INF 2142 Theories of Classification and Knowledge Organization
Winter 2010

Instructor: Jens-Erik Mai
Office: Bissell Building, room 636
Phone: 416 978 7097
Email: je.mai [at]
Office hours: by appointment

Class meets: Tuesdays 12:10pm - 2:00pm in Bissell 313

[About]   [Schedule]   [Assignments]   [Resources]   [Readings]  [Practical stuff]  [Blackboard]

About the seminar

The purpose and content of this course is in the course catalog described as: “Historical and comparative analysis of theories, principles and methods of classification and of knowledge organization in general (e.g., categorization, taxonomy, ontology). Analysis and development of such systems for various domains. Examination of social, cognitive, and linguistic foundations of classification systems."

The recent explosion in the number and variation of information services underlines the need for effective methods for representing and organizing information.  The construction and use of practical and efficient systems for the organization and representation of documents is dependent on a comprehensive understanding not only of the technical side of such systems, but also of human perception, language, and cognition.  This course will give the basic theoretical and philosophical knowledge necessary to understand, create, and analyze classificatory structures.  The course will explore a range of fields of study for explanations of classificatory structures but the focus will be on bibliographic classification systems.

Students will gain understandings of:
    *   Different classification theories from various fields of study.
    *   Different classification methods and systems and their possibilities and limitations.
    *   The interdisciplinary nature of classification research and practice.


Week/Date Topic Readings
Jan. 5

Introduction to the course

Classification in context, classification of the sciences, and classification in libraries

Dolby, 1979
Foskett, 1958
Mills, 1964, Chap 1, 2, & 3
Jan. 12

Everyday classification:  Lumping and splitting

Discussion leaders:
  • Sandra

Zerubavel, 1991
Chap. 1, 2 & 3
Jan. 19

Everyday classification:  The mind and the social

Discussion leaders:
  • Louise

Zerubavel, 1991
Chap. 4, 5, & 6
Jan. 26
Language, culture and classification

Discussion leaders:
  • Anette
  • Eva S.

Whorf, 1940, 1940, 1941, & 1942
Access here.

Feb. 2

Scientific classification: Objectivism and realism

Discussion leaders:
  • Paola

Bryant, 2000
Chap. 1, 2, 3, 4, & 5
Feb. 9

Scientific classification: Pluralism

Discussion leaders:
  • Eva H.

Bryant, 2000
Chap. 6, 7, 8, 9, & 10
Feb. 16
No class -- Reading week

Proposal for paper is due Thursday Feb. 18.

Feb. 23

Sharing of paper topics.

Classification in science: Biological taxonomy

Discussion leaders:
  • Emily

Ereshefsky, 2001
Chap. 1, 2, & 3
Mar. 2

Back to bibliographic classification: Likeness, things, and evolution

Discussion leaders:
  • Armin

Broadfield, 1946
Chap. 1, 2 & 3
Mar. 9

Back to bibliographic classification: Consensus and purpose

Discussion leaders:
  • Sarah

Broadfield, 1946
Chap 4 & 5
Mar. 16

No class
Mar. 23

  • Sandra
  • Louise
  • Eva H.
Mar. 30

  • Sarah
  • Paola
  • Armin
Apr. 6

  • Anette
  • Eva S.
  • Emily
Catch up, summary, conclusions, and evaluations.


Participation, 30% of final grade.
This is a discussion based seminar.  I expect everyone to actively participate in the in-class discussions; the course will only be successful if everyone takes part in the learning and the discussions. 

Discussion leader, worth 10% of final grade.
Each of you are responsible for leading an in-class sessions.  Each student is assigned readings for a particular day, and even though there might be more students for any particular day, this is not a group project.  When leading the discussion, you can pick a few key concepts, a particular topic, an interesting observation, or summarize the readings.  The purpose of the discussion is to expand the class' understanding of the readings.  How you do that is up to you.  I do expect each student to produce a brief hand-out (no more than 1 page) for the class, but remember that the goal is to get the class to engage critically with the reading - don't spend too much time on presentation and summarization (a few minutes should be enough).

Paper, including presentation, 60% of final grade.
For the final paper students can explore any topic or issue within classification research and theory.  Possible topics include (but are not limited to) critical analyses of:
    * a particular classification or categorization system
    * a particular concept within classification theory
    * classification/categorization from a particular cultural or theoretical standpoint
    * classification/categorization of specific material/objects/ideas
    * classification/categorization for specific purposes or people

Please discuss topics that don't deal with organization of information issues with me before you submit a proposal for such a paper.

Please give me (via e-mail or on paper) a proposal (200-400 words) for a paper along with a provisional list of references by Thursday Feb. 18.  You can slip it under my office door, or you can email it to me.

Sharing of paper topics
Please share your selected topic with the class on Tuesday Feb. 23.

Present a working draft of your paper to the class.  You will be given a total of approx. 25 min. to present your paper.  I suggest that you use max 10 min. to present your work and the remaining time for Q&A and discussion.  The goal of your presentation should be to generate a discussion that can help you finish the paper.

Please send an abstract or short description of your paper to the class discussion list no later than the day before your presentation.

