15 When Is It Being Organized?

Because bibliographic description, when manually performed, is
expensive, it seems likely that the ‘pre’ organizing of information will continue to shift incrementally toward ‘post’ organizing.

The organizing system framework recasts the traditional tradeoff between information organization and information retrieval as the decision about when the organization is imposed. We can contrast organization imposed on resources “on the way in” when they are created or made part of a collection with “on the way out” organization imposed when an interaction with resources takes place.

When an author writes a document, he or she gives it some internal organization via title, section headings, typographic conventions, page numbers, and other mechanisms that identify its parts and relationship to each other. The document could also have some external organization implied by the context of its publication, such as the name of its author and publisher, its web address, and citations or links to other documents or web pages.

Digital photos, videos, and documents are generally organized to some minimal degree when they are created because some descriptions, notably time and location, are assigned automatically to these types of resources by the technology used to create them. At a minimum, these descriptions include the resource’s creation time, storage format, and chronologically ordered, auto-assigned filename (IMG00001.JPG, IMG00002.JPG, etc.), but often are much more detailed.[1]

Digital resources created by automated processes generally exhibit a high degree of organization and structure because they are generated automatically in conformance with data or document schemas. These schemas implement the business rules and information models for the orders, invoices, payments, and the numerous other document types created and managed in business organizing systems.

Before a resource becomes part of a library collection, its author-created organization is often supplemented by additional information supplied by the publisher or other human intermediaries, such as an International Standard Book Number(ISBN) or Library of Congress Call Number(LOC-CN) or Library of Congress Subject Headings(LOC-SH).

In contrast, Google and other search engines apply massive computational power to analyze the contents and associated structures (like links between web pages) to impose organization on resources that have already been published or made available so that they can be retrieved in response to a user’s query “on the way out.” Google makes use of existing organization within and between information resources when it can, but its unparalleled technological capabilities and scale yield competitive advantage in imposing organization on information that was not previously organized digitally.[2] One reaction to the poor quality of some computational description has been the call for libraries to put their authoritative bibliographic resources on the open web, which would enable reuse of reliable information about books, authors, publishers, places, and subject classifications. This “linked data” movement is slowly gathering momentum.[3]

Google makes almost all of its money through personalized ad placement, so much of the selection and ranking of search results is determined “on the way out” in the fraction of a second after the user submits a query by using information about the user’s search history and current context. Of course, this “on the way out” organization is only possible because of the more generic organization that Google’s algorithms have imposed “on the way in.

In many organizing systems the nature and extent of organization changes over time as the resources are used. The arrangement of resources in a kitchen or office changes incrementally as frequently used things end up in the front of the pantry, drawer, shelf or filing cabinet or on the top of a pile of papers. Printed books or documents acquire margin notes, underlining, turned down pages or coffee cup stains that differentiate the most important or most frequently used parts. Digital documents do not take on coffee cup stains, but when they are edited, their new revision dates put them at the top of directory listings.

The scale of emergent organization of websites, photos on Flickr, blog posts, and other resources that can be accessed and used online dwarfs the incremental evolution of individual organizing systems. This organization is clearly visible in the pattern of links, tags, or ratings that are explicitly associated with these resources, but search engines and advertisers also exploit the less visible organization created over time by analyzing interaction resources, the recorded information about which resources were viewed and which links were followed.

The sort of organic or emergent change in organizing systems that takes place over time contrasts with the planned and systematic maintenance of organizing systems described as curation or governance, two related but distinct activities. Curation usually refers to the methods or systems that add value to and preserve resources, while the concept of governance more often emphasizes the institutions or organizations that carry out those activities. The former is most often used for libraries, museums, or archives and the latter for enterprise or inter-enterprise contexts. (For more discussion, see “Governance”)

The organizing systems for businesses and industries often change because of the development of de facto or de jure standards, or because of regulations, court decisions, or other events or mandates.

We should always consider the extent to which people or technology in an organizing system are able to adapt when new resources, data, or people enter the picture. When and how much an organizing system can be changed depends on the extent of architectural thinking that went into its design (see The Three Tiers of Organizing Systems), because it should be possible to make a change to a component without having to rethink the system entirely.

Sometimes what prevents adaptation are physical or technological constraints in the implementation of an organizing system, as with a desk or closet with fixed “pigeon holes,” unmovable shelves, or with a music player with limited allowable formats and/or fixed storage capacity.

Machine learning algorithms use different techniques from those of human organizers; one of the important differences is that they’re designed to adapt to new inputs—which is why they’re known to be “learning.” In contrast, humans differ in how willing we are to re-organize to accommodate a different number or a different mix of resources. Without procedures in place to support or trigger adaptation, it may be quite difficult for us to change how we think or how we organize when our world changes, or even to realize that it has changed.

  1. Most digital cameras annotate each photo with detailed information about the camera and its settings in the Exchangeable Image File Format(EXIF), and many mobile phones can associate their location along with any digital object they create.

  2. Indeed, Geoff Nunberg criticized Google for ignoring or undervaluing the descriptive metadata and classifications previously assigned by people and replacing them with algorithmically assigned descriptors, many of which are incorrect or inappropriate. Calling Google’s Book Search a “disaster for scholars” and a “metadata train wreck,” he lists scores of errors in titles, publication dates, and classifications. For example, he reports that a search on “Internet” in books published before 1950 yields 527 results. The first 10 hits for Whitman’s Leaves of Grass are variously classified as Poetry, Juvenile Nonfiction, Fiction, Literary Criticism, Biography & Autobiography, and Counterfeits and Counterfeiting. (Nunberg 2009)

  3. (Byrne and Goddard 2010).


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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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