and information is found (when it is) by tracing it down from subclass to subclass. It can be in only one place, unless duplicates are used; one has to use rules as to which path will locate it, and the rules are cumbersome. Having found one item, moreover, one has to emerge from the system and re-enter on a new path.' For a well-considered challenge to third order vs. second order, relationships/trails vs. indexing, I highly recommend Michael Buckland's paper (UC Berkeley SILS), 'Emanuel Goldberg, Electronic Document Retrieval, And Vannevar Bush's Memex', Journal of the American Society for Information Science 43, no. 4 (May 1992): 284-294, preprint here. And now I definitely have to go out and read Everything is Miscellaneous.. thanks for the post Karen!