However quirky or meticulous you are, once you pick a system of organising a collection, you’re pretty much stuck with it until something precipitates a change. When I moved recently I deposited, with great reluctance, 3 bin bags full of books at Oxfam. I managed to leave with only one bag of replacements.

My new shelves beckoned enticingly. Now was the chance really to sort the books so that each and every one had its own proper place. I would instantly know how to put my hands on a specific text whenever I needed it. Now, I am not so sad as to organise alphabetically, but I do group books by the same author (although Helen Dunmore writes poetry as well as prose. What do I do?), and try to sort by genre. Is Margaret Atwood primarily a science fiction writer? She describes her work as ‘speculative fiction’. Should I put ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ with ‘His Dark Materials’? But then where do Pullman’s Victorian novels go? My brain hurts.

I have lots of picture books (purportedly for children) which have to go on the large shelves at the bottom next to the art books. Do I put other books for young people there too? If so, what do I say to the 5 year old’s parents when she starts decoding the Anglo-Saxon words in Melvin Burgess’ work? It’s a potential minefield.

6 months after the upheaval, current novels reside (on the shelf formerly known as ‘coffee table’) alongside ones I read recently and those I haven’t started yet. Last Sunday’s ‘Observer’ always hangs around till Wednesday at least. And my mum passes ‘The New York Review of Books’ to me too rapidly for me to digest the serious articles. That paper looms; frequently to be passed to my own children guiltily unread. I tend to keep my non-fiction in my study but favourites appear in the living room and never seem to return to their correct place.

In classifying my books, I was working on the assumption that information is most valuable when it is kept in neat order. I still hold to this when I’m talking about physical objects in real space. But with more and more information being available digitally, this is a limited approach to organisation that seems antiquated in the 21st century, (though I’m not ready for an e-reader yet).

D.Murali Chennai’s  review summarises well the argument in a marvellous book by David Weinburger:

Weinberger, in ‘Everything is Miscellaneous’,  welcomes us to the new order: Digital disorder, ‘a world of knowledge freed from physical constraints’. Throw the information ‘into a big digital pile,’ and your users will filter and organise it themselves, he advises. Information doesn’t just want to be free; it wants to be ‘miscellaneous’. The world started out miscellaneous, Weinberger says. “But it didn’t stay that way, because we work so damn hard at straightening it up.”

Allotting everything a place, we establish order “by putting a descriptive sign on the shelf beneath a product, sticking a label on a folder, or using a highlighting pen to mark the passages that we think will be on the test.” That was the first order of order, when we organised things themselves. For instance, “we put silverware into drawers, books on shelves, photos into albums.” Then came the second order, as in the case of the library catalogue, which “separates information about the first order objects from the objects themselves.” This is the stage of metadata, ‘because it’s information about information’.

Both these orders operated within the limitations of the physical world; thus, some things are nearer than the rest, objects can be in only one spot at any point of time, given that human abilities to see and search are limited.

“But now we have bits. Content is digitised into bits, and the information about that content consists of bits as well. This is the third order of order …”

This so-called third order mixes it all up; it’s all about multiple connections and a realisation that the world is not as orderly as we thought. ‘Everything Is Miscellaneous’ is a probing and profound exploration of how we create meaning in the world. One moment, we’re thinking about how we organize books on shelves, or photos in shoe boxes or on our hard drives and a moment later we’re asking whether we understand “shelf” or “shoebox” any more.

Weinberger cites the case of Flickr, which has “over 225 million photos already uploaded by users and almost a million added every day.” Flickr has no professional cataloguers. “It relies solely on the labels users make up for themselves, without control or guidance. Yet it is remarkably easy to find photos at Flickr on almost any topic.” This is because the number of tags can be greater than the thing itself. (I still don’t understand the difference between blog tags and categories. Something else to learn).

It’s all about multiple connections and a realisation that the world is not as orderly as we thought, or as we’d like it to be. So how does this impact upon my teaching? Well, as I wrote in a previous post, I believe it is important that young people think about classification and learn how to distinguish the main idea within a piece of information, and to identify topics and sub-topics. With this skill they are enabled to create texts in a logical order by grouping ideas and concepts.

But my notion of a logical order might not be that of the learners with whom I work. It is a truism (though no less true for that) that learners with dyslexia often view the world in different ways from more traditional thinkers. What a teacher may regard as irrelevant and unclear may be extremely pertinent and makes absolute sense to her pupil. Herein lies a great deal of misunderstanding and stress for all.

I will continue to support young people in making sense of the world of school by encouraging them to classify and group and categorise. But I hope also to help them develop their own sorting systems so they are “no longer forced to carefully construct a single shared path” through the data they come across. I will try to challenge my own inbuilt premise that there is a set of appropriate criteria. “How we organise our world reflects not only the world but also our interests, our passions, our needs, our dreams”. And I have no right to impose mine upon my pupils.

Here is a transcript of the presentation that Weinberger gave at SETT 2006. I can’t upload the video.

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