Final paper
The final paper is due Friday April 9 @ 10am; you can slip the paper under my office door.  The paper cannot be submitted as an e-mail or as an attachment to an e-mail.

The paper should be double-spaced, single paged, use a 12 point serif font (Times New Roman or similar), stapled in the upper left corner, and be 4,000-5,000 words in length.  Make sure that your paper follows a standard citation practice (such as Chicago, APA, MLA) and please organize your paper as if you were submitting it to a research journal within information science (such as JASIST, IPM, J.Doc., KO, LQ). 

Please review the material you covered in Cite it Right, familiarize yourself with this site and UofT's policy, and consult the writing centre, if necessary. 

The paper will be evaluated according to the discussion’s and analysis’ clarity, organization, depth, clarity of evaluative and analytic comments, and the demonstrated understanding of the issues involved and the extend to which class readings and other literature are incorporated in the discussion and analysis, and the depth and sophistication of the analysis. Please look here for a few other tips.

Lastly, please make sure to consult the iSchool’s official interpretation of UofT’s letter grade system.

Epistemological Lifeboat
“The Epistemological Lifeboat is an attempt to guide students and researchers into the complex field of epistemology/philosophy of science. It is intended as a “lifeboat” or a “philosophy for dummies”. It is obviously not enough for serious studies, but it provides an overview and refers the reader to further sources of information.”

Lifeboat for Knowledge Organization
Birger Hjørland’s comprehensive dictionary of KO terms and ideas.

International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences
“This Encyclopedia is the first attempt in a generation to map the social and behavioral sciences on a grand scale.”

Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
“Most of the articles in The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy are original contributions by specialized philosophers around the Internet.”

Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy
“Comprehensive resource. Articles from all continents, all periods and cultures.”

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
“From its inception, the SEP was designed so that each entry is maintained and kept up to date by an expert or group of experts in the field. All entries and substantive updates are refereed by the members of a distinguished Editorial Board before they are made public."

Never a bad place to begin...


Broadfield,  A. 1946. The Philosophy of Classification. London: Grafton.

Bryant, Rebecca. 2000. Discovery and Decision: Exploring the Metaphysics and Epistemology of Scientific Classification. Cranbury, NJ: Associated University Presses.

Dolby, R.G.A. 1979. Classification of the Sciences: The Nineteenth Century Tradition. In: Classifications in their Social Context, ed. Roy F. Ellen & David Reason, 167-193. New York: Academic Press.

Ereshefsky, Marc. 2001. The Poverty of the Linnaean Hierarchy: A Philosophical Study of Biological Taxonomy. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Foskett, D.J. 1958. Library Classification and the the Field of Knowledge. London: Chaucer House.

Mills, Jack. 1964. A Modern Outline of Library Classification.  London: Chapman & Hall.

Whorf, Benjamin Lee. 1940. Science and Linguistic. In Language, Thought and Reality. Selected Writings of Benjamin Lee Whorf. Edited by John B. Carroll. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1956.  Access here.

Whorf, Benjamin Lee. 1940. Linguistic as an Exact Science. In Language, Thought and Reality. Selected Writings of Benjamin Lee Whorf. Edited by John B. Carroll. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1956.  Access here.

Whorf, Benjamin Lee. 1941. Language and Logic. In Language, Thought and Reality. Selected Writings of Benjamin Lee Whorf. Edited by John B. Carroll. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1956.  Access here.

Whorf, Benjamin Lee. 1942. Language, Mind and Reality. In Language, Thought and Reality. Selected Writings of Benjamin Lee Whorf. Edited by John B. Carroll. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1956.  Access here.
Zerubavel, Eviatar. 1991. The fine line: Making Distinctions in Everyday Life. New York: Free Press, 1991.

Practical stuff
Late assignments

Students are expected to turn in all assignments by the specified deadlines. However, if you cannot meet a deadline for an assignment please e-mail me prior to the deadline and if possible we will find another mutual agreeable deadline.  Please note that assignments submitted late, without prior agreement will be deducted an academic penalty of 1/3 of a grade (e.g., A- to B+) per week.  No assignments will be accepted after April 16, 2010. 

Academic integrity

The essence of academic life revolves around respect not only for the ideas of others, but also their rights to those ideas and their promulgation. It is therefore essential that all of us engaged in the life of the mind take the utmost care that the ideas and expressions of ideas of other people always be appropriately handled, and, where necessary, cited. For writing assignments, when ideas or materials of others are used, they must be cited. The format is not that important–as long as the source material can be located and the citation verified, it’s OK. What is important is that the material be cited. In any situation, if you have a question, please feel free to ask. Such attention to ideas and acknowledgment of their sources is central not only to academic life, but life in general.  Please acquaint yourself with U. of T.’s Code of Behaviour on Academic Matters.

Students with a disability or diverse learning styles

Students with diverse learning styles and needs are welcome in this course. In particular, if you have a disability or health consideration that may require accommodations, please approach your tutorial instructor and/or the Accessibility Services office as soon as possible. The Accessibility Services staff are available by appointment to assess specific needs, provide referrals and arrange appropriate accommodations. The sooner you let them and us know about your needs, the quicker we can assist you in achieving your learning goals in this course.