12 What Is Being Organized?

What is difficult to identify is difficult to describe
and therefore difficult to organize.

Before we can begin to organize any resource we often need to identify it. It might seem straightforward to devise an organizing system around tangible resources, but we must be careful not to assume what a resource is. In different situations, the same “thing” can be treated as a unique item, one of many equivalent members of a broad category, or a component of an item rather than as an item on its own. For example, in a museum collection, a handmade, carved chess piece might be a separately identified item, identified as part of a set of carved chess pieces, or treated as one of the 33 unidentified components of an item identified as a chess set (including the board). When merchants assign a stock-keeping unit (SKU) to identify the things they sell, that SKU can be associated with a unique item, sets of items treated as equivalent for inventory or billing purposes, or intangible things like warranties.

You probably do not have explicit labels on the cabinets and drawers in your kitchen or clothes closet, but department stores and warehouses have signs in the aisles and on the shelves because of the larger number of things a store needs to organize. As a collection of resources grows, it often becomes necessary to identify each one explicitly; to create surrogates like bibliographic records or descriptions that distinguish one resource from another; and to create additional organizational mechanisms like shelf labels, store directories, library card catalogs and indexes that facilitate understanding the collection and locating the resources it contains. These organizational mechanisms often suggest or parallel the organizing principles used to organize the collection itself.

Organization mechanisms like aisle signs, store directories and library card catalogs are embedded in the same physical environment as the resources being organized. But when these mechanisms or surrogates are digitized, the new capabilities that they enable create design challenges. This is because a digital organizing system can be designed and operated according to more abstract and less constraining principles than an organizing system that only contains physical resources. A single physical resource can only be in one place at a time, and interactions with it are constrained by its size, location, and other properties. In contrast, digital copies and surrogates can exist in many places at once and enable searching, sorting, and other interactions with an efficiency and scale impossible for tangible things.

When the resources being organized consist of information content, deciding on the unit of organization is challenging because it might be necessary to look beyond physical properties and consider conceptual or intellectual equivalence. A high school student told to study Shakespeare’s play Macbeth might treat any printed copy or web version as equivalent, and might even try to outwit the teacher by watching a film adaptation of the play. To the student, all versions of Macbeth seem to be the same resource, but librarians and scholars make much finer distinctions.[1]

Archival organizing systems implement a distinctive answer to the question of what is being organized. Archives are a type of collection that focuses on resources created by a particular person, organization, or institution, often during a particular time period. This means that archives have themselves been previously organized as a result of the processes that created and used them. The “original order” of the resources in an archive embodies the implicit or explicit organizing system of the person or entity that created the documents; it is treated as an essential part of the meaning of the collection. As a result, the unit of organization for archival collections is the fondsthe original arrangement or grouping, preserving any hierarchy of boxes, folders, envelopes, and individual documentsand thus they are not re-organized according to other (perhaps more systematic) classifications.[2]

Some organizing systems contain legal, business or scientific documents or data that are the digital descendants of paper reports or records of transactions or observations. These organizing systems might need to deal with legacy information that still exists in paper form or in electronic formats like image scans that are different from the structural digital format in which more recent information is likely to be preserved. When legacy conversions from printed information artifacts are complete or unnecessary, an organizing system no longer deals with any of the traditional tangible artifacts. Digital libraries dispense with these artifacts, replacing them with the capability to print copies if needed. This enables libraries of digital documents or data collections to be vastly larger and more accessible across space and time than any library that stores tangible, physical items could ever be.

An increasing number of organizing systems handle resources that are born digital. Ideally, digital texts can be encoded with explicit markup that captures structural boundaries and content distinctions, which can be used to facilitate organization, retrieval, or both. In practice the digital representations of texts are often just image scans that do not support much processing or interaction. A similar situation exists for the digital representations of music, photographs, videos, and other non-text content like sensor data, where the digital formats are structurally and semantically opaque.

This book does not emphasize systems that organize people, but it would be remiss not to mention them. Businesses organize their employees, schools organize their faculties and students, sports leagues and teams organize their players, and governments organize their citizens and residents to enable them to vote, drive, attend schools, and receive medical care and ancillary benefits.   Data scientists in all of these fields increasingly predict how employees, students, athletes, voters, drivers – and other categories of people defined by intrinsic or derived characteristics – will behave, decide, live, or die. Once people die, it is no longer necessary to predict anything about them, but nonetheless cemeteries are highly organized.

We often think and talk about time as a resource, and time fits the definition of “anything of value that supports goal-oriented activity” from “The Concept of “Resource””. Furthermore, we could think of the calendar and clock as organizing systems that define time at different levels of granularity to support different kinds of interactions. However, it is probably more useful to think of time as a constraint that influences how and how much to organize.

If you’re sorting your own mail, you can question whether the time you spend on sorting is worth the time you save on searching. But at scale—imagine 10 million books in a library—the considerable effort required to organize resources saves vastly more time for the many users of the system over its lifetime. Note the inherent tradeoff between time spent on organizing versus retrieval; this will be a recurring theme throughout this book. In a personal context the tradeoff is a matter of individual need or preference, but in social or institutional contexts organization and retrieval are generally done by different people, and their time is likely valued in different ways by the system owner.

  1. Organizing systems that follow the rules set forth in the Functional Requirements for Bibliographic Records(FRBR) (Tillett 2005) treat all instances of Macbeth as the same “work.” However, they also enforce a hierarchical set of distinctions for finer-grained organization. FRBR views books and movies as different “expressions,” different print editions as “manifestations,” and each distinct physical thing in a collection as an “item.” This organizing system thus encodes the degree of intellectual equivalence while enabling separate identities where the physical form is important, which is often the case for scholars.

  2. Typical examples of archives might be national or government document collections or the specialized Julia Morgan archive at the University of California, Berkeley (http://www.oac.cdlib.org/findaid/ark:/13030/tf7b69n9k9/), which houses documents by the famous architect who designed many of the university’s most notable buildings as well as the famous Hearst Castle along the central California coast. The “original order” organizing principle of archival organizing systems was first defined by 19th-century French archivists and is often described as “respect pour les fonds.

    The William Ashburner collection of historical photos from an 1867-1869 surveying expedition in the Western United States is kept in the University of California, Berkeley’s Bancroft Library in the order in which Ashburner, a member of the survey party, had arranged it when he donated it to the library decades later. The arrangement roughly follows a chronological and geographical progression, with some photos obviously out of order and some whose locations cannot be determined.


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The Discipline of Organizing: 4th Professional Edition Copyright © 2020 by Robert J. Glushko is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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