Downsizing the Hunch Element in Subject Indication:

My First Meeting with Ranganathan

Eric J. Coates

     Looking back to ask myself what was the most significant episode in my professional life, I instantly recall my first meeting with Ranganathan.  This resulted in a complete turnabout in my thinking about classification in library and information science, which was to set the direction of my subsequent career. The year was 1950.  I was one of the team appointed to implement the launch of the British National Bibliography. If I had any particular expertise which might have led to my appointment it was not in classification, but in what is now called descriptive cataloguing, where I had some experience in tutorial work. However, I had read the  classification literature recommended for students, and this had led me to the view that library classification was largely a hotchpotch of folklore-like precepts without any adequate connective principles behind them. To my initial ternation, after a few months at BNB I was allotted  the task of heading up the subject indication side of the project. Overseeing my colleagues' classification decisions soon confirmed my worst fears. I could see no overarching principles which  would underpin consistency either between the decisions of individual indexers or between a variety of different solutions to parallel problems. Such agreed rules as there were proved woefully inadequate to resolve many daily recurring problems. Then came the occasion when Ranganathan visited the BNB office.
    He agreed to be questioned and to give advice in a long session lasting several hours on a list of the practical dilemmas in all their often intricate detail which we had met in the first months of the BNB operation. He dealt with our challenging queries quietly in a direct head-on manner, and with an economy of words in which neither side-stepping nor obfuscation could have any place. He spoke slowly with gaps between clauses and sentences, making time for us to absorb fully the point that he was making.  There were occasions when he was unable to give a ready-to-hand response to a query; he would then suggest that we should see if we could solve the problem by dialogue together. It was a truly enlightening experience to accompany him step-by-step in his extempore thinking. In retrospect I  feel it is not possible to exaggerate the impact that this first meeting with Ranganathan had upon me. It moved me from cautious scepticism to confidence that the search for a coherent and communicable rationale for the practice of subject indication was no chase after a Will-of-the-wisp. Like all mortals Ranganathan had a few blind spots, but his facet analysis was a gigantic step in the search, incomplete but for others to build upon. Some decades later than that first meeting it has been the inspiration of activities in which I and others have taken part in connection with the Bliss Bibliographic Classification, Edition 2, and the Broad System of  Ordering. These are demonstrations of what coherent general classifications can offer to the age of mechanized retrieval and of the the internet.

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