Being a constant patron of the local library, I am familiar with the Dewey Decimal system of organization, but never took the time to understand the history of what the numbers meant and how the system actually worked.
Dewey felt that he understood how knowledge and information should be organized based upon its importance to the world. Philosophy and psychology (100s) was what everything was built upon, then religion (200s), social sciences (300s), language (400s), math and science (500s), technology (600s), arts and recreation (700s), literature (800s), and finally, biography and history (900s). Eventually the 000s would be added and included information, such as computing, bibliographies, journalism, and manuscripts.
My favorite section is where the books about film and filmmaking live: 791.43. The structure of this number breaks down as follows:
- 7 – Arts and Recreation
- 79 – Amusements and Recreation
- 791 – Public Entertainments, TV, Movies
- 791.4 – Film, Radio, and Television
- 791.43 – Film
If you are curious about your favorite categories, check out this interactive map of the Dewey Decimal system at LibraryThing.com.
What’s fascinating about all this?
Okay, not to bore you too much with a history lesson, but there was a purpose in how Dewey classified books in his system. It was to capture a shape of knowledge so that everyone in any place could find anything. That’s a bold vision; a gigantic, transformative idea!
In Everything Is Miscellaneous: The Power of the New Digital Disorder by David Weinberger (2008), he describes that Dewey’s main belief was that “the physical layout of libraries should reflect this basic structure of knowledge” (p. 46).
The shape of the digital world
Classifying, organizing, and shaping physical knowledge is one thing. It is done around the world by librarians and libraries so that people can learn and grow. But what about our digital world? What is the shape of knowledge when it comes to the vast sea of data and information from social media, websites, blogs, podcasts, videos, digital books, and anything else we can dream of?
The answer is whatever you want it to be! For me, my shape of knowledge is built with the foundational materials of vectors and connections.
Vectors provide a direction for my knowledge; a purpose that is guiding the overall pursuit of knowledge. It is an abstract concept to a certain degree, but vectors become real when I think about intention and motivation. If I’m just passively sitting on Twitter taking whatever the algorithm feeds me, I’m not really intentional about what I’m learning. The vector or direction may not even have time to form before I’m off on tangents and going down rabbit trails. When I am intentionally taking time to follow an idea, research a subject, or learn something new, I have time to allow a vector to form and show me where I am headed.
If vectors are the direction of my knowledge and journey, connections provide the content that I can form into the shapes of knowledge I need at a given time.
It breaks down something like this, according to individual ideas and big picture outcomes:
- Ideas & Curiosities
- Projects & Mediums
Ideas & Curiosities
As a creative professional, I’m a jack of all trades. I love learning about different types of mediums, exploring diverse subjects, watching a variety of genres, and listening to a vast array of music. I love creating new work, teaching people, and helping others the best I can. I really love exploring ideas and I’m curious about a lot of things.
Using books as an example, I could be reading 20-30 at a given time. I could move from the topic of story in Damn Fine Story: Mastering the Tools of a Powerful Narrative to the creation of the digital revolution in Droidmaker: George Lucas and the Digital Revolution. As my curiosity heightens in those books, I run to Marcus Aurelius and his Meditations, Metallica and Back to the Front: A Fully Authorized Visual History of the Master of Puppets Album and Tour, and Michael Beirut’s How to Use Graphic Design to Sell Things, Explain Things, Make Things Look Better, Make People Laugh, Make People Cry, and (Every Once in a While) Change the World. I end the journey of readings with a few entries in Atlas Obscura: An Explorer’s Guide to the World’s Hidden Wonders.
While it may seem exhausting to read all of these different genres and types of books, I’m less concerned with making connections between everything and more interested in filling my tanks of imagination and knowledge. But the magic starts to happen beneath the surface.
As my brain rests or works on other projects, it begins to look for connections. It connects George Lucas and Metallica through independence, hard work, and control. It connects Michael Beirut to Atlas Obscura through design and typography. The process of finding connections is not only about connecting information together, but also connecting my left and right brain, my heart and mind, and my life with the greater world. Theme finding is where the process of connection begins, but it doesn’t end here. It informs everything that is to follow as well as put me back on the search for more ideas and curiosities.
Projects & Mediums
The next step is where I start taking Ideas & Curiosities and Themes and look for how they connect to different projects and the mediums. I might take something I learn from the work ethic of Metallica during the Master of Puppets era or the design of a project inspired by Michael Beirut. It could be small and subtle or huge and unwieldy. All of my projects and mediums that I work in draw inspiration from the media I consume on a daily basis. A blog post might be inspired by a course I’m teaching (such as this lengthy entry), a podcast episode might be inspired by the combination of two books I’m reading, or a video project might be informed by the conflict presented in a film’s cinematography and soundtrack.
Connections and the shape of knowledge appear also in how a project is structured. When I am pitching work and producing creative work, the shape of the project is important. How long is the video? What is the structure of the story? How many pages will be on your website? What will be the structure of your logo? Who will be in the photographs? Who will be interviewed? What is the structure of the content?
These questions inform the structure of the finished product and usually comes about through the connections found in ideas, themes, and projects. Nothing functions by itself, it is all connected.
The idea of purpose intrigues me and is something I spend a lot of time thinking about and seeking as I connect information and feelings. I’m constantly testing and experimenting with my life’s meaning and purpose. I try different ways to promote myself, I work with a new type of client, I push myself in new directions. From the outside, I may look unfocused as I drift from moment to moment. But it is in the search of purpose that all of this knowledge and information begins to connect and make sense.
As I read about George Lucas and the digital revolution, I feel my heart rate increase as I read about the search for control and independence. I pay attention to my body’s physiological reaction to information. That connection illuminates purpose.
Finally, all of the connections lead to outcomes: the economic realities of time spent acquiring and consuming information, the impact on my life, and the way this information filters through my life and serves the greater good.
While it is good to connect all of this information to each other so that there is a measurable outcome, I feel that too much emphasis is placed on results at the start. Outcomes need time to breathe, to be discovered as connections are made through Ideas & Curiosities, Themes, Projects & Mediums, Structures, and Purposes. It’s a complicated web of knowledge, information, emotions, and time.
Building the future by traveling through time
As Weinberger writes in Everything Is Miscellaneous: “How we organize our world reflects not only the world but also our interests, our passions, our needs, our dreams” (p. 40).
What I have presented may seem like a linear journey from start to finish, but in reality they are all occurring at the same time in a nonlinear manner. I travel through time in order to build the future. I add and subtract ideas. I shift through places, ideologies, histories, and lives of people. This connection through all of these different means and ways is my shape of knowledge and I wouldn’t have it any other way.