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Old schemes, new perspectives: the narrative of classification scheme analysis in the 21st century

Classification schemes are the bedrock of much classification activity and research and are a part of the rich history of Knowledge Organization (KO). This paper argues that part of the present and future of KO research involves embracing new ways of thinking about classification schemes, and suggests that considering classification scheme analysis as a fundamental, overarching methodology is part of the future direction of KO.

First, a brief account of classification scheme discourse is offered, to provide contextual background. A historical arc is presented, showing how historical classification schemes can transmute into useful subjects for future research. The main part of the paper presents and examines three examples of contemporary techniques for analysing classification schemes. Each analysis technique is briefly outlined, discussing how this technique adds to a general narrative arc of classification scheme analysis. First, subject ontogeny is discussed: subject ontogeny traces the changes in a subject’s classification by examining different editions of classification schemes (see, for example, Tennis (2012) and a recent special issue of Knowledge Organization devoted to subject ontogeny). This conference paper (re-)positions subject ontogeny as part of a broader idea of classification scheme analysis. Next, reception analysis of classification schemes is discussed, as developed by Lee (2015), which analyses how classification schemes are received and critiqued. This analytical method repositions the classification scheme as aesthetic object, drawing upon work by Ojennus and Tennis (2013). Finally, a novel system of “stress-testing” classification schemes is introduced, which adapts a method common in the sciences: deliberately “breaking” a classification scheme by feeding it “extreme” subjects. Analysing the fracture points of a classification scheme reveals its mechanisms.

The three examples of analytical techniques show the breadth of classification scheme analysis; more pertinently, they illustrate the value of analysing the analytical methods. The different types of classification scheme analysis reveal different ontological positions of the classification scheme: a historical document, an aesthetic object, a complex system with mechanisms which can be broken. So, by considering the analysis of schemes more carefully, we also consider the classification scheme more carefully. Thus, the wonder of codifying and thinking about classification scheme analysis is threefold: it can answer a specific research question, it adds to our artillery of analytical techniques which helps answer future research questions, and perhaps most importantly of all, reconsidering the analysis of classification schemes can help contemplate the classification scheme itself. This paper concludes that a worthwhile narrative of current and future KO is to develop the theory and practice of classification scheme analysis.

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