Deconstructing the Library with Jacques Derrida

Photo by Christin Hume

Michel Foucault is a philosopher that I see cited often in reading about Women’s Studies, and one of his contemporaries was deconstructionist Jacques Derrida, so when I saw a book chapter applying Derridean thought to LIS (Library & Information Science), I was immediately intrigued. Before even reading the chapter, I could see how Derrida would be a very interesting and complicated theorist to apply to cataloging, since as a deconstructionist, he rejected universality and absolute truths (therefore, I assumed, he would likely take issue with cataloging’s necessarily reductionist approach to the world). His concepts regarding race, gender and sexuality, and class have already been applied to analysis of architecture, law, literary theory, and more, so I was eager to see it applied to LIS.

According to this book chapter, Derrida believed that all “attempts to represent meaning and fix it in time and space are necessarily repressive; acts of exclusionary ‘violence’;” he “explicitly disavowed the possibility of immutable, fixed meanings” (p. 76). To Derrida, words and language can have no stable meaning; his philosophy emphasizes ambiguity and plurality. This will certainly create some tension between Derrida and cataloging.

To Derrida, everything is determined by its context. While this definitely complicates cataloging, it also rings true. We see this contextuality of meaning in users’ (and even various librarians’) reactions to items. What one librarian might classify as X, another [equally intelligent and qualified] librarian might classify as Y. The conditions affect the outcome; a librarian is not a superhero, but a person. Each librarian brings to her work her own background, knowledge (or lack thereof), biases, etc. Even something as mundane as what someone ate in the morning might affect their work performance that day. Librarians are only human, and are therefore [understandably] fallible.

Deodato identifies several key concepts from Derrida that he finds useful to LIS. The chapter describes these concepts (metaphysics of presence; logocentrism/phonocentrism; deconstruction; différance; arche-writing; and textuality and dissemination) and then discusses their implications for LIS. Derrida’s work is fundamentally a critique of Western notions of objectivity, truth, meaning, and knowledge (p. 81). Of course, LIS (in the West, at least, which is where we are coming from as American librarians and library students) is grounded in these same principles that Derrida takes issue with.

The key Derridean concept is that he does not believe that anything has an inherent meaning. To him, all meanings are contextual, or inter- and intra-dependent. This means that meanings are never fixed, but are dependent upon their relationships. Cataloging, which is essentially knowledge organization, exists precisely to create fixed and stable meanings. Cataloging itself, with controlled vocabulary, RDA rules, etcetera, imposes rules on knowledge, positing an exact correspondence between signifier and signified, or text and meaning (p. 81). Cataloging rules are designed to combat ambiguity. This chapter argues that, as such, cataloging creates a fixed “reality” and that this imposition has an impact on how users will interpret the materials. In this way, libraries do not simply organize information; they also construct it (p. 81).

Classification systems are “closed” in that they are necessarily limited (p. 83). In fact, that is their whole purpose (to limit ambiguous or multiple meanings in order to clarify). This is not necessarily or inherently a good or bad thing; in fact, establishing a reliable system for information access is probably necessary for information retrieval (p. 86).

The chapter credits Sanford Berman with doing some of the deconstructivist work it imagines for libraries. Deodato believes, as did Berman, that there is an exclusionary bias within the cataloging standardization, and that it limits interpretation by both naming terms and defining their relations (p. 81). In this way, catalogers are responsible for determining not just meaning, but also context. Both Berman and Deodato acknowledge that classification schemes reflect the basis of the culture that creates them; I think this is an important clarification, as it removes the responsibility from individual catalogers, and puts the burden on their context, or the structures and systems in which they live and operate. Interestingly, this is a meta-example proving the point that meaning is contextual and does not exist in a vacuum. Saying that catalogers are responsible for the biases in cataloging because they are the ones who catalog is a limited understanding of the situation, one that does not allow for nuance, ambiguity, or context. It illustrates why contextual meaning is likely a more accurate attempt to define meaning, and why it is crucial.

Catalogers are products of society, so they should not bear one hundred percent of the burden of bias in information. However, as both stewards and creators of knowledge (especially systems) they do have a responsibility to be self-aware. Using Derridean theory to examine LIS illuminates the fact that organizing information is not a neutral activity, and perhaps it cannot ever be. It is up to catalogers to decide how to move forward, given that constraint.


References

Deodato, J. (2010). Deconstructing the Library with Jacques Derrida: Creating Space for the “Other” in Bibliographic Description and Classification. Critical theory for library and information science: Exploring the social from across the disciplines, 75. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, LLC.

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