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Linnaeus, Mendeleev, Dewey, and Ranganathan: What can they tell us today about the organization of information?

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Linnaeus, Mendeleev, Dewey, and Ranganathan: What can they tell us today about the organization of information?

Glenda B. Claborne

Information School

University of Washington



The study of the organization of information eventually encounters the “informational circle.” Floridi (2004, p. 570)) poses it as one of the eighteen principal problems of a philosophy of information in the following question:

“How can information be audited? If information cannot be transcended but can only be checked against further information – if it is information all the way up and all the way down – what does this tell us about our knowledge of the world? “

It is a question tied to the foundations of what we know and how we know. I recognize and appreciate the difficulties in the study of information that is all tied up in its own concepts, semantics, methods, and values. This study is my attempt to get out of that circle by looking at examples of information organization that can be traced to specific people, places, and events. It sounds simplistic but I will try.

“We all collect things. This is essentially a human thing to do. We collect stamps, songs, cds, recipes, dolls, etc. As the size of a collection increases, we are increasingly likely to group and to organize its items. To be sure, one reason to do this is so that we can retrieve a desired item later. (an organization should make retrieval faster and less error-prone). But there may be other reasons to organize and group as well: 2) a kind of exercise so that we understand our collection better and get new insights concerning its composition, key relationships, and properties that interrelate and distinguish items. 3) or to reflect the results of this exercise. 4) or to reflect patterns of access and use. Example: We may decide to group our CDs according to the situation of their use: wake-up CDs, party CDs, relax and unwind CDs.” (Wm’s words)

“Scientists also collect – they collect observations. Biologists collected observations of living organisms in all their diversity. Chemists collected observations concerning the behavior of chemical substances. Librarians and information scientists collect observations about books and other forms of information.” (Wm’s words)

Scientists record and organize their observations. To do this, they follow existing standards, rules, or conventions of labeling, arranging, and naming. Sometimes, new observations don’t fit into an existing organizational scheme especially as the number of things to be observed increases to unmanageable proportions. When this happens, either the existing scheme is added on to or a totally new scheme is created.

This paper explores four examples of classification schemes that were created and adopted primarily for their usefulness in organizing increasing amounts of information. The first is the sexual classification system and binomial nomenclature for living things developed by the Swedish biologist Carolus Linnaeus in the 18th century. The second is the periodic table of elements that has gained its mature form through the work of the Russian chemist Dmitrii Mendeleev in the late 19th century. The third and fourth are examples from library science: the Dewey Decimal Classification developed by the American librarian Melvil Dewey in the late 19th century and the Colon classification by the Indian librarian S. R. Ranganathan in the 20th century.

“This paper briefly explores the history behind these four examples. In doing so, the paper attempts to shed light on the events leading up to current schemes of organizing information. What prompted the abandonment of a previous scheme of organization or classification?” (Wm) What made a scientific or professional community adopt a new classification system? “Are there basic principles in classification and cataloging that, if followed might have lead more quickly to present organizations?” (Wm) Are there optimal forms of arrangement and naming?

In trying to answer these questions, the paper takes the following into account: a) classification schemes have uses and essences, b) classificationists have lives and world-views as well as theories and methods, c) the development of classification schemes is not immune to distinctive social contexts or spirit of the times (zeitgeists).

Uses and essences

“Shared content, not only historical continuity, must define the structure of a scientific theory; but this shared content should be expressed as a minimal list of the few defining attributes of the theory’s central logicin other words, only the absolutely essential statements, absent which the theory would either collapse into fallacy or operate so differently that the mechanism would have to be granted another name.” (Gould, 2002, p. )

“Theories have essences. “ [So by the way, in a more restrictive and nuanced sense, do organisms – espressed as support for structuralist versions of evolutionary causality as potential partners with the more conventional Darwinian functionalism that understandably denies intelligibility to any notion of an essence. ] Structure and Function.


Effects of prior knowledge. Initial representations. Reactions to prior knowledge. Creation of new categories. How people borrow information from related categories as they begin learning about a new category. How did previous knowledge and experience help them select specific features of the things that they are interested in? How did they narrow the space of possible hypotheses? Selective attention.

“We really do need to honor the temporal substrate of our current understanding, not only as a guide to our continuing efforts, but also as a moral obligation to our forebears. “ (Gould, 2002, p. 35)

“to tease out the components that have been most troubling, most central, and most directive.” Logic compels, history validates, and that current debate reaffirms.” (Gould, 2002)












Major Works Appeared







“distinctive social context, or intellectual “spirit of the times.” “scientific spirit”

“Zeitgeists are two edged swords of special sharpness – for either they encourage sheeplike conformity with transient ghosts of time that will soon fade into oblivion, or they open up new paths to insights that previous ages could not even have conceptualized. Zeitgeists can only suggest or facilitate.”

Naïve empiricism – if we claimed that major advances in science must be entirely data driven, and that social contexts can only act as barriers to our vision of nature’s factuality.

Both the social and scientific world were “ready” for evolution in the mid 19th century.

How do we characterize the intellectual spirit of our times?

What were the fruitful approaches that these scientists took - approaches that have validity and staying power well beyond their time of origin and initial popularity?

