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Author: Julie L. Holcomb
Title: Elaine Svenonius's The Intellectual Foundation of Information Organization
Publication info: Ann Arbor, MI: MPublishing, University of Michigan Library
May 2002

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Source: Elaine Svenonius's The Intellectual Foundation of Information Organization
Julie L. Holcomb

vol. 5, no. 1, May 2002
Article Type: Book Review

The Intellectual Foundation of Information Organization

Elaine Svenonius. The Intellectual Foundation of Information Organization. MIT Press, 2000.

Svenonius demonstrates how cataloging, long thought of as the purview of librarians, can lend order to the mass of unstructured digital information available via the Internet. As the jacket blurb notes, Svenonius's book "integrat[es] the disparate disciplines of descriptive cataloging, subject cataloging, indexing, and classification." The Intellectual Foundation of Information Organization is not light reading, but the conceptually complex subject never overwhelms the author's well-written narrative.

The Intellectual Foundation of Information Organization "is not primarily about how the computer is used to organize information, although the topic is discussed." Nor is it written for the "novice who is about to begin a job as a cataloger and wants an instant understanding of its mysteries." Nor does the book "enumerate various systems for organizing information." And the book does not provide "an idiosyncratic view on how to organize information effectively." Rather Svenonius's book provides a conceptual basis for understanding and thinking about the organization of information.

The book is divided into two sections of five chapters each. The first section is an "analytic discussion of the intellectual foundation of information organization" examining the history and the purpose of systems for information organization. In the first five chapters, Svenonius establishes the objectives and principles of bibliographic description. According to Svenonius, full-featured bibliographic systems are based on five objectives: finding, collocating, choice, acquisition, and navigation. Cataloging rules and bibliographic systems, Svenonius believes, should be evaluated against these five objectives. Indeed these five objectives "can be looked on as a statement of what users have a right to expect from systems for organizing information." Actual library catalogs (the primary focus of Svenonius's book), however, have fallen short of these objectives. Svenonius notes that library catalogs have become "deranged over time in large part due to retrospective conversion and the use of shared bibliographic records."

Svenonius concludes the first section with an analysis of the principles of bibliographic description that are recognized in Anglo-American cataloging literature. Each of the five principles–user convenience, representation, sufficiency and necessity, standardization, and integration–is covered in depth. For example, Svenonius discusses the principle of sufficiency and necessity within its historical context and its digital context. What becomes clear in the discussion is that unthinking adherence to tradition can be deadly in the age of digital abundance. Bibliographic description must contain sufficient and necessary information to meet bibliographic objectives while "limiting the metadata admissible in description."

After examining the objectives and principles of bibliographic description, Svenonius devotes the second half of the book to "an overview of three bibliographic languages used to organize information:" work languages, document languages, and subject languages. She introduces the principles and the problems of each of the three bibliographic languages in the subsequent chapters. Within this section, Svenonius examines the major bibliographic systems in use in libraries: the Anglo-American Cataloguing Rules, the Dewey Decimal Classification, and the Library of Congress Subject Headings.

The Intellectual Foundation of Information Organization is a dense, intellectually rigorous, and well-written book. Elaine Svenonius, Professor Emeritus of Library and Information Science, University of California, Los Angeles, has compacted a great deal of information into two hundred pages of text and fifty pages of notes, bibliography, and index. The Intellectual Foundation of Information Organization is a major contribution to the field of cataloging. In her book, Svenonius writes, "An important question today is whether the bibliographic universe can be organized both intelligently (that is, to meet the traditional bibliographic objectives) and automatically." Svenonius's book deserves to be read by any one interested in the answer to that question.

Julie Holcomb, Navarro College