What were their scientific preferences?

“If practical folk could speak thus at the turn of the sixteenth century, it is not surprising that in the course of that century their rulers should appropriate the language of secrets, including the secrets of distant places, and the desire to know them and in doing so to transform their realms into information-gathering states, using detailed questionaires to assemble and organize new data just as they assembled cabinets of curiosities, libraries, zoos, observatories, and botanical gardens. “ (Peters, 2001, p. 593).

Issues of generality and reusability.



mendeleev’s periodic table of elements

Dmitri Mendeleev 1834 –1907

Linnaeus’ classification of living species

Carl Linnaeus 1707-1778

“Meanwhile Linnaeus, dissatisfied with Tournefort’s widely used classification of plants, had begun to make one of his own based on the numbers of stamens and stigmas and to describe the genera methodically.” [Linnean Correspondence]

Joseph Pitton de Tournefort was a famous 17th century French botanist. “Tournefort believed that anyone who was serious about the subject should be able to memorize the 698 natural genera that encompassed the 10,000 species then known. By contrast, Linnaeus provided amateurs, travelers, and gardeners with a simpler and more practical method.” [Farber, p. 9]

“The ancients had not understood that plants reproduce sexually, European naturalists by the end of the 17th century did.”

Aristotle, in his History of Animals, stressed the value of detailed, firsthand observation, and he collected an impressive amount of information with the goal of uncovering general principles.

Pliny, the Roman author of a 37-volume encyclopedia of the natural world.

Role of Zeitgeist and biography. Linnaeus’ developed his interest in plants at an early age. His father maintained a garden. Medical background – anatomy and physiology. The importance of the study of natural history during Linnaeus’ time. Naturalists examined and documented the thousands of new species brought back from voyages in Africa, the New World, and Asia. European powers encouraged natural history explorations on account of the potential commercial value of foreign species. European imperialism sought political control to further economic advantages , and the search for natural resources played an important role in European expansion. In naming and arranging products from around the globe, naturalists aided imperial expansion and also implicitly expressed a cultural imperialism.

For five months, he traveled, observed, and collected animals, plants, and minerals in the Lapland region. He published a botanical account of this trip – Flora Lapponica.

For two years after receiving his medical degree, Linnaeus served as the superintendent of the garden (and as a house physician) to George Clifford, a wealthy financier and director of the Dutch East India Company. The garden and its hothouses contained specimens from southern Europe, Asia, Africa, and the New World. A private zoo housed a dazzling set of exotic animals ranging from tigers to rare birds.

Linnaeus’ experiences in Lapland and in Clifford’s gardens gave him a vivid sense of the rapidly developing richness of natural history. Though exciting, the new material presented did raise problems. Foremost, both the exotic and local material presented a confusing picture because much of it did not easily fit into older classification systems. With no standardized procedure for naming plants, animals, and minerals, authors often gave different names to the same plant. They also sometimes failed to recognize male, female, and juvenile forms of the same animal and named them as three different species.

Systema Naturae – 12 pages. First publication after his doctoral thesis. Outline of a general system that he believed would bring order to natural history. “The first step in wisdom is to know the things themselves.”

Artificial and natural classification systems.

Binomial nomenclature. Species Plantarum. Previously, the scientific names of plants consisted of two parts: a word (or words) denoting a group of plants, and then a string of characteristics that distinguished the plant from other similar ones. Because no agreed-upon list of names existed and because over the years writers had used different characteristics to name the same plant, considerable confusion had ensued. Linnaeus’ reform made plant names more like people’s names: a single name common to all the species in a genus, and another, specific name that distinguished the species from others in the genus. The practice quickly caught on. To this day, naturalists use the Species Plantarum (along with the fifth edition of his Genera plantarum) as the starting point for botanical nomenclature.

Linnaeus and Buffon established a worldwide network of correspondents who sent specimens to their museums or laboratories. Both possessed an almost complete library of European literature in natural history.

Linnaeus’ personal collection competed in size and importance with that of the most powerful monarch in the West. When Linnaeus died in 1778, he left 19,000 sheets of pressed plants, 3,200 insects, and 2,500 mineral specimens.

[Study and classification of minerals: By the beginning of the 19th century, the study of minerals had become sufficiently specialized that it branched off as a new discipline, geology. The distance between studying the material, or physical, world and the living products of Earth steadily grew wider.]

see p. 48 of Farber.

Darwin’s project with barnacles combined the Linnaean tradition of naming and classifying with the broader search for an order in nature that characterized Buffon’s work. A combination of Darwin’s interests in distribution, variation, and fossils with traditional Linnaean taxonomic research.

Dewey Decimal Classification

Melvil Dewey 1851-1931

ranganathan’s faceted classification

Shiyali Ramamrita Ranganathan 1892-1972.


“If there is something like a common framework, it does not lie at the level of ontologies at all, but at the level at which users from different communities (paradigms) may learn to communicate with one another. This is a hermeneutic level of analysis.” (Fonseca & Martin, 2005)

“It is scientists, not theories, who make predictions.” (Fonseca & Martin, 2005)

A certain classification scheme is not neutral but relative to the world view of the classificationist.



I would like to thank William Jones for supervising this independent study.